Anti-Trump Late-Night Hosts Go Against Comedy Tradition

An op-ed column in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal suggested that our late-night hosts are shooting themselves in the foot by bashing President Trump every night.

The writer, Joseph Epstein, believes the late-night shows' emphasis on anti-Trump comedy does two things to undermine the shows and their hosts.

One is that the anti-Trump material alienates a chunk of America -- roughly half of it -- who support Trump, thereby limiting any potential for the shows to grow their audiences beyond the anti-Trump viewers they already reach.

The second thing is that the hosts (along with the writers and producers behind the scenes) demonstrate and reveal their own personal biases and leanings -- which is something that goes against various unwritten traditions in the comedy game.

At present, there is no late-night entertainment show whose host appears to be politically agnostic -- that is, willing to poke fun at everyone regardless of party or political leaning.



In the recent history of late-night TV, Jay Leno was the most adept at keeping his own political leanings private.

In interviews, he always deflected questions about it too, preferring to give an answer in which he explained that for him, revealing his own personal political points of view went against what he saw as his mission to just be an entertainer for everyone (or as many people as possible).

There is another consequence too, Epstein wrote, that is harder to put into words -- although he did a fine job of it.

After conceding that aspects of Trump's presidency and his personality are irresistible to take up as comedy fodder for the late-night hosts, Epstein wrote: “To have taken what I think of as the Trumpian option in their comedy has rendered these comedians charmless.”

It is a thought-provoking concept -- that the snarky, sarcastic tones the late-night hosts take when it comes to lampooning Trump and his cohorts make these hosts not only “charmless,” but by extension, unlikable, even unlovable.

Their hard-core fans will never agree with that notion, but for middle-of-the-road late-night viewers, the tone can be hard to take night after night -- which is why many long-time late-night viewers weaned themselves off of the habit when the younger generation took over from Leno and Letterman.

In my own career, for example, I criticized Jon Stewart on several occasions for producing comedy on “The Daily Show” that was, in my view, little more than straight-up sarcasm. His fans hated reading that and they would fill my email inbox with all sorts of choice criticism of me.

But Epstein took up the same subject in his WSJ piece, although his subject was Bill Maher, not Jon Stewart. “If you don't share Mr. Maher's politics,” Epstein wrote, “you are likely to find him an odious, even a loathsome character, for he doesn't really exist outside politics.

“His standard tone is mockery, his modus operandi [is] to lacerate his targets with obscenities, flash a nervous smile, and then bask in applause from his audience.”

If not for Trump, Epstein wrote, today's “liberal comedians … Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers would be practically out of business.”

He could be right. Imagine the late-night scene without Trump, but with some boring president. What would the late-night shows even be about if that was the case?

11 comments about "Anti-Trump Late-Night Hosts Go Against Comedy Tradition".
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  1. James Boldebook from CBC, February 8, 2018 at 11:41 a.m.

    I agree 100% with Joe Epstein.  Enough is enough.  I don't watch any of the late night comedy shows and know of a number of people who have Xd them out because of the constant Trump bashing.  

  2. Michael Kaplan from Blue Sky Creative, February 8, 2018 at 1:31 p.m.

    For every viewer who refuses to watch because of the Trump bashing, I think there are other viewers (myself included) who watch BECAUSE of the Trump bashing. Honestly, I find the genre of late-night talk shows pretty boring, except for topical comedy.

    And it's not just Trump bashing -- there's a plethora of odious politicians, business leaders, religious leaders and entertainment personalities who are skewered by Colbert, Maher, Trevor Noah, Seth Myers and Samantha Bee. And, despite the WSJ's insistence that this is strictly partisan, there are lots of barbs thrown against the Democratic establishment, too.

  3. CJ McCabe from C-Mac, February 8, 2018 at 1:59 p.m.

    Tell it to Nielsen and comScore.

  4. Bill Burnett from Good Citizen Media Group, February 8, 2018 at 2:03 p.m.

    First there is the business reality that Colbert, for instance, has gone way ahead of Fallon since he started all 45 bashing all the time.  
    Second, 45's approval is at 40% so it isn't half the country who is likely to be offended.
    Third, rule #1 in branding is to find an identity and live it.  The identity of these comics is to be firebrand anti 45 and they're winning with it.
    Fourth, and most important, 45 is a cancer on the culture that needs to be removed and the only people in the culture with the gonads and wits to do it are the comics you list above.  Jon Stewart trained nearly all of them and they are performing an invaluable service to America. if only the Democrats could and would speak as coherently and bluntly about the horror show we have in the White House we might actually be able to make progress but since they are mostly mired in mediocrity it is up to the gadfly comics to do it.

  5. Steven Graff from Independent Knowledge, February 8, 2018 at 8:46 p.m.

    It is pretty well chronicled that the Late Show with Stephen Colbert did not get its footing and ratings until after election night and Colbert made Trump's foibles a part of most monologues.

    As others have pointed out targeting a market that until a month ago was 36-38% instead of the larger 60%+ makes no sense from CBS' or an advertising sales perspective.

    Rupert Murdoch's ownership and being part of News Corp couldn't possibly have any effect on the POV expressed in an op-ed?

  6. John Grono from GAP Research, February 8, 2018 at 9:08 p.m.

    Maybe they are just hoeing fertile new ground.   After all an alternative story/headline  could say "Late-night Trump Tweeting Goes Against Presidential Tradition".

  7. Jon Currie from Currie Communications, Inc., February 8, 2018 at 11:41 p.m.

    News flash: It's 2018. News itself goes against "tradition" in the name of Fox. In the good ol' days you are lamenting of, stations/networks reported news and none were government sponsored propaganda arms. In those halcyon days of Carson and Leno (and others) viewing was far less fragmented, and a late night talk host could appeal to a broad audience and be a clear winner.

    A few facts, real truths to ponder:

    1. Fox became the single largest source of cable news by pandering to portion of the overall viewing public by expressing one slanted point of view, the Republican one. How it gets away with calling all other media "mainstream" when it is itself by definition mainstream is fodder for another post.

    2. The likelihood of any sort of sophisticated late night comedy appealing to the base of Trump voters is highly unlikely. Without geting into the weeds, how many non-college, blue collar rural older white voters do you think actually stay up for that time period, even in the earlier time zones, much less care about late night talk shows?

    3. The current late night hosts have nothing to lose. No one can appeal to the broad base Carson did. Only 3 networks then, only 1 or 2 carrying comedy most of the time. How many options does any viewer have now in 2018?

    4. As long as the right wing is content to get their "news" from a government organ, some of us like to hear a buffoon called a buffoon after we have heard all the commentary, even on the "liberal media" try to make sense of it all in rational terms.

  8. Michael Riley from LLENROC ADVISORS, February 12, 2018 at 10:34 a.m.

    At one point I thought Stephen Colbert was a very welcome and refreshing change to that dreadful David Letterman. He was young (younger) creative and very funny when he did his comedy bits as "the rouge reporter at the convention" etc.
    But know, after he continuously bashes Trump and has ONLY liberal quests on his show, I'm done!!
    He is now the guy I most want to punch in the face for being a total ass!! Oh and you can include that total dumb ass he has on his show as his band leader that constantly craves attention and plays a toy instrument!!
    Late night television is pure crap!!  All of them........

  9. John Grono from GAP Research, February 12, 2018 at 2:59 p.m.


  10. CJ McCabe from C-Mac, February 13, 2018 at 1:17 p.m.

    Dear Mr. Buckman,


    Love, CJ

  11. Steven Graff from Independent Knowledge replied, February 14, 2018 at 11:57 a.m.

    Exactly CJ McCabe. 'Colbert' Gains in Late Night as Political Comedy Reigns.  

    Mr. Buckman is just echoing a Murdoch property talking point, while market data points to the exact opposite. 

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