clock menu more-arrow no yes

Late-night comedy’s unusually somber 2017, explained in 7 moments

A major shift came this year in late-night comedy, as hosts tried to find jokes in sobering reality.

Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, and Jimmy Kimmel shifted their approaches to fit 2018
TBS/NBC/ABC

Anytime the news kicks into overdrive, so too does late-night television. And as the daily arbiter of comedy concerning all things noteworthy and/or ridiculous, late-night had its work cut out for it in 2017, a year full of headlines both startling and catastrophic.

After a man who was once relentlessly treated as a punchline became president of the United States, late-night underwent a serious recalibration.

Every host in the business had some memorable moments (though a few definitely had more than others). But despite their different styles — which range from overtly political to steadfastly otherwise — there was a discernible difference in the late-night TV landscape, across all shows and networks.

Priorities shifted. Perspectives changed. The tenor of the jokes seemed to alternate between anger and solemnity as people adjusted to a bizarre, whiplash-inducing year.

To trace that evolution, I went back to the archives to select the seven defining moments of late-night comedy in 2017, in chronological order — which, as you’ll notice, present a much more somber picture than you might have expected in any other year.

A month into Donald Trump’s presidency, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee offered a blunt lesson to the #Resistance

Week in and week out, Full Frontal has insisted that the act of resisting Trump can’t simply rely on a pithy social media hashtag. Since Trump’s inauguration, the show has ramped up its emphasis on the importance of community organizing, of voting in local elections, and of getting involved in a way that goes beyond simply sharing links on Facebook.

For Full Frontal’s February 14 show, correspondent Ashley Nicole Black interviewed lifelong activists who marched for civil rights in the 1960s, asking them for advice to form “A Practical Guide to Resistance.”

The activists were encouraging, but pragmatic enough to not sugarcoat the possibly grueling fight that lay ahead for anyone trying to #resist, and their suggestions were sometimes just as blunt as one of Samantha Bee’s opening monologues.

“What advice would you have today for activists who are introverts?” Black asked activist Nell Braxton Gibson.

“Suck it up,” Gibson laughed, before her expression grew serious. “It’s too important not to.”

This theme comes up over and over again on Full Frontal, moreso than any other late night show. It’s one thing to express your fury online, the show argues, and another thing entirely to roll up your sleeves, dig in your heels, and do the unglamorous practical work of making real change.

Stephen Colbert ripped into — and got a tangible rise out of — the president

One of the more enduring story lines of late-night in 2017 concerns the ratings success of Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, which has steadily outstripped the previous champion, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, since Trump became president.

At first, Colbert’s ratings surge seemed like a temporary blip. But as the months wore on, and Colbert became more and more incensed at “President Trump” being a reality he had to confront every day, his increasing ratings became an indisputable fact.

Fueled by outrage and the ongoing drama of the Trump White House, Colbert’s monologues quickly became longer and angrier, to better encompass everything he had to say. By May, even Trump noticed. After Colbert told a particularly explicit — and some said homophobic — joke about Trump and Putin, the president told Time:

You see a no-talent guy like Colbert. There’s nothing funny about what he says. And what he says is filthy. And you have kids watching. And it only builds up my base. It only helps me, people like him. The guy was dying. By the way they were going to take him off television, then he started attacking me and he started doing better.

It’s true that Colbert’s ratings climbed the more furious he became, but it’s also true that Colbert got under Trump’s skin — a fact that delighted Colbert to no end.

“The president of the United States has personally come after me and my show and there's only one thing to say,” Colbert said during his May 11 show, before breaking into thrilled giggles. “Yay.”

“Mr. Trump, there’s a lot you don't understand, but I never thought one of those would be show business!” Colbert continued. “Don’t you get that for a year, I’ve been trying to get you to say my name? You've been very restrained, admirably restrained, but now you did it. ... I won.”

Despite late-night television’s more-or-less collective railing against Trump, Colbert remains the sole host whom the president has personally derided this year. And as far as Colbert’s concerned, that’s a badge of honor.

Trevor Noah spotlighted the Philando Castile verdict long after others had moved on

In 2017, putting together a daily comedy show that hinges on the ebb and flow of the news was like trying to stay afloat in a tidal wave. Every so often, a news event — like a possible health care repeal or incomprehensible Trump tweet — was met with widespread media coverage. But lots of things inevitably fall through the cracks.

In June, the police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile during a 2016 traffic stop in Minnesota was cleared of all charges. Some late-night shows covered the verdict the day it came out, but only Daily Show host Trevor Noah returned to the subject again and again as new details leaked out, his face sunk further each time into grave horror.

On the third consecutive night that Noah discussed Castile, new and devastating dashcam footage had just been released, and Noah was nothing short of devastated.

“I thought that I felt all I could feel about this story,” he said, grimly. He later explained that watching the video, featuring Castile’s girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter trying to comfort her heartbroken mother, “broke me.”

“It just — it broke me.” But he emphasized that his feelings of despair weren’t just because the video itself was heartbreaking, but because the jury saw the video, and voted to acquit the officer anyway:

Their opinion, having watched that video, having listened to that exchange, they still said: “Yes, yes, I can see why that cop was afraid.” But why? ... Was it because Philando Castile was being polite? Was it because he was following the officer’s instructions? Was it because he was in the car with his family? Or was it because Philando Castile was black?

The Daily Show aired some great, funny segments this year. But Noah’s occasional abandonment of jokes in favor of frank commentary made for some stunning moments. And on this topic, Noah’s resolve and grief was made more powerful by the fact that no one else did — or frankly, could — comment on it quite like him.

After Trump tried to tweet an anti-transgender military policy into law, Jimmy Fallon turned over his mic to a trans comedian

Jimmy Fallon really, really doesn’t like to mix politics and comedy. As he told his audience the day after the 2016 election, when many people were shellshocked, his mission is to “try to make you laugh and take your mind off things for a while.” But even Fallon couldn’t entirely avoid 2017’s exhausting onslaught of political news.

He usually took a “get it over with” approach, by uneasily delivering limited political commentary during short opening monologues. But there was at least one significant moment in which Fallon decided that the best way to address a topic was to not address it all, and to instead lend his spotlight to someone more qualified for the job.

The moment came in July, when President Trump tweeted seemingly out of nowhere that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military, sparking confusion and outrage. Fallon responded by asking trans comedian Patti Harrison to take over his monologue to weigh in on the controversy. In a dry voice, Harrison performed a short but powerful set, in which she insisted that she doesn’t “necessarily want to serve in the military, but I want the right to serve. It’s like, I don’t want to go to your baby shower, but I want the invite.”

In this way, Fallon managed to touch on the news of the day without delivering stilted jokes on it — and better yet, he gave someone who could comment from a more personal perspective the opportunity to do so on a huge platform.

Seth Meyers took A Closer Look at Trump’s administration — with a focus on its failings

Before the election, Late Night’s “A Closer Look” — a recurring segment in which Meyers drills down on a single issue — ran once, maybe twice a week. These days, almost every episode features a new edition, usually scathing and laser-focused.

There have been many memorable examples, but perhaps the best came after white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, Virginia in August, and President Trump attempted to assign blame to “many sides.”

Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn the white supremacists earned him widespread criticism both inside and outside the realm of late-night; within it, even Fallon expressed real, uncensored horror. But Meyers used both a monologue and an edition of “A Closer Look” to dismantle Trump’s (lack of) response and express his disgust in no uncertain terms.

Yes, there were jokes about the white supremacists carrying tiki torches only to be condemned by the company that sells them (“You know it’s bad when the thing you’re angrily waving denounces you”), but Meyers made more of a mark by linking the president’s longstanding record of making racist statements to his current inability to condemn racism without qualifications.

“You can stand for a nation, or you can stand for a hateful movement,” Meyers concluded. “You can’t do both.”

(I’d also be remiss here not to point out that Late Night’s Charlottesville response continued one of the show’s best decisions of the year — to highlight the voices of women on its writing staff — by leaning heavily on Amber Ruffin, who brought a frank and necessary perspective to the situation that Meyers readily admits, often via a recurring segment called “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” that he will never have.)

Jimmy Kimmel became a reluctant but passionate health care advocate

Jimmy Kimmel never wanted to put life and death front and center on Jimmy Kimmel Live, but that’s exactly what he found himself doing this year.

After his son, Billy, was born with a congenital heart condition in April, Kimmel came back in May with an impassioned, tearful monologue imploring the American public and government alike to educate themselves on the consequences of repealing Obamacare without a comparable replacement. Namely, the devastating effect that such a move would inevitably have on families like his — or, as he made a point of saying, those far less fortunate.

It was a watershed moment for Kimmel, especially as it became clear that Republicans were deeply committed to their repeal effort, and that Kimmel would not be ignoring them. In September, when Republicans had their closest brushes with dismantling Obamacare, Kimmel hammered their proposed replacement plan night after night as not just inadequate, but cruel.

Providing a straightforward, serious dose of reality to his audience didn’t exactly come naturally to Kimmel. As he admitted, over and over again, he would’ve preferred to be doing anything but — a feeling that must’ve only intensified once the very Republican lawmakers he was criticizing tried to strike back at him by declaring that he had no idea what he was talking about, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Still, when push came to shove, Kimmel decided that he couldn’t sit by and do nothing. If he had to sacrifice some punchlines in the name of bringing this issue to light, so be it.

Sarah Silverman wrestled with a personal relationship when the #MeToo reckoning came to her door

When Sarah Silverman debuted her new Hulu series I Love You, America in October, she emphasized that one of her goals was to use the show to engage in the difficult conversations she tended to avoid in the past, believing that kind of confrontation to be necessary to move forward in Donald Trump’s America.

But when the current wave of sexual assault allegations that began with Harvey Weinstein and ultimately swept up her fellow comedian and longtime friend Louis C.K. — who admitted to masturbating in front of unconsenting women after a New York Times report laid out several years’ worth of allegations — Silverman understandably struggled to address her friend’s mistakes.

But to Silverman’s credit, she worked through that struggle candidly, and on camera, even after freely admitting that she “really, really, really [didn’t] want to” at all.

Heartbroken, Silverman opened her November 16 show by laying out the facts of what made commenting on the situation so hard for her.

“I love Louis, but Louis did these things,” she said. “Both of those statements are true. So I just keep asking myself, Can you love someone who did bad things? Can you still love them? I can mull that over later, certainly, because the only people that matter right now are the victims. They are victims, and they’re victims because of something he did.”

Addressing sexual harassment, Silverman explained, is “like cutting out tumors.”

“It’s messy and it’s complicated and it is going to hurt. But it’s necessary and we’ll all be healthier for it,” she said. Silverman also confronted a difficult truth as she went on to note: “Some of our heroes will be taken down, and we will discover bad things about people we like. Or, in some cases, people we love.”

Silverman’s candor took a clear toll on her. But it was unfailingly honest in a way that made it stand out, especially in a male-dominated late-night space in which many of her peers sidestepped the fact that someone like C.K. — or comedian-turned-senator Al Franken, who announced his resignation earlier this month after multiple women accused him of harassment — had come up from within their circles.

Not only was the segment bold (and necessary!), but it may also provide a useful template for the future, as powerful men — including some who the current figures of late-night may know and even love — continue to get called out.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.