I am once again asking you to read about late night.
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This week I revisited an essay by the poet and nonfiction writer Elisa Gabbert, “Big and Slow.” It’s about “hyperobjects,” things that are so spatially and temporally vast that we cannot comprehend their totality. Global warming, for instance: a phenomenon “happening everywhere all the time, which paradoxically makes it harder to see, compared with something with defined edges.” Its scale cannot be captured, not truly, in charts or time-lapse photography or journalism or political rhetoric or art. This enables businesses interests and politicians to deflect calls for climate action by citing the problem’s size, its indistinctness: we don’t know everything about it yet, they say. We don’t know if this cause yielded that effect. We can’t know, there’s simply too much uncertainty, too many moving parts. We have to wait patiently until everyone fully apprehends a system that by definition cannot be apprehended fully.
What I find particularly terrifying about this essay is Gabbert’s reminder of the “time-delay component of global warming,” on which she quotes the writer Chad Harbach in 2006:
It takes 40 years or more for the climate to react to the carbon dioxide and methane we emit. This means that the disasters that have already happened during the warmest decade in civilized history (severe droughts in the Sahel region of Africa, Western Australia, and Iberia; deadly flooding in Mumbai; hurricane seasons of unprecedented length, strength, and damage; extinction of many species; runaway glacial melt; deadly heat waves; hundreds of thousands of deaths all told) are not due to our current rates of consumption, but rather the delayed consequences of fuels burned and forests clear-cut decades ago, long before the invention of the Hummer. If we ceased all emissions immediately, global temperatures would continue to rise until around 2050.
“I was shocked by this,” Gabbert writes, “the idea that the ‘megadisasters’ of 2017 were set into motion in the 1970s, when there were only about half as many humans on Earth.”
I was shocked too. I first read this essay when it was published two years ago. Since then I read David Wallace-Wells’ devastatingly thorough tome about global warming, The Uninhabitable Earth. It is difficult to recommend this book because it is so terrifying, yet it is difficult not to recommend this book because it lays out clearly and digestibly just how bad the problem is, how urgent and all-encompassing, with an attention to detail and scale that you will never see on cable news and very rarely in major publications. Famine, drought, economic collapse, routine deadly heat waves, ocean acidification, mass extinction, air rendered unbreathable by smog and ozone, mass migration, endless war—this and more is where we are headed, Wallace-Wells writes, without mass action in the next few years. In all likelihood we are bound for much of it anyway.
One issue he distills with particular effectiveness is the asymmetry between global warming’s geological speed and the rate at which humans come to understand it. Everything is getting worse very quickly, but the nature of climatic processes is such that we cannot fully see what worse or quickly or everything actually mean. We can look at the disasters happening now, but the time delay means that they really don’t tell us much about what awaits. As Wallace-Wells explains, there were more carbon emissions in the last 30 years than in all the millennia before. The worst of the damage was done in our lifetimes, with our eyes wide open to the risks. If we are lucky, we may live long enough to see that damage.
Reader, it was not a great idea to read and think about global warming in the midst of, uh, everything. But it was interesting to reconsider the notion of time delay in light of the shorter, more apprehensible time delays we are all living with now. Every morning I get up, take a brief assessment of my health—no fever, no congestion, no cough worse than the background cough I’ve had my entire life, life’s various scents as smellable as ever—and breathe a sigh of relief that I am not sick. Then I remember this relief is not true relief. It does not mean I did everything right, it does not mean I am okay. What it means is that one to 14 days ago I was vigilant enough, and today I must be equally vigilant, and tomorrow, for my own sake and everyone else’s, whose lives I am now, maybe, unbeknownst to any of us, capable of destroying with a breath, and who can end mine just as easily. I have never seen so clearly this line from my present choices to the future they create. Nor have I ever felt the present to be so endless and inescapable, that future so impossibly far away.
Here’s Gabbert again:
One of the defining properties of the hyperobject is “non-locality” — they are here and not here; their massive scale deceives the mind. Morton refers to a passage in William Wordsworth’s long poem “The Prelude,” in which the poet recalls rowing a boat, at first in peace and then with dread, under a “craggy ridge” that appears at first “an elfin pinnace” but seems to grow and even chase him as he rows away. This impression is due, Morton writes, “to a strange parallax effect in which more of a suitably massive object is revealed as one goes farther away from it.” Similarly, I have noticed that airplanes look much larger from a medium distance — when the plane is taxiing on a bridge over the highway as you drive toward the airport, say — than close up, when you’re sitting at the gate or boarding the plane. The hyperobject is evasive, always partly hidden.
In my isolation I have become preoccupied with an esoteric but persistent fear: that it will be a very long time before there is any meaningful cultural reckoning with the scale of the institutional and political failures that brought us to this point. By “meaningful cultural reckoning” I mean the creation and mass consumption of stories about what happened—what’s happening—that eschew the simplistic moral narratives of cable news and the opinion pages, where Donald Trump is bad and Andrew Cuomo is good, ultimately deepening and complicating the public understanding and helping us to prepare for future crises. And by “a very long time” I mean “too late.” Once we get far enough away from this crisis to see its true shape—the plane taxiing over the highway—we may already be in the next crisis. What will we have learned?
Consider this. There will not be any major new entertainment products—TV series, movies, comedy specials, theater, dance, anything that requires more than a few people in a room to make and/or consume—for at least eighteen months, and probably longer than that. There will of course be new mass media released during that time, like movies and series made before everything shut down, music, podcasts, some animated shows, and lo-fi digital content produced by artists in isolation. But eventually we will find ourselves more or less in a media desert, at the center of which will stand a few figures with daily access to mass audiences seeking perspective on world events. On the one hand you will have newscasters, pundits, and daytime talk show hosts. On the other you will have late night comedy.
These will form the first rough draft of history. The second will hopefully arrive eventually, if after an unprecedented delay. But here’s the thing. On the other side of the pandemic—and, likely, recession—will be decimated culture industries even more stratified by class than they are today. You think it was hard to forge a career in the arts without wealth or access before the country shut down? Wait until millions of workers have their savings wiped out, grant-giving nonprofits and training centers fall apart, as do the small and independent studios that aren’t afraid to take risks on unestablished artists, and the service industry—which keeps countless entertainment workers afloat until they catch a break—sees all its small businesses replaced by a few massive, inhuman corporations. At the end of this will remain a few people with access to the tools and systems needed to create mass media: the already rich and/or famous. Do you trust them to tell thoughtful stories about a disaster that was never, for them, a disaster?
What this means is that people with that sort of access throughout the crisis have an even greater duty to history: to be clear about what the problems are and who caused them, what the solutions are and who’s fighting for them. We need them to be vigilant now for the sake of us all, later.
What this means, unfortunately, is that late night is more important than ever.
Late night has always served a peculiar set of functions, with each show striking its own position on the spectrum from “the news but funny” to “funny stuff that mentions the news.” It has to entertain and inform a broad audience while serving advertisers and shareholders. It has to be funny but not all that challenging, risky but not in a way that actually risks anything. And it has to perform comedy’s most essential purpose, the identification of society’s hypocrisies—but only the ones everyone already agrees are hypocritical. This is an impossible line to walk with artistic and ideological integrity, and those of us who cannot stomach late night’s shortcomings have generally consoled ourselves by looking the other way. There’s so much comedy out there, after all; if other people want the weak shit, let them have it.
Soon the weak shit will be the loudest voice in a room with little competing noise. For literal years there will be no viral standup sets, no surprise hit Netflix specials upending the cultural discourse, no ripped-from-the-headlines sitcom plots. We are unlikely to see new books in that time either; print and digital media are already collapsing around us. What there will be are socially distanced web videos and live-streamed audience-less shows—standup, improv, dramatic readings—though I doubt many of these will have substantial reach. The same goes for podcasts, only a few of which enjoy TV-sized audiences. (Radio will probably remain the most popular medium, though talk radio reaches only about 10% of listeners.) Then there will be barebones celebrity-fronted projects—like Amy Schumer’s cooking show with her chef husband, or Iliza Shlesinger’s cooking show with her chef husband—that nobody in the world will watch. And there will be a small handful of TV stars coming at you live every day from their mansions.
Why does this frighten me? Because I’ve been watching late night. For all the charms of its new homemade format, the absence of all the usual artifice—studio and audience, costume and makeup, crew and camera and production quality—lays bare just how removed these shows are from reality. Tune in to almost any one and you will find wealthy people in their expensive homes, video-chatting with each other about #QuarLife, the bad orange president, Daddy Cuomo, Tiger King, and whatever product a given celebrity has to hawk. Every so often they have an elected official call in to lambast Trump and applaud their own handling of the crisis; these officials never receive a tough question. Hosts and guests alike repeat over and over that we are going to get through this together, but you will rarely hear how we will get through it, who exactly we are, or what exactly it is that we have to get through. Rarely if ever will you hear about rent, health insurance, homelessness, prisons (save for a lone Daily Show segment), anti-Asian racism, or undocumented immigrants, to name a few ill-covered threads of the story. The overwhelming impression one gets is that the main challenge we face is staying inside for a while as everything else goes to shit.
A brief catalogue of what I’m talking about. Here’s Chelsea Handler telling Jimmy Fallon that she treated the first two weeks of lockdown like spring break, getting high off samples of her forthcoming cannabis line and gorging on stocked-up McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches. Here’s Matthew McConaughey plugging his whiskey brand to Stephen Colbert while rattling off platitudes about COVID as the great equalizer. Here’s James Corden letting Nancy Pelosi test out tepid anti-Trump talking points—with nary a word about the millions out of work and uninsured—before showing off her fridges full of ice cream. Here’s Seth Meyers asking Kamala Harris about Tiger King after letting her describe the last stimulus package—a $6 trillion wealth transfer in which Democrats sold out the working class—as merely inadequate. Here’s Trevor Noah’s credulous interview with Bill Gates, who laments the dearth of medical supplies whose procurement he refused to fund. Here’s Desus and Mero agreeing with Mark Cuban that the pandemic will make capitalism more “compassionate,” because it affects everyone the same, you see, and CEOs will soon realize they have to treat all their employees equally or their “brands” will be “torched.” And here the duo asks Joe Biden about Never Biden (i.e. Sanders) voters, his friendship with Barack Obama, his favorite flavor of Gatorade, and somehow not a single question about his policies or the credible rape allegation against him.
So what, who cares, comedy isn’t the news, all it has to do is make people laugh at the end of a hard day, you’re just imposing your own politics and priorities on it. Yeah, sure, but late night has assigned itself the job of providing guidance and informed analysis at the same time as bland escapist comfort. The problem is, no one seems ready to acknowledge that this crisis will last a very long time, that it will fuck a lot of shit right on up, and that our liberal heroes share responsibility for its devastation. Why? Because late night is a machine that turns cable news into jokes (hence the weeks of Cuomo idolatry), which means it adopts all the same obsessions as cable news: the Trump Show, the Economy, the myth of good Republicans, the precept that whatever normal we used to have was fundamentally good, the suicidal blindness to the fact that pandemic or no pandemic, we are years away from decades of endless compounding crises. There is no room in this framework to see that things will never get back to normal, or that many of the people promising to fix everything have never given a shit about us. Nor is there room to see that if we want to survive, we have to get used to being uncomfortable—and then we have to channel that discomfort into rage.
To their credit, the shows that emphasize investigative segments and policy deep dives—Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Late Night with Seth Meyers—often feel much more grounded in reality, even refreshing at times. So does The Daily Show, sometimes, whenever Trevor Noah shines a light on under-covered problems instead of doing inane Trump bits. The trade-off is that thoughtful policy analysis generally isn’t all that funny, no matter how many times John Oliver calls something a “shit sandwich.” I think this trade-off is worthwhile, though. In fact, I think these hosts should forget the pretense altogether. The conventional style of joke-writing for late night plain doesn’t work without a live audience; there’s no sense in forcing a square peg into a round hole. What is essential about late night right now—what can be essential—is not its hosts’ and writers’ ability to write monologue jokes, make fun of Donald Trump, and riff with celebrity guests. It’s their skepticism of prevailing narratives, their outrage in the face of injustice. It’s their ability to play the straight man in a world gone mad, to articulate hypocrisies that would otherwise go unmentioned. Their jokes have always been a dime a dozen; the truth is far more valuable.
Am I calling for late night to stop being funny and start doing journalism? No, but I am suggesting, maybe, gently, that an across-the-board deemphasis of goofs and bits is more urgent than it may seem. We are marching into the unknown, yet no one can honestly describe where we are now. Stop talking to famous people about their quarantines and start talking to frontline workers about their struggles; stop flattering politicians and start talking to normal people affected by their policies. Yes, it will be logistically challenging to find and book, from home, non-famous people without publicity teams or press offices, but from now on everything is going to be logistically challenging. Soon Donald Trump will win reelection and make the world much, much worse, or Joe Biden will defeat him and make it slightly less worse while insisting it’s much better. Neither can stave off the massive social and economic disruption that will be the norm for at least another year, and more likely for the rest of our lives. Late night comedy cannot help us “get through” this. You cannot get through a tunnel with no end. What it can do is help us understand how we got here and how to help each other survive. It may be a long while before any other form of popular culture has quite the same power.
I am being idealistic. Other than perhaps John Oliver and Jaboukie Young-White, no late night comic will ever turn against neoliberal dogma and earnestly criticize the systems that got us here. And there is absolutely no world in which Fallon, Kimmel, Corden, or Colbert stop using their shows to exalt the famous and powerful. But I still wonder: how long can they carry on this way? How long can they keep video-chatting their celebrity friends in their gorgeous houses for an audience that can’t pay rent, can’t buy groceries, can’t afford medicine, can’t bury their loved ones? How many times can Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden tell us we’ll get through this while doing fuck-all to help? I don’t think it can go on forever. Sooner or later the bottom will drop out and that small handful of comedians will have to find new ways to make themselves essential—really, truly essential—or else retreat into their insulated lives. I hope some of them choose the former.
Because this crisis isn’t a hyperobject. It’s not impossible to see; it’s just very difficult to look at. But we have to look. It’s going to be very important practice for what comes next.
Header image via brookpeterson.