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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I Watched The Mash Report So You Don’t Have To

The Mash Report - Nish Kumar - BBC - Satire - Comedy - Bias - Leftism

The world of comedy is almost uniformly left-wing and progressive, especially on British television. But will new satirical show The Mash Report be brave enough to confound expectations and take potshots at everyone, not just conservatives?

When a friend first introduced me to British satirical news website The Daily Mash back in 2010, I lost two full days of productive work time, ravenously reading back through their archives and laughing until it hurt. At its best, the Mash is a very funny publication, and a worthy and uniquely British answer to the great American satirical newspaper The Onion.

After the Tories (kind of) won the 2010 general election it was inevitable that the Mash’s unforgiving gaze would fall more heavily on conservatism than it did in the dying days of Gordon Brown’s tragicomic administration, and that we on the Right would be subject to a lot more ribbing than before. That is as it should be – good satire should devote much of its energy to mocking and belittling those in power, and taking them down a peg or two. And Lord knows that the Cameron/Osborne/Clegg trio – and now Theresa May’s clown show of an administration – have given the Mash more than enough prime material.

Sure, if one surveys the overall output of the Mash in recent years one gets the clear sense that their “normal” – the political reference point from which any departure triggers satirical mockery – sits somewhere on the centre-left. But I never really had an issue with their output until the EU referendum, where the Mash firmly planted its flag with the Remain camp on the side of the powerful establishment, subjecting Brexiteers to every lazy insult in the book while making it clear that only Remainers could be deemed “normal” and allowed to be in on the joke.

As I wrote a couple of months ago, in exasperation:

The worn-out old stereotype of Brexiteers as scarlet-faced, tweed-bedecked retired colonels hankering after a bygone age is self-evidently false. It fails the common sense test – over 17 million voters opted for Brexit, and there just aren’t enough retired colonels out there to deliver that kind of result.

But rather than actually take the time to understand Brexiteers and work out what makes them tick so as to better lampoon them (humour, after all, is always better when it is closely observational), publications like The Daily Mash sit back smugly and fall back on the familiar narrative of grumpy old men hankering for empire.

And that, of course, is their right. Nobody has to read The Daily Mash, and despite Britain’s increasingly tenuous commitment to free speech they can mock and lampoon whoever they like, as should be the case.

But how much better would their comedy be – how much wryer and punchier their humour – if the Mash writers actually took the time to really get to know a few more Brexiteers (so as to at least make fun of them for the right reasons), or even (heaven forfend) turn that caustic wit back on their own side once in a while?

A reasonable request, I think, but one which the Mash did not heed. Since I wrote those words in early March, the Mash has doubled down on its Brexit mockery, letting numerous establishment cretins off the hook for their mistakes, evasions and foibles as its wittiest writers spend their time skewering the good-hearted but sometimes inarticulate people who dare to express their support for Brexit.

And now the BBC is launching a new satirical television programme fronted by comedian Nish Kumar, entitled The Mash Report. The idea was partly to transpose the successful Mash format from internet to television, but it is also a very conscious effort to introduce the late-night, US-style satirical show made so popular in America by The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.

The British Comedy Guide trumpeted before the launch:

Nish Kumar will host the 10-part series, described as “an up to the minute, satirical news show”. Overseen by Princess Productions, it is being produced in conjunction with satirical website The Daily Mash, dubbed “Britain’s most popular original comedy website”.

Kumar has experience at hosting topical comedy, having previously helmed Radio 4 Extra sketch show Newsjack. He now presents Spotlight Tonight With Nish Kumar, a Radio 4 topical comedy which will end its current series next week.

Continuing:

BBC Two boss Patrick Holland says: “I am delighted that we are announcing this new topical comedy entertainment series from Princess. It is whip-smart, hugely timely and driven by some great new talent. I’d like to thank all the teams who contributed to the different pilots. The standard was exceptionally high, but we were drawn to The Mash Report’s blend of great satire allied with the surreal. It feels really innovative.”

It doesn’t take a genius to understand what the BBC’s Patrick Holland means when he says that The Mash Report is “hugely timely”. This is basically code for “Oh my god, what a dystopian age we live in now that Brexit is upon us, the Evil Tories are still in government and Donald Trump is president of the United States! Now more than ever we need a condescending new establishment-approved comedy show to fight back against the populist menace on behalf of the elites and put those Leave-voting troglodytes in their place”.

I hoped against hope that it would not be so. I did not want to be proven right – which is partly why I refrained from writing about the show until a couple of episodes had aired. But I can now officially say, having watched The Mash Report so you don’t have to, that it lives down to the very lowest of expectations.

The first anti-Brexit joke occurred three minutes and forty seconds into the show, after the opening pleasantries by host Nish Kumar (who channels John Oliver rather than Jon Stewart in overall tone). Now, one can’t be too angry about this one, aimed as it was at Boris Johnson, a man who is deserving of endless mockery. But still, this first jab confirmed some early suspicions and set the tone for what was to come.

The first identity politics joke – “I’m the first Asian comedian hosting a prime time comedy show, and now we’re coming for all your jobs! This is PC gone mad” (cue inexplicable delirious screaming from the audience) – occurred four minutes and fifty seconds into the show.

There then came a joke about the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games in the context of Brexit, pleading for director Danny Boyle to come and take over the Brexit negotiations. As footage of the ceremony played, Kumar intoned “This is the last time any of you will be happy!”. Yes of course, because watching North Korean-style propagandists prance around in nurses’ uniforms deifying a failed socialised healthcare system is deliriously fantastic, while seeking to reclaim democracy and self-determination, and make political leaders properly accountable to the UK electorate again, is just awful beyond measure.

There was then a short interlude while The Mash Report made fun of David Davis’ name, while Boris Johnson was implausibly described as having the “political outlook of a Victorian man”. Seriously? Have the Mash Report writers ever seen Boris Johnson? Clearly not – but they are in no short supply of lazy, sixth form-style anti-conservative put-downs.

In the same week – particularly given that much of the show is given over to quickfire, Have I Got News For You-style picture caption jokes – the Mash Report could have spent thirty seconds making fun of this hilarious cover of The Green Parent magazine:

The Green Parent cover

God help that baby, particularly because the socially conscious father seems to be preparing to attempt to breastfeed (#SomeMenLactate). But no. The Mash Report – and the BBC in general – know exactly who their core audience are, and which demographics must be coddled and protected from offence at all times (yes, trendy green types very much make the list). The Mash Report already knows exactly who to flatter and who to insult mercilessly without fear of blowback for the naked bias on display.

Later in the show we are introduced to the show’s “religious affairs correspondent”. Already you know exactly where this is going – and indeed, precious minutes were spent laughing at the most unhinged of US evangelical Trump supporters and interviewing a rather loopy-looking Church of England minister who claimed that Jesus would have voted to Make America Great Again.

But perhaps I am being unfair. Even though this first outing was spent skewering Donald Trump and the American religious right, I’m fully confident that in future episodes we can expect all faiths (and none) to come in for equally barbed and scornful criticism. Right? Naturally if Hillary Clinton were currently president, the Mash Report would be mocking the Left’s overenthusiastic zeal for abortion and eagerness to make incursions on religious freedom.

One might have thought that a brand new satirical current affairs show could have something to say about the way that politicians and misguided apologists dither and prevaricate while Islamist extremists mercilessly butcher and wound innocent people going about their daily lives. But no – tumbleweeds. Let’s just bash a few crazy evangelical Christians and call it a job well done. That’s surely the only job of a religious affairs correspondent on a national late night comedy show.

And yet despite these many failings there were a few genuinely funny moments in the Mash Report. The recurring feature parodying the way that 24-hour news networks are desperate to broadcast viewers’ observations sent in via social media was accurate and very well done. The show generally worked best when riffing on non-political stories, like the Love Island reality TV phenomenon. It was also good to see some of the familiar recurring Mash vox-pop names crop up – hi, Tom Booker.

But the format often felt awkward and strained, an uncomfortable hybrid between the whip-smart Daily Show-style interactions between host and correspondent in one moment and much more clipped, Have I Got News For You-style dry witticisms and fake headlines the next. Though the blend was new, ultimately there was nothing original in either style or content – particularly not the near-constant left-wing preachiness.

The closest that The Mash Report came from escaping the gravity of bien-pensant leftist groupthink was a segment entitled “Bursting the Bubble”, featuring rare conservative comedian Geoff Norcott. For a moment my heart filled with hope – titling the segment “bursting the bubble” suggested an acknowledgement that all that had come before was rather one-sided, and that maybe now things would change. But no. The mere fact that the bubble is left-wing while the exterior is right-wing says it all about the show’s deep-rooted bias. The country may be divided nearly 50/50 but the BBC and the Mash Report see fit to ghettoise conservatives into a four-minute slot at the end of the episode, much like Maybelle Stubbs’ monthly Negro Day on the Corny Collins Show in Hairspray.

And even Geoff Norcott proved to be something of a turncoat, choosing to play the role of performing seal for the ogling leftist audience rather than attempting to hit back and mock any progressive, left-wing shibboleths. For example, when discussing Our Blessed NHS, Norcott cited the fact that “people live” (rather than dying before old age) as a problem which vexes Evil Conservatives like him.

“The elderly, Nish – they should be dead by now. Just sitting it out, hanging on in there…” Norcott moaned to the show’s host, while the bovine leftist audience clapped gleefully as every single one of their anti-conservative prejudices were confirmed before their very eyes. How exactly is this “bursting the bubble”? If anything Norcott’s role in the Mash Report was more like Samuel L Jackson’s in Django Unchained, the obedient slave performing for Leonardo DiCaprio and hamming up the servile stereotypes as much as possible. The Guardian approves of his comedy act because he is willing to debase himself and play the Evil Tory stereotype. But any real conservative who watched Norcott’s first cringe-inducing segment on the Mash Report must despise the man. I certainly do.

What didn’t we see in the show? Well, there was nothing substantive about the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP or the Green Party for a start. Nothing about how so many of Jeremy Corbyn’s inner court have fallen over themselves to praise Venezuela in recent years, even as socialist policies pushed that country toward its current precipice. And you can be sure that all of these people will be largely protected from satirical scrutiny as the series progresses. If they are ever criticised it will be in the context of their ineptitude in thwarting the conservative agenda (whatever that may be) rather than because of the nature of their own beliefs.

But the show did go out with a bang, with a field report about a traumatised middle class family who – gasp! – had to ride the Megabus coach to London rather than travelling in the style to which they were accustomed. Again, nothing wrong with the individual joke – and to be fair, the Mash makes fun of Waitrose shoppers as much as they do people who buy their lunch at Gregg’s. But place it in the context of the overall show and the Mash Report’s emerging worldview is quite clear.

And so is the message about who this new comedy show is designed to amuse. Basically, if you are conservative, working class, a Brexiteer, a Christian, a social conservative, a traditionalist or (heaven forfend) a Ukipper then don’t bother tuning in unless you want to be the butt of every joke for twenty-six minutes, the only respite being the other four minutes where a two-dimensional cartoon parody of you cavorts in the guest seat, pastiching your sincerely-held views for the amusement of host Nish Kumar and his bovine left-wing audience.

In short The Mash Report is exactly as bad as I feared, and as you probably expected. What a letdown. What a squandering of comedic potential. What a great pity.

 

The Mash Report - Nish Kumar - BBC - Satire - Comedy

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