If Donald Trump had lost the election, we would probably be praising America’s late-night comedians for successfully exposing him as an immoral and corrupt narcissist who nearly fooled the country into electing him president.
Instead, we’re left with our present reality in which the type of comedic takedowns so eagerly shared by liberal viewers may have actually reinforced the core message that cemented Trump’s success.
2016 was the year that The Daily Show descendents John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Stephen Colbert, along with veteran Bill Maher, newcomer Trevor Noah, and a resurgent Seth Meyers came together for most of the year with more or less one singular goal: Stop Trump. But in the end, as sharp as much of their commentary was, their collective message rarely, if ever, reached beyond the bubble of those who believed it could never happen. To those on Trump’s side, it simply proved his point that the “crooked media” was against him.
So as this generally awful year comes to a close, here’s a look back at the 10 late-night moments that should have made any reasonable American realize what a dangerous president Trump will be.
The clips below represent ultimately inconsequential late-night attempts to take down Trump. Notably, the most consequential Donald Trump moment on late-night television was also the one that humanized him the most. It was the September appearance by Trump himself on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon that one voter told The New York Times caused her to vote for the president-elect. He just seemed “very humble,” seated next to Fallon, letting the host muss his hair, she said.
The rest of these videos offer a different impression.
It wasn’t until the Republican National Convention that Stephen Colbert truly discovered his political voice as host of the Late Show—partly by channeling his old alter ego—but this clip from all the way back in January had the host in fine form using Donald Trump’s words against him. The bit was reminiscent of The Daily Show’s classic “Bush vs. Bush” segment that a former head writer referred to as that show’s “Rosetta Stone piece” in the new oral history of Jon Stewart’s tenure.
Whereas “Donald” thinks Hillary Clinton was “the worst secretary of State in the history of the United States,” Colbert revealed that “Mr. Trump” once called the Democratic candidate a “terrific woman” who “really works hard” and “does a great job.”
If Comedy Central had given Larry Wilmore the chance to stay on the air through Election Day, instead of unceremoniously canceling The Nightly Show in mid-August just as the general election race was getting under way, we would certainly still have President-elect Trump. But at least Wilmore would have gotten to see “The Unblackening” of the presidency through to its inevitable end. Before Trump had won a single primary, Wilmore was calling on God to “smite down” his campaign in the name of evangelical Christians he believed were being hoodwinked. Apparently neither God nor Trump’s religious followers were all that concerned.
Mere hours after the infamous Access Hollywood tape went public, Bill Maher had the unique distinction of being the first late-night host to weigh in on it (if you don’t count Samantha Bee’s instant response on Twitter). The story of Trump bragging about his history of sexual assault was tailor-made for Maher, and not only because he could use the word “pussy” on HBO without fear of censorship.
“This is what he says! Grab them by the pussy? Sounds like what Hillary did to him at the first debate,” Maher said gleefully, assuming, like so many others, that this was it for Trump’s campaign. “I cannot wait for the Sunday morning talk shows to see what the Trump surrogates are going to spin this into: ‘Look, George, people are tired of Washington politicians who won’t grab the voters by the pussy. Donald Trump and Mike Pence are making sexual assault great again.’” Five weeks later, he had surrendered to the president-elect.
Despite what Donald Trump now tweets on a weekly basis about Alec Baldwin, the actor’s impression of the president-elect is remarkably accurate, if not consistently funny. But from his first appearance as the candidate during the cold open of Saturday Night Live’s 42nd season premiere, Baldwin was able to tap into a side of Trump that he can’t bear to face himself. No one was better this fall than Baldwin at getting under Trump’s exceedingly thin skin, and for that alone he should be commended. And despite the hopes that Baldwin expressed on the morning of Election Day, it doesn’t look like he will be leaving the character behind anytime soon.
Though not a late-night host himself, President Barack Obama became one when necessary this year, first by once again slow jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon. “Now, Mr. President, since you’re here, I’ve got to ask: Have you been watching all the election coverage this week about Donald Trump?” Fallon asked back in June, to which Obama replied, “No, but I have been watching my new favorite show, Orange Is Not the New Black.”
Then, just two weeks before Election Day, Obama visited Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where he read a series of mean tweets about himself that culminated in one from Trump. “President Obama will go down as perhaps the worst president in the history of the United States!” Trump wrote of the president. “Really?” Obama replied. “Well, @realDonaldTrump, at least I will go down as a president.” With that, he dropped his phone for emphasis. As CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted of the joke after Trump’s victory, “This didn’t age all that well.”
The new Daily Show host was not always as effective a Trump eviscerator as many believe his predecessor would have been, but one thing Trevor Noah did excel at was presenting little- or never-before-seen clips of the Republican candidate saying truly reprehensible things, in a recurring segment he called “Tales from the Trump Archive.”
Among the quotes Noah and his team dug up were the time Trump called poor people “morons” and the interview in which he said he would “go through the roof” when he came home from work and discovered his second wife Marla Maples had not cooked him dinner. But the most disturbing clip of all came from a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous interview in which Trump made lascivious comments about his daughter Tiffany’s legs and speculated about her breast size later in life.
“Normally a candidate who views women this way would be doomed. But Trump is not a normal candidate and we know that,” Noah admitted during the early April episode. “We know airing this clip will change nothing. All we ask is one thing: The next time you’re about to hand Donald Trump your baby, maybe reconsider.”
All this year, Seth Meyers’s “A Closer Look” segments slowly approached the brilliance of some of Jon Stewart’s best rants. Nearly every night of the week, Meyers would take one aspect of the presidential race and wring from it every drop of comedic outrage he and his writers could find. The pinnacle of this endeavor came in mid-September when Meyers spent 10 minutes systematically chronicling and refuting Trump’s attempt to rewrite history on his birtherism campaign against President Obama.
“Obama was born in the United States. Period? Fuck you, exclamation point!” shouted Meyers. “You don’t get to peddle racist rhetoric for five years and decide when it’s over. We decide when it’s over! And it’s certainly not over after a 30-second statement in the middle of a hotel commercial,” Meyers said, eventually dispensing with the jokes to make his point as forcefully as possible. “The bottom line is this: Trump built his career on a racist lie because he’s a racist and a liar, and instead of denouncing that lie, the GOP doubled down on it completely.”
On Halloween night, eight days before the election, Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee convinced anyone who was watching her show that Donald Trump is functionally illiterate. The segment was intended to be a parody of the type of wild conspiracy theories Trump’s campaign loved to peddle, but by the end of the meticulously researched and edited piece, her theory seemed entirely plausible.
As much as Bee openly supported Hillary Clinton during the campaign, she would have been an important voice holding the first female president accountable on progressive issues. With Trump about to enter the White House, her voice is more important than ever. She may continue to preach to the choir, but she will be the last late-night host to ever let Trump off the hook.
If there was one political late-night clip that reached beyond the limited liberal bubble online, this might have been it. Viewed by over 30 million people on YouTube, and more than twice that on Facebook—a digital record for HBO—John Oliver’s #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain rant effectively framed Trump as the type of manipulative con artist who should never be president of the United States.
“So if you are thinking of voting for Donald Trump, the charismatic guy promising to ‘Make America Great Again,’ stop and take a moment to imagine how you would feel if you just met a guy named Donald Drumpf: a litigious, serial liar with a string of broken business ventures and the support of a former Klan leader who he can’t decide whether or not to condemn,” the host told his audience in February.
And that was months before we learned about his “pussy-grabbing” habit.
After retiring from The Daily Show just as Donald Trump’s presidential run was starting to pick up steam, Jon Stewart mostly stayed out of the spotlight during the 2016 campaign, save for a few key appearances. The most momentous of those returns to TV came during the Republican National Convention when Stewart emerged from under Stephen Colbert’s Late Show desk and proceeded to spend nearly 10 minutes tearing into the right-wing media machine that gave rise to Trump.
Stewart laid just as much blame on Fox News’ Sean Hannity and his ilk for their blatant hypocrisy. After spending eight years denouncing President Obama, he said they were either “lying about being bothered by thin-skinned, authoritarian, less-than-Christian readers-of-prompter being president, or they don’t care, as long as it’s their thin-skinned prompter authoritarian tyrant narcissist.
“You just want that person to give you your country back, because you feel that you are this country’s rightful owner,” he continued. “The only problem with that: This country isn’t yours. You don’t own it. It never was. There is no ‘real’ America. You don’t own it. You don’t own patriotism. You don’t own Christianity. You sure as hell don’t own respect for the bravery and sacrifice for military, police, and firefighters. Trust me!”
After Trump won in November, there was a fantasy floating around that claimed Stewart could have stopped him, if only he had been on the air every night. As this list shows, more than enough talented people have picked up his mantle and ran with it. Unfortunately, in the end, none of that mattered.