Late Night TV Hosts vs Trumpland, Part 2

Late night TV comedy hosts - Donald Trump - Conservatives - Progressivism - Bias

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?

Stephen Colbert interviews Donald Trump

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Late Night TV Hosts vs Trumpland

Stephen Colbert - Donald Trump - chalkboard swastika

When it becomes good business for left-wing late night comedy hosts to actively alienate and belittle half the country, it is clear that Donald Trump is not the only force stoking hatred and division in America

While in New York City last December, my wife and I were fortunate to get tickets to see The Late Show with Stephen Colbert being recorded at the Ed Sullivan Theatre.

It was a good show and ended up being a really fun experience, but as somebody who cannot reliably tick the “Yes, I agree” box next to every progressive cause under the sun, it was only fun because I knew what I was letting myself in for and readied myself in advance for an hour’s worth of dripping condescension, mockery and misrepresentation of conservatives and conservatism.

And increasingly that’s how it is for conservatives – and even some moderates – who want to consume the fruits of mainstream culture, be it network television, Hollywood movies, stand-up comedy or even classical music. Sure, you can watch – nobody barred me from entering the studio or administered an ideological test before I was allowed to sit and watch Stephen Colbert spit-roast Donald Trump in his monologue for the hundredth time. But in order to derive uninterrupted enjoyment from proceedings, those on the right increasingly have to perform a certain degree of mental disassociation from their political views before taking part. One has to fake laughter and perfect the wryly amused smile so as not to look out of place while everyone else clutches their sides and laughs at the Stupid Backward Conservatives.

During the warm-up act before Stephen Colbert came out, the warm-up comedian scoured the audience looking for interesting or odd people, and then made them stand up and engage him in conversation for the delectation of the audience. Pretty standard for a warm-up act, but one person in particular seemed to pique the warm-up comedian’s interest – a slightly patrician-looking, grey-haired and well-dressed man in his late fifties or early sixties. “A Republican in the audience!”, the comedian exclaimed.

The comedian got the man to stand up, confirmed that he was indeed a conservative and then went to town on him in a way which was superficially good-natured but as it dragged on (far longer than his other interactions) quickly became quite awkward both for the gentleman involved and a number of other audience members. This isn’t to resort to snowflakery – go to a comedy show and one should expect to get picked on by the person on stage, after all – but it was notable and entirely predictable that none of the conspicuously progressive stereotypes sitting in the audience received similar treatment. And of course this was but a foreshadowing of what would happen when Colbert himself took the stage (we in the audience were under strict instructions not to “spoil the fun” by booing at any point, though this rule was liberally disregarded when any mention was made of a conservative figure or policy).

Left-wing satire can be brilliant. I always felt that during his long tenure at The Daily Show, Jon Stewart did a fantastic job skewering the many foibles and failings of the George W. Bush administration without coming across as aggressively bitter or hostile to everyday conservative voters. He may not have been speaking to them for much of the time, but neither was Jon Stewart actively belittling those people who twice voted for Bush. Other late night hosts such as Bill Maher often make more pointed barbs directed at ordinary conservatives, but in Maher’s case his jokes are much funnier and are balanced with a frequent willingness to call out the excesses, failings and hypocrisies of his own side (such as the free pass given by much of the American Left to retrograde attitudes toward women in parts of the Islamic world).

Stephen Colbert, while often very funny, is less nuanced. As a non Trump-supporting conservative I personally fall down the awkward gap between agreeing with nearly all of Colbert’s criticisms of President Trump’s personal conduct and suitability for office while also wishing that not every single monologue had to be come a teachable moment about the supposed deficiencies of conservatism, the self-evident correctness of progressive positions and the supposedly inherent wisdom of even the dimmest people who happen to cheer for the progressive cause.

And this brings us to fellow late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who took the opportunity (in front of an extremely friendly crowd of fellow progressives) to use a guest appearance on left-wing podcast Pod Save America to declare that progressive domination of late-night television was entirely right and proper, Darwinian natural selection at work within showbusiness.

 

From Ben Shapiro at The Daily Wire:

Following President Trump’s State of the Union address last week, CBS late night host Stephen Colbert had on the former Obama staffers of “Pod Save America” to bash Trump. Those same gentlemen welcomed ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel to the stage for an event on Saturday night, where Kimmel proceeded to explain that all late night hosts are on the Left thanks to their vast intellect.

What a ridiculous and unnecessarily smug thing for Kimmel to say. One cannot rend one’s garments about hatred and division in America and then declare everyone on the winning side of a highly contentious election to be intellectually inferior. These are not the shocked and panicked moments immediately after election night in 2016 – by this point the American Left has had a long period of time to dwell on their missteps and shortcomings in that electoral cycle, but many Democrats and others on the left choose instead to marinade in their own anger, as though shouting at the other half of the country will win them around.

I have also been to a live recording of Pod Save America. It is actually a podcast to which I subscribe and listen frequently, and so when the hosts came on tour to London in January I went with a group of friends to Cadogan Hall to hear them do their thing. At its best, Pod Save America is entertaining and informative, albeit from an avowedly left-wing stance, and there is a real value to hearing how some of the most prominent alumni from the Obama administration view today’s politics. Being a left-wing podcast, nobody expects them to do anything other than preach to the choir in every episode, which is no worse than what many right-wing talk radio hosts do. But surely we should expect a little more from late-night network television?

Nothing good can come from the bitterness and rancour which currently seeps from the late-night talk shows. Network television comedy should bring people together, or at least not needlessly alienate them from one another. It may be good business for late night TV hosts to cater almost exclusively to staunchly Democratic voters – NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, who deliberately stays less political, is certainly suffering in the ratings for failing to bash conservatives on a nightly basis – but it is bad for our society as a whole.

A cohesive society requires that we maintain a public square where everyone is welcome, where people are not encouraged to self-segregate as progressives or conservatives, Christians or Muslims, whites or racial minorities. Where everybody can be American (or British) first and subordinate their various other identities and affiliations, albeit temporarily, to the one which we all hold in common. But time and again we see what should be common territory – places like  late night television or NFL football games – being tussled over by partisans until one side is forced to cede the field. When everything is political, everything becomes divisive and toxic.

In his latest show, Ben Shapiro makes a similar point with reference to last weekend’s Superbowl LII in Minnesota:

One of the things that football needs to understand – one of the things that the NFL needs to understand – is that the popularity of the sport is deeply entwined with the good feeling about the country. If you feel bad about the country it’s hard to enjoy sports, because you feel like sports are frivolous. If you feel good about the country then sports are a distraction from the mundane, sure, but they are also a reminder that all of our conflict is really play-acted.

And that’s not true in politics, you know, in politics there’s a lot of our conflict that’s not, that’s real, that’s about issues that matter and I care deeply about. But it’s good for Americans to recognise once in awhile – and I think that’s what the Superbowl is for – it’s good for us to recognise every once in awhile that there are these moments where we have more in common than we are separated by. So it’s amazing that in an evening that’s really about conflict between two teams is really more about the love for fans for one another. It’s really more about a love of country. It’s really more about what we are unified in favour of, and that’s why it was so entwined with the flag, with the military, and it’s why it alienated so many fans when the players started kneeling.

This is a time when we need to urgently be creating more shared, civic spaces where people of differing political views, backgrounds and identities can come together as fellow citizens first and foremost, not as victims, oppressors or activists. America actually fares better than Britain in this regard, since displays of patriotism and national pride are not yet considered quite so embarrassing or gauche as they are in Britain (though some on the American Left would doubtless love to change that fact), but neither country can afford to be complacent.

And here, late night television serves as a good barometer of just how polarised society has become. There are many excellent and respected comedians at the top of their field who do not feel it necessary to turn their acts into another campaigning wing of the Democratic Party. But many conservatives having already largely abandoned late night television, it does not make sense for ratings (and therefore for business) to do anything other than give the remaining progressive audiences exactly what they want – just ask Jimmy Fallon, who lags in the ratings precisely because he refuses to turn his show into a platform for progressive revivalism.

We see exactly the same situation in Britain, where new satirical news show The Mash Report (itself billed as hybrid of the Daily Show and British current affairs shows like Have I Got News For You) make endless fun of Brexit voters and conservatives as though being left-wing and pro-EU is the “natural” position, from which any departure should rightly trigger outrage and mockery. From a business and professional standpoint there may be every reason to continue along the current trajectory (including high ratings, monetary rewards and approval from fellow bubble-dwellers in the industry), but that doesn’t mean that the status quo is good for societal cohesion. It isn’t. There was a time (before Brexit) when people on the Left used to understand that not everything of value could be quantified, but apparently no more.

The best satirical comedy tends to punch upward, not down (though of course in a free society it should be free to punch wherever it likes). It should be possible to punch up at Donald Trump while reserving a few blows for other highly deserving fixtures of American political life, including the cadaverous and inept figures who make up the Democratic Party leadership. It should be possible to punch upward at ludicrous Tory Brexiteers like Boris Johnson while also using humour to point out the starry-eyed naivety of those on the Left who see the European Union as the fount of all good things.

But most importantly, it should be possible to punch up at the political class while avoiding punching down at entire groups of voters, let alone nearly half the country. Because when it becomes good business sense to deliberately alienate half the country to wring laughter and advertiser dollars from the other half, something has gone terribly wrong.

Stephen Colbert - Cartoon Donald Trump

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