No Ethical Late-Night Under Capitalism?

I read with great interest Miles Klee’s piece in MEL about the many problems with contemporary network late-night comedy (and The Daily Show). If you subscribe to this newsletter then I imagine you have already read the article, or read about the article, so I won’t rehash it here, except to say I agree with the central premise: that these shows’ liberal, anti-Trump politics are overwhelmingly superficial, a costume to delight and comfort the viewer rather than a set of values, and that below the costume is a cynical, corporate behemoth with a vested interest in the status quo. 

More revealing than the article, to my eye, is the reaction by late-night workers. On Twitter and in private conversations, I have encountered two common responses. One is that it was poorly reported, using overly narrow, anonymous sourcing (one current late-night writer and one current non-late-night TV writer) to ground asymmetrically broad critiques. The other is that it fundamentally misunderstood the role of late-night and the duties of late-night workers, who must every day create a brand new show that appeals to a vast, heterogenous audience—so vast and so heterogenous, in fact, as to render truly challenging political comedy a pipe dream. 

I think there is some fairness to the first. A piece with more sources from more shows might have reflected more clearly the breadth and depth of late-night’s systemic failures. It would have reduced the exposure of each individual source to accusations of bad faith, though granted these accusations are themselves in bad faith and probably unavoidable with any piece like this. (Cough, cough.) But I also know how difficult it can be to get people to open up about their workplaces, especially when those workplaces are run by an industry’s most powerful (and often power-hungry) people. And in this case I’m not sure how much it matters that the piece only had one source in late-night, because what that source said obviously rang true. It wasn’t even all that controversial: 30 Rock covered pretty much all these issues ten years ago, and The Larry Sanders Show before that. Obviously neither spoke to the race-to-the-bottom when it comes to Trump jokes, but that seems to me the least controversial critique of them all. You need only watch a few minutes of any network late-night show to see it. (Credit where due: I think Seth Meyers is miles ahead of the pack on just about every front here.)

The second response is trickier. One late-night worker I chatted with yesterday told me he wished it were possible to do more innovative, varied material, but that executives simply aren’t interested. Late-night is corporate and sanitized by nature, he said, and ratings reflect a sharp disinterest in what ambitious content occasionally does get past the suits. Meanwhile the former Late Late Show writer Sean O’Connor argued in my mentions that all political comedy is bad; and current Late Late Show head writer Ian Karmel caustically remarked that he was “Trying to figure out the perfect joke to get Trump arrested and get sent to the Hague”—a straw man suggesting Klee and his sources were making outrageous demands of late-night, rather than fairly narrow and reasonable ones.

These arguments make the piece’s point. It is true that the corporate nature of late-night is antithetical to risky comedy that speaks truth to power; that’s the whole idea. I understand why late-night workers may think it’s unfair to call their comedy lazy or hack when they are simply working as hard as they can within systemic constraints. But Klee’s critique—and it’s important to separate his argument from his sources’ individual grievances—is of that system and those constraints. It is not written in stone that late-night comedy must prioritize ratings over good, weird, daring work. It is not written in stone that every late-night show must appeal to the widest possible audience. It is not even written in stone that every late-night show must happen every night. These are decisions made by bosses—bosses who fill their workplaces with homogenous voices, who limit their workers’ artistic freedom, and who reap the greatest profits from the performance of politics they do not hold. If O’Connor is right that all political comedy is bad—and I don’t think he is—he is wrong to suggest this is a fundamental problem with the form, rather than with the form’s stagnation under late capitalism. 

Because capitalism is the problem here. At its cold cynical heart, late-night is a shovel used by media conglomerates to deliver eyeballs to advertisers to make money for shareholders. It is also a massive branding apparatus for the rich and powerful, though this function is conveniently softened by all the jokes. If I may quote myself writing in Paste about a Funny Or Die sketch—penned by Robert Klein and Colin Jost—about Paul Rudd goofing around with Harvey Weinstein:

It does make you ponder all the ways this industry works in service of power, and by extension those who abuse it. So many of comedy’s institutions are, at their core, PR machines. Branded content is Funny Or Die’s bread and butter. Every week SNL promotes someone’s new movie or TV show or album. Late-night talk shows, with few exceptions, use jokes to bookend celebrity press tours. Comedians host awards shows because otherwise we might see them for the rituals they are—the wealthy and famous celebrating their own wealth and fame. Comedy normalizes power; it’s so successful at normalizing power that it feels weird to even write that as a criticism. Well, what’s wrong with normalizing power? Lots of things, but to start it lets monsters play the straight man in comedy sketches. It makes them relatable, which makes them less threatening. But power is always a threat, even more so when it seems innocuous, even more so when it seems… funny.

The late-night worker I spoke with yesterday argued that it’s unfair to hold the first act of a show (sketches, monologues, other original content) accountable for the sins of the third (interviews with celebrity guests). I’m not sure the line is so clear. The former reflects light on the latter: a viewer who watches an anti-Trump sketch and then a chummy interview with James Comey will necessarily associate Comey with anti-Trump politics, though Comey is a Republican who helped give us Trump (after overseeing some of the worst excesses of the US criminal justice system). And I suspect the viewer who sees their favorite liberal talk show host palling around with Eric Holder is more likely to walk away pining for the good old days of the Obama Administration than fuming about Holder’s (and Obama’s) refusal to prosecute those responsible for the financial crisis, though this is Holder’s greatest legacy. You cannot separate this effect from the “comedy” part of the show. It’s all one show, and the show’s politics frame the viewer’s. Karmel is right that no joke will send Trump to the Hague. This does not mean, however, that comedy bears no consequences on the real world—think Jimmy Kimmel keeping the spotlight on Congress’s negotiations over the Children's Health Insurance Program—or that comedy writers have no duty to consider these consequences.

This is not to begrudge any comedian their choice to take a good door-opening job with health insurance in late-night, fucked up as the system may be. But it is important for us to speak honestly about late-night’s role as a tool for the powerful to sanitize and preserve their own power. It has only been a few months since Lorne Michaels invited rascally conspiracy theorist Dan Crenshaw to goof around with a contrite Pete Davidson; since SNL ran interference for Jeff Bezos; since it lamented how hard it is to talk about Aziz Ansari; only a few years since Lorne suspended Katie Rich for telling a joke about Barron Trump; since he told his writers to go easy on Donald Trump, knowing he would eventually ask the candidate to host; since Trevor Noah accused antifa of helping the far right; since James Corden shot an (unaired) episode of Carpool Karaoke with R. Kelly; since Jimmy Fallon patted the poofy hair of a Trump who had long since called Mexicans rapists; since Stephen Colbert did a Super Bowl commercial for Wonderful, whose billionaire-owned mega-farms are plundering California’s shrinking aquifers as they transform the Central Valley into one giant company town. Comedy is wrapped up in all of this. It makes the pill go down. It turns oligarchs and CEOs and lawmakers and prosecutors and presidential candidates into fun silly sketch characters. It seats them on a couch or in a chair or at the Weekend Update desk and says they’re just like us. But they’re not. If they were, they wouldn’t need late-night. 

I understand the impulse to respond to criticism like Klee’s with a simple “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.” (Or write for it.) But this sort of criticism ultimately isn’t about the people who don’t like it. It’s about those who do. Every night millions of people turn to Kimmel and Colbert and Fallon and Corden and Meyers for sustenance. It’s worth questioning the structures that deliver this sustenance; it’s worth questioning what it actually sustains. I think most of us know the answer is little good—hence the air of resignation in so much of this discussion. And maybe it’s just not possible to reform the system in a way that allows for bold, truth-to-power comedy, at least on huge networks owned by huger corporations. But as that late-night worker told me yesterday, there are many smaller changes within the realm of plausibility: namely, a renewed commitment to diversity onscreen, behind the camera, and in the boardroom. This was the sort of commitment FX made after Mo Ryan pointed out its failings in 2015; today it has the most interesting, challenging programming slate on TV. If a little self-reflection helps spur similar reforms in network late-night, then I say let the reflection begin. 


Hello! Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this, please consider sharing it. This newsletter is free for the time being, but any support you can offer will go toward more comedy industry news and analysis. Comments, tips, corrections, and other stray thoughts are always welcome here or on Twitter, where my DMs are open. Bye bye.