As late night TV hosts double down on their anti-conservative themes, opportunities for Left and Right to come together away from politics continue to dwindle, to everyone’s cost
Following Jimmy Kimmel’s recent pronouncement that nearly all talk show hosts are left-wing because only progressives have the required intellect to read jokes into a television camera, I wrote a bit of a meditation on why extending the politicising of everything to the realm of late night TV can only be a bad thing for society.
As amusing as I find the likes of Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher – and at their best, they are searingly funny – one cannot complain about division in society while simultaneously pitching late night talk shows to only half of the country. Even if it makes short-term business sense to drive up ratings by pandering to a particular partisan demographic, it comes at the cost of strengthening the bubble effect and ensuring that the left-wing comedians and their cheering audiences continue to be perplexed and outraged by the concerns, priorities and actions of whole other demographic groups they never bothered to understand.
Joseph Epstein picks up the same thread in the Wall Street Journal today, lamenting the way that late night comedy has jettisoned nonpartisan humour in favour of preachy, hectoring progressivism:
In a political time as divisive as ours, a public figure loses roughly half his following—and hence his charm—just as soon as he announces his politics. For an entertainer to do so is perhaps even more hazardous.
That the late-night talk-show hosts are ready to give up a large share of the audience to indulge their politics is something new in American comedy. Whatever Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle, Joan Rivers or Johnny Carson might have thought about what was happening in Washington, they wisely kept it to themselves. When Charlie Chaplin was revealed as a Communist fellow-traveler in the late 1930s it hurt his reputation, though he never allowed his politics directly to influence his art. On the other side, when Bob Hope found himself, because of his support for the Vietnam War, aligned with Richard Nixon, many of his most steadfast fans deserted him. The lesson, one should have thought, is that comedy and politics don’t mix.
It is worth remembering just how recent a phenomenon this really is. Jay Leno, the former king of late night (whom I found tremendously unfunny) personally skewed to the right but refrained from turning The Tonight Show into After Hours at the Heritage Foundation in favour of a gentler, undiscriminating mockery. And as I wrote the other day, even Jon Stewart managed to excoriate the Bush administration for its manifold failings without coming across as dismissive or hostile towards those who may have voted for George W. Bush. The Daily Show always had a leftward tilt, but there was still some entertainment value for conservatives; it is hard to imagine a Trump voter watching Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel or Bill Maher with any enjoyment.
And yet this approach is clearly good business, because turning on the television in primetime is increasingly like watching Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals made flesh, night after night. Meanwhile, advertisers exercise their prerogative to stop their ads from being shown during the shows of right-wing opinion journalists on cable news, but are only too happy to have their brands associated with comedians who speak exclusively to one half of the country. Again, that is their right, the free market in action, but that only brings me back to my original point – that society is in a pretty wretched state when half the country is fair game for comedians and written off by large corporations while the other half is pandered to by both.
Epstein goes on to make the same point:
Enough people must share the views of these hosts to keep the careers of Maher, Colbert, Kimmel & Co. afloat, which is to say to keep their ratings high enough to be commercially viable. Yet these insufficiently funny comedians, with their crude political humor, do little more than add to the sad divisiveness that is rending the country. Something, surely, has been lost if one can no longer turn to comedy as a relief from the general woes of life and the greater farce that has for some years now been playing out in our everyday politics.
We have seen what can happen when key institutions of society tilt too far one way or the other, and the destructive knock-on effects which are sometimes unleashed as a consequence. The persistent soft-left bias of the mainstream media was instrumental in driving the success of conservative talk radio in the 1990s, and then right-wing online outlets such as the Drudge Report. The free market in action, yes, but also an encouragement for the political right to decamp into a self-contained ideological bubble of their own, a swamp where exaggerations and conspiracy theories festered, leading first to obstructionist Tea Party representatives and ultimately to Donald Trump himself.
And as conservatives departed the mainstream for their new niche market refuges, so the ideological balance of those who remained tilted ever further to the left, spurring the creation of an equal and opposite left-wing bubble in what was once the unbiased mainstream space, now replete with its own insatiable demands for bias confirming facts and narratives.
Obviously this pattern is far more troubling as it pertains to the media than the relatively trivial world of late night television, but still the latter it is yet more evidence of the same divisive force at work. Where people of all political persuasions could once happily watch Johnny Carson or Jay Leno, now the Left has captured virtually the entirety of mainstream television programming, with younger web-savvy conservatives seeking equally politicised conservative-skewed comedy such as Steven Crowder‘s growing media empire (his show is also very good).
Individually there is nothing wrong with any of these shows; it is not as though Stephen Colbert represents an existential threat to the fabric of American society. The problem is that the cumulative effect of this divisiveness, this self-segregation generally initiated by the Left and eventually responded to by the Right, is that over time there are fewer and fewer meeting grounds where people of all political stripes can gather as Americans (or Brits, for we have the same problem here) first and foremost. Our national town square is shrinking, and at a time when we most need to reach within ourselves to find empathy for those with different political views, instead we retreat into mockery and incomprehension.
I wonder if those late night TV talk show hosts whose careers are presently flourishing under Donald Trump will ever come to realise that they, too, are catalysts in this destructive Trumpian reaction?
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