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Political Turmoil Juices Late-Night Comedy

Variety logo Variety 6/19/2017 Jenelle Riley
© Provided by Variety

One of the most emotional and heartfelt moments seen this season wasn’t on a fictional program; it aired close to midnight when Jimmy Kimmel revealed his newborn son’s health struggle. On May 1, the typically jovial host was often near tears, yet somehow also managed to make audiences laugh with asides like, “Even that son of a bitch Matt Damon sent flowers.” It was raw, real and one of the most memorable moments in the show’s 14-year-run.

It was also very political, as it ended with an impassioned plea to ensure health care for all. Some late-night shows make a point to avoid politics, but this season that’s proven an impossible task. If there is any silver lining to the debacle taking place in the U.S. government, it’s that what’s bad for the country has been good for comedy. “Saturday Night Live” has flourished thanks largely to its hilarious sketches featuring Alec Baldwin skewering Donald Trump. And Comedy Central has gotten an entire program out of the administration with “The President Show,” in which Anthony Atamanuik doesn’t just imitate, but channels Trump.

One former “SNL” player who wasn’t helped by Trump is Jimmy Fallon, who saw “The Tonight Show” start to decline after he playfully ruffled the then-candidate’s hair on air. Many have pointed to this moment as the turning point when “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” began to emerge as serious competition. Fallon has seemed to pride himself on staying out of politics, while Colbert built his whole persona on them.

When “The Late Show” premiered in September 2015, Colbert faced a rocky start. He had to adjust from playing a right-wing character named Stephen Colbert to a network talkshow host named Stephen Colbert. But a year later, Colbert had hit his stride and found his voice. In June, he delivered two weeks of live episodes from the Democratic and Republican conventions that included an appearance by his old “Daily Show” boss Jon Stewart.

“No one has benefitted more artistically from the current climate than Samantha Bee, whose weekly rants regularly go viral.”

And if you believe in the adage that all publicity is good publicity, Colbert scored a coup after his scathing 12-minute monologue on May 17 that included the remark, “The only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.”

Another host who has flourished in his second year is Trevor Noah, who took over “The Daily Show” from Stewart. He, too, struggled with a bout of early nerves, but Noah has graduated to appointment television. And after Larry Wilmore’s “The Nightly Show” was abruptly cancelled in August, Noah’s has became one of the few programs tackling race on a regular basis, thanks in large part to correspondents Roy Wood Jr. and Michelle Wolf. Noah has milked the dangerous absurdity of Trump for big laughs, often seeming to be in disbelief himself.

The 12:30 a.m. shows have also had standout moments. Not an evening goes by without “Late Night With Seth Meyers” offering sharp and funny criticism of Trump. Now in its fourth season, Meyers is willing to do what his former co-star and current lead-in Fallon shies away from and skewer the commander-in-chief. James Corden tends to take a softer tactic (proving you don’t have to be brutal to be funny) with bits like Broadway stars playing the Trump administration singing “When I Grow Up” from “Matilda.”

Perhaps no one has benefitted more artistically from the current political climate than Samantha Bee, whose weekly rants on “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” regularly go viral. Though strong out of the gate when it premiered in February 2016, it got even better when in 2017, thanks to such segments as “An Idiot Abroad,” in which she compared Trump’s trip abroad to “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Bee has always been a sharp observer of politics, but there’s an outrage to her rants that has served to further her comedy. And making people laugh in difficult times is a special achievement.

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