Necessity for change in the late night mocking model
Frustrations about this election season are running high, and late night satire shows are struggling to maneuver the many comments and slip-ups of the candidates in a way that is satisfying to viewers. It isn’t that we don’t want to make jokes about this election; on the contrary, humor feels absolutely necessary at times as a coping mechanism for the hateful rhetoric. But the demands of that humor have evolved.
Social media has contributed to the change. During the debates, people live-tweet every second, fact-check every false statement, and make many, many jokes. From variations on the old appearance critiques to savvy commentary on hypocritical claims, tweeters are spewing political humor and signing it with the #debatenight. These days, late night comedians are lucky if there are any jabs left to grab after the Twitter trolls have had their way with the candidates. As a result, jokes about Trump’s hair and Hillary’s pandering come across as lazy and worn out.
Satire is and has always been in direct opposition to institutions. It functions best, and indeed exclusively, when it is aimed at individuals and systems of power. The commentary it provides through ridiculing inequalities and inconsistencies in these power structures helps to expose their flaws. Over time, in its own humble way, satire can even contribute to changing perspectives.
From variations on the old appearance critiques to savvy commentary on hypocritical claims, tweeters are spewing political humor and signing it with the #debatenight.
This is why traditional satire seems unfit for this particular campaign cycle. Trump has beaten satire to the punch. His campaign rhetoric revolves around tearing down the political elite and speaking for the average American. Whether or not he practices what he preaches, Trump as a candidate has made himself out to be a representation of the “political outsider:” the voice of the disillusioned masses. He plays up the contrast between himself and his opponent, showing Clinton to be the heir to the Washington throne. With this distancing comes a brash attitude and refusal to be politically correct. Essentially, Trump’s outrageous statements are not gaffs; they are what his supporters most admire.
This dynamic has put satirists in a tough spot; while Trump appears to be the greatest target because of the absurdity of his campaign, too much satire directed at him inevitably appears to defend the political royalty. A number of comedians fell into this trap, particularly early in the election season. Instead of criticisms of Trump’s policy and his access to the candidacy through wealth, the majority of slights were directed at his appearance and inflammatory speech.
None of this is to say that satire has failed this election season. On the contrary, there have been a large number of pieces that have gone viral in which comedians and late night hosts have found their own unique ways to dig into the candidates. Newer shows have come to favor the “deep dive” approach rather than the traditional survey of the news. John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Seth Meyers are the most consistent examples of this style, opting to risk a lengthy set-up in order to really get at the heart and humor of the issues. Meyer’s weeknight show necessarily does this in smaller segments which he has appropriately termed, “A Closer Look.” Bee and Oliver, being weekly programs, have the time needed to develop more drawn out pieces.
To be affable or bemused by the candidates is to forget the anxiety and anger that many people are feeling as the campaign continues.
Effective satire this election season has additionally taken on a new tone. To be affable or bemused by the candidates is to forget the anxiety and anger that many people are feeling as the campaign continues. Satire, in turn, has had to shift to a position of outrage and frustration in order to match the feelings of viewers. None accomplish this better than Bee, whose angry takedowns of sexists and bigots have been the signature of her show. In a recent segment, she even went after fellow late night host Jimmy Fallon for indulging Trump when he visited his program, saying “Aw, Trump can be a total sweetheart with someone who has no reason to be terrified of him.”
Our late night satire shows are not going anywhere. Those that follow the news will always crave a way to break it down that is both funny and illuminating. But satirists must strive to remain on the side of ordinary people. In order to effectively skewer the elites, they need to listen to the Twitter trolls, do some research, and not be afraid to bite.