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How President Trump forced late-night TV to evolve

5 moments that explain how late night reacted and adjusted to a new reality.

Stephen Colbert’s not too thrilled with President Trump.
CBS

As President Donald Trump has tried to make his mark in his first 100 days of office, late-night TV hosts have scrambled to both decode and send up a man they once treated as nothing more than a tired toupee joke. Every weeknight, these men and one woman continue to spit punchlines and/or acid in the face of the new administration. Some have risen to the occasion with barbs blazing; others have taken a step back.

All of them, however, have found themselves grappling with the fact that we’re living in an era of unprecedented political polarization — and have realized that trying to find the comedy in increasingly hyperbolic-sounding news headlines can be a serious challenge.

While the shows have reacted in different ways, they’ve all been forced to adjust in one way or another. And as a collective, they paint an interesting picture of how the late-night genre is approaching the new administration. Here are five moments that help explain this confusing and pivotal time in late-night comedy.

1) On Inauguration Day, Jimmy Fallon just wanted everybody to get along

Fallon’s Tonight Show tenure has been stacked with celebrities playing parlor games, hashtag contests, and feel-good musical interludes. Fallon loves laughing and making people laugh, and for him, that means kicking back and having a great time, man. It’s why, when he interviewed candidate Trump back in October, he avoided hardball questions and ended up begging to muss the man’s famous sherbet-orange hair.

So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when Fallon took a moment during his January 20 show, just hours after Trump’s inauguration, to make a halting case for why everyone should probably just take a deep breath and try to get along. As he put it, “the most encouraging thing” he saw during the day’s ceremonies was “watching Barack Obama shake hands with Donald Trump,” because that was “setting a good example.”

“We live in a great country where we can have different opinions,” Fallon continued, “and that’s okay.”

The takeaway? Fallon acknowledges that politics exist. But he’s not about to dig into the issues of the day with a scalpel like some of his late-night peers when he can indulge in some uncomplicated fun and/or play beer pong with Captain America instead.

2) Seth Meyers takes a Closer Look at Trump’s first immigration ban

Since he took over the Late Night desk in 2014, Seth Meyers has always been analytical, skeptical, and deeply empathetic when it comes to cracking jokes about politics. This held true when Trump pulled off his presidential election victory in November, with Meyers giving a heartfelt monologue about his disappointment and fervent hope that things would turn out differently under President Trump than he expected.

But then they didn’t — and Meyers hasn’t held back.

Since Trump’s inauguration, Meyers has delivered many a “Closer Look,” or Late Night’s version of a John Oliver–style deep dive into a single topic. But none of them have captured the fire of Meyers’s compassionate outrage quite like the one he aired on January 30, a few days after Trump signed his first immigration order. Meyers called it “not only cruel and unnecessary but apparently very poorly thought out,” dissecting the order with precision and no small amount of despair.

“It’s only been a week,” he said with a grimace, “but the Trump administration has already revealed itself to be a government of incompetent authoritarians with nothing but contempt for any of the basic constitutional principles this country has cherished since its founding.”

Meyers is quick with a joke, but under President Trump, he’s just as quick to chase it with some decisive judgment.

3) Full Frontal With Samantha Bee tells the #Resistance to “suck it up”

By their own account, the creative team behind one of late night’s angriest shows was in a state of shock when Trump won. But then they quickly got to work. Since the election, they’ve written plenty of segments that haven’t quite kept up with the breakneck pace of news during the Trump era but have nonetheless coalesced around the same theme.

The act of resisting Trump, Full Frontal has insisted week in and week out, can’t begin and end with a pithy hashtag. The show has ramped up its emphasis on the benefits of community organizing, the importance of local elections, and the need to get involved in a way that goes far beyond opining to your Facebook friends from behind a laptop screen.

One of Full Frontal’s best and most representative segments since Trump took office aired on February 14, when correspondent Ashley Nicole Black interviewed lifelong activists who marched for civil rights in the ’60s and asked them for advice on “A Practical Guide to Resistance.” They were encouraging, but pragmatic enough about the possibly grueling fight ahead for anyone trying to #Resist, and their suggestions were sometimes just as blunt as one of 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 face fell into solemnity. “It’s too important not to.”

4) Stephen Colbert opens his show with fire and searing brimstone

Stephen Colbert has been lampooning politics for more than a decade now — but it wasn’t until Trump became president that his comedy became well and truly furious.

Every night since President Trump became a reality, Colbert has opened The Late Show with a fire-breathing monologue that gets his studio audience riled the hell up for the show ahead. No matter the topic at hand, the host is always ready to lace his commentary with a poison-tipped pun or a dire warning — check out February 14’s “It’s Funny ‘Cause It’s Treason” or March 7’s “Republicans Release New Health Care Plan and We’re All Gonna Die” for just two examples of many.

But for my money, the most exemplary Colbert monologue of Trump’s first 100 days comes courtesy of February 13’s “Stephen Miller, You’re Invited to Tell Lies on The Late Show.” In these seven minutes, Colbert delivered scathing jokes and seething indictments of the senior White House adviser, who had recently appeared on ABC’s This Week to say that the president’s powers “will not be questioned.”

“‘Will not be questioned?’” Colbert repeated, incredulous. “Let me test that theory: What the fuck are you talking about?”

Later, Colbert brought up how Miller had offered to go on “any show” to defend Trump’s executive orders, and invited him to swing by The Late Show with a direct challenge: “If you don’t show up, I’m gonna call you a liar,” Colbert said, “[and] if you do show up, I’m going to call you a liar to your face.”

Not only is this startlingly blunt for a network late-night show, it was indicative of the direction Colbert was headed in. His Late Show had been struggling to define its voice since Colbert first took over for David Letterman, but since President Trump became a reality, the former Colbert Report host has found his footing in the kind of stark disdain that The Daily Show has run on for years.

And not for nothing, it seems as though viewers are way into this new, blunter version of Colbert; for the past three months, The Late Show has been steadily challenging Fallon’s usual ratings juggernaut for the first time since Colbert took over.

5) Comedy Central points to its own Trump-era future with three show orders

While Trevor Noah has been holding his own in The Daily Show chair, Comedy Central has turned its eye toward the road ahead with three revealing show orders:

  1. The network’s post-Daily Show time slot has remained a question mark ever since The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore was canceled last August. But on April 4, Comedy Central announced that Jordan Klepper will soon get a shot at hosting his own show, one modeled around his Daily Show correspondent character.
  2. Moshe Kasher’s new show Problematic — which premiered on April 18 — has the comedian hosting roundtables and conducting interviews that take on controversial topics like cultural appropriation.
  3. And longtime Trump impersonator Anthony Atamanuik has just launched his own weekly half-hour in The President Show, which premiered on April 27 with no small amount of bombast.

These three shows can be viewed as a microcosm of Comedy Central’s talk show priorities. First, and not insignificantly, the three hosts launching their first shows on the network are all white guys. All three shows are purposefully political, and set on the knife’s edge of what it means to be “problematic.”

And Atamanuik and Klepper will both be in character — one as Trump, the other as an oblivious version of a guy who likely thrives on dismissing people as “politically correct,” in keeping with Klepper’s Daily Show persona (which tends to be the whitest and most clueless guy in any given room, as has always been especially apparent whenever we’ve seen him paired with former Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams).

All three shows acknowledge the deep partisanship driving politics and comedy today, and filter it through several layers of irony.

And okay, sure, these new series don’t technically constitute a moment. But as a trio, Problematic, The President Show, and Klepper’s upcoming offering are pretty telling as to what Comedy Central believes the future of political comedy might look like as it forges ahead in the Trump era.