The ongoing confusion of Donald Trump’s first months as president has presented a unique challenge to anyone who mines the news for comedy, especially now that Trump can’t be written off — like he was when he officially announced his candidacy in June 2015 — as a punchline slowly descending an escalator.
Namely: How the hell are you supposed to make jokes about news that feels so hyperbolic … and often disturbing?
It’s a question that’s especially relevant to late-night TV, where hosts have been offering sardonic takes on the headlines almost daily for decades. And now that the president of the United States is someone whose personal life and career have long been a source of material on those same shows — not to mention someone who tends to treat his political career like a reality show — the whiplash of trying to cover Trump has thrown late night for a serious loop.
Some, like Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah, have become noticeably angrier since Trump was elected. Others, like Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and Bill Maher (the latter of whom I used to work for) have taken their preexisting anger to more rage-filled heights.
But I’ve watched so much late-night TV since Trump’s inauguration that my dreams have started to open with, “How are you guys feeling tonight?!” and I can safely say there’s one pair of hosts who’ve been particularly useful in studying late night’s reaction to this unprecedented era. As it turns out, no one quite illustrates the Trump-era extremes of “let’s make a couple of tiny hand zingers and move on” and “let’s reveal injustices with pointed punchlines” like Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers.
If you were to watch NBC’s two late night shows back to back — The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon at 11:35 pm and Late Night With Seth Meyers at 12:35 am — you’d witness two completely different approaches to comedy under President Trump. You probably wouldn’t watch the shows back to back, since so many people now watch late-night TV online, as a series of separate clips, but trust me: The contrast between the two hosts is something else. One tells grinning jokes about how dumb Trump’s Cabinet is before launching into celebrity icebreaker games; the other dissects the news of the day with a horrified raise of the eyebrow and fiery declarations about the danger Trump poses to America and its citizens.
But in their stark differences and individual approaches to topical comedy, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night With Seth Meyers can both make for fascinating, revealing TV.
Jimmy Fallon is the “let’s all just get a drink and get along” guy of late night
The day Donald Trump became president, Fallon didn’t quite know what to do with himself.
The host walked onstage on January 20 and delivered a few minutes of jokes about tiny hands and Trump answering his phone with, “New president, who dis?” Nothing about this opening monologue was particularly memorable, except for the fact that it was about a brand new leader of the free world.
But once the monologue was over and he was settled in behind the desk, Fallon acknowledged that it had been “kind of a weird day.” He then told his studio audience the “most encouraging moment” he saw at the inauguration was when Trump and Barack Obama shook hands, because it “set a good example.”
“We live in a great country where we can have different opinions,” Fallon continued as his studio audience applauded, “and that’s okay.”
This makes sense coming from Fallon. One thing I’ve gathered through watching hours of late-night TV, both before and after Trump’s election, is that Fallon’s particular studio audience is the only one in the game that doesn’t reliably greet a joke at Trump’s expense with wild applause. But the more relevant reason for Fallon wanting everyone to just take a breath and be civil is that he has always run his show by lobbying to be everyone’s friend, serving up a few softball jokes about politics or other current events at the top of the show before putting most of his energy into playing charades with his celebrity guests.
Fallon interviews everyone from Neil Patrick Harris to Michele Bachmann with the same broad grin (a tendency that royally pissed off his liberal viewers when he mussed then-candidate Trump’s hair in September 2016 as if he were petting a puppy). He’s generous with his laughter, the type of guy who makes you feel like any story you tell — no matter how banal — is fucking hilarious. If you told Fallon you were having a bad week, he would take you out for a beer and try to make you forget all about it.
Fallon, like most everyone else in America, hasn’t exactly been able to avoid politics since the inauguration. He’s dusted off his Trump impression for such occasions as the freewheeling news conference that dominated headlines in the middle of February (Fallon as Trump: “You're all fake news, I hate you very much, thanks for being here”), and he’s never met a “Melania hates her husband” quip he doesn’t like.
But for the most part, Fallon has kept things easy breezy, typically pivoting from a more topical opening monologue to the aforementioned slapstick games. Earlier this month, for example, while many hosts (including Meyers) told jokes about Republicans fumbling on health care during their March 13 shows, Fallon gave his post-monologue slot to a duet with country singer Luke Bryan about how neither of them knows how to pronounce the word “gyro.”
It’s like Fallon said on The Tonight Show the night after Trump won the election: “My job is to come out here every night and try to make you laugh and take your mind off things for a while.”
But where Fallon was hopeful on November 9, Seth Meyers was downright distraught — and that sentiment has shaped Meyers’s show ever since.
Seth Meyers has responded to President Trump with clear eyes, a full heart, and unabashed disdain
In his November 9 monologue, Meyers addressed the election result with grim candor that acknowledged both those who voted for Trump (“I sincerely hope that if you’ve felt forgotten, he won’t forget you now”) and those who were actively scared of what his administration might do (“As a white man, I know that any emotions I’m feeling are likely a fraction of those being felt by the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Muslim Americans, and any number of the immigrant communities so vital to our country”).
But that was far from the first time NBC’s 12:35 am switchover from The Tonight Show’s determined escapism to Late Night’s thoughtful dissections made for a telling study in contrasts.
Every night, Meyers kicks off his show from behind his desk with, “Let’s get to the news,” delivering wonky jokes about policy drama by way of a sideways smile. At least a couple of times a week, he dives into a “Closer Look” segment that devotes up to 10 minutes to analyzing a single issue — basically a shorter version of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight routine — before he brings out the evening’s guests.
As a veteran anchor of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, Meyers has always been more suited to firing off political jokes than Fallon, who spent most of his SNL tenure shattering sketches with giggles he couldn’t contain. So it’s not especially surprising that Meyers found his Late Night groove by essentially anchoring a solo version of Weekend Update every night.
What is surprising is how ferocious Meyers’s jokes have gotten in the two months since Trump officially became president.
The host still serves up his fair share of “Wow, is Donald Trump’s hair dumb” material, and his recent characterization of Eric Trump as the hunchback of the White House is purely silly (and stupidly funny, for what it’s worth). But he also regularly calls out Trump’s “wild and inaccurate” claims, on subjects from voter fraud to wiretapping and beyond, often going so far as to call them “delusions.” The smirk he’s worn for more than 15 years of being on TV now more frequently morphs into a look of abject horror.
Like CBS’s increasingly vicious Colbert, Meyers is lacing even his joke setups with disdain for an administration composed of — as he put it on January 30 after Trump signed his first executive order on immigration — “incompetent authoritarians with nothing but contempt for any of the basic constitutional principles this country has cherished since its founding.”
In fact, Meyers’s initial assessment of that immigration order basically applies to his assessment of most every Trump administration initiative that’s followed it: “not only cruel and unnecessary, but apparently, very poorly thought out.”
Every passing day of the rapid-fire news cycle the Trump administration has yielded has in turn inspired more and more scathing comedy from Meyers. “Closer Look,” once an occasional drop-in segment, now appears in more episodes than not, with Meyers making statements like “Trump’s Cruel Budget Caps Off a Bad Week” and asking direct questions like “Can We Believe Anything Trump Says?” (Meyers’s answer probably won’t surprise you!)
Seth Meyers doesn’t want to take your mind off the news. If anything, he wants to let you know it’s okay if you can’t take your mind off the news.
Fallon’s and Meyers’s polar opposite ways of finding comedy in the world reflect an ongoing debate on the role of comedy under Trump
There aren’t a whole lot of people who watch Fallon and Meyers live as they air, in back-to-back time slots; Fallon routinely draws just under 3 million live viewers to Meyers’s 1.5 million, and the chances of all of Meyers’s viewers being Fallon holdovers are slim. But if you were to watch the shows one after another, it’d be understandable if you sustained comedic whiplash from their starkly different approaches to the same subjects.
If, for example, you tuned in to The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on March 13, you’d have seen him make an opening joke about a snowstorm hitting the East Coast with a shot about the “whiteout” evening out with an inevitable St. Patrick’s Day “blackout,” chased with a quip about how you’ll know it’s cold “when the Washington Monument shrinks 40 feet.”
If you stuck around for Late Night With Seth Meyers, you’d have seen his opening joke about the same whiteout become a callout of the monochrome skin tones in Trump’s Cabinet.
Neither of these jokes were necessarily the hosts’ best work. But they offer a crystal-clear example of Fallon’s and Meyers’s divergent ways of looking at the world … and then writing jokes about it. Fallon remains as politically neutral as possible, aiming to distract his audience from the harshness of reality so he can put smiles on people’s faces. Meyers shines a spotlight on that harshness, dragging it out to tear it apart.
If late-night TV were a high school, Fallon would be its class clown, always ready to lighten the mood with a wisecrack or five. And Meyers would be the funniest guy on the debate team who strategically deploys his jokes to puncture and deflate opposing arguments before they can even get off the ground.
While there are more late-night TV hosts on the air at this point in time than ever before, Fallon and Meyers’s two wildly different philosophies are emblematic of a debate that’s been quietly raging as politics and pop culture become more and more intertwined. Is it okay to distract people from the world at large if it’ll at least make them smile? Or is the role of the court jester less about the bells and whistles of provoking laughs and more about revealing the uglier truths behind abuses of power, with lethal punchlines and a wink?
After watching so much late-night comedy over the past few months, I can honestly say I see the value of viewers having both options at their disposal. But I know that when I look back at both the comedy and the political disarray of this moment in American history, the jokes I’ll remember won’t be the layups about Trump’s tiny hands.