When you make comedy subordinate to politics, the humor suffers. Once upon a time, late-night comedians told jokes. Now, apparently, they “destroy” people.
Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart was the original “destroyer,” as National Review’s Kevin Williamson discussed in a brilliant 2014 piece. Today, the chief “destroyers” include Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and Trevor Noah—all of whom, save Meyers, are either Daily Show alumni or, in Noah’s case, Stewart’s replacement on the Comedy Central show.
Judging by internet headlines, Bee has used her TBS program, Full Frontal, to “destroy” Vice President Mike Pence, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Republicans, Ohio Governor John Kasich, Maine Governor Paul LePage, former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, Tennessee state lawmaker Sheila Butt, the so-called alt-right movement, and NBC.
And that was just in the show’s first year!
Over that same period, Oliver delivered rants on his HBO program, Last Week Tonight, that “destroyed” everything from the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics, to NBC’s coverage of the ceremony, to U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, to the global nutrition company Herbalife, to credit-reporting agencies, to third-party presidential nominees Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, to disgraced former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, to charter schools, abortion restrictions, and the idea of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Meanwhile, Colbert and Meyers—hosts, respectively, of The Late Show and Late Night on CBS—“destroyed” the likes of former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law, “GOP Scalia hypocrisy,” and “the central economic myth of the GOP.”
As for Noah, who became host of The Daily Show in 2015, about a year ago he “destroyed” then–GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson. More recently, he “destroyed” 24-year-old conservative media sensation Tomi Lahren.
Needless to say, Bee, Oliver, Colbert, Meyers, and Noah have repeatedly “destroyed” Donald Trump.
What to make of all this “destruction”? For one thing, it tends to be highly subjective. If you don’t subscribe to the progressive worldview, you probably will not agree that Samantha Bee “destroyed” Kellyanne Conway, or that John Oliver “destroyed” charter schools, or that Trevor Noah “destroyed” Tomi Lahren.
To take just one of those examples: Following Oliver’s anti–charter schools diatribe, Nick Gillespie of Reason noted that the British comic had spouted a number of misconceptions about charters, while failing to mention just how much they have helped poor, minority students in cities across the country. Joy Pullmann of The Federalist made a similar point, reminding us that the problems afflicting charter schools must be compared with the much-larger problems afflicting America’s traditional public schools—a comparison that Oliver left out of his anti-charter jeremiad.
In other words, the segment offered a hopelessly slanted and misleading bit of policy analysis. Did it work as comedy? If you already had a negative opinion of charters, and if you appreciate cheap barbs in service of cheap propaganda, then maybe it did. For everyone else, the “jokes” (such as they were) probably sounded like lame additions to an unconvincing polemic. That’s certainly how they sounded to me.
This gets to a broader issue with John Oliver–style comedy: The humor tends to be almost entirely contingent on one’s political or ideological affinities.
Consider Samantha Bee’s January 18th segment on White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. While there are legitimate criticisms to make of Conway—especially when she does something foolish, such as publicly endorse Ivanka Trump’s product line—there is nothing particularly funny about calling her “the soulless, Machiavellian despot America deserves,” or declaring that she “doesn’t believe anything in her heart” and “will say literally anything.” If you already hated Conway and/or Trump, perhaps those lines gave you a chuckle. Likewise, if you are a staunch supporter of abortion rights, you may have enjoyed watching Bee mock Conway for being pro-life. Yet in each case, it was politics, rather than genuine comedy, that drove the laughs. If you oppose abortion and take a more favorable view of Conway and/or Trump, chances are you found Bee’s attack to be shrill and tedious.
Late last month, Bee announced that she would be hosting a roast of President Trump in Washington, D.C., on the same night (April 29th) as the annual White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner. “We’re not trying to supersede it,” Bee told the New York Times. “We just want to be there in case something happens—or doesn’t happen—and ensure that we get to properly roast the president.”
Translation: She’s worried that the 2017 WHCA dinner won’t “destroy” Trump to her satisfaction.
Oddly enough, Bee never expressed a similar concern during the Obama presidency—nor did Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, both of which are scaling back their participation in this year’s event. Robert Schlesinger of U.S. News & World Report believes journalists “should go all the way and boycott the dinner entirely.”
Mind you, while the WHCA dinner became a celebrity-saturated parody of itself long ago, attendance at the event has never been viewed as an endorsement of the sitting president or his policies. As Major Garrett of CBS News writes in the Washington Post, the dinner is supposed to be “an institution that celebrates one bedrock American value, the First Amendment, and two journalistic goals: to highlight excellent reporting and to award scholarships to the next generation of American journalists.”
Yet for people like Samantha Bee, the only way to treat America’s forty-fifth president is with utter contempt—hence her desire to balance the WHCA dinner with a no-holds-barred evening of Trump-bashing.
In many ways, Bee epitomizes the culture of contemporary progressivism. It’s a culture that too often confuses snark with wit and sneering with reasoning—a culture that values a good “takedown” more than a good argument. Rather than ramp up the derision now that Trump is sitting in the Oval Office, Bee might want to ponder a question that Mark Steyn asked a week after the November election: “If elite condescension failed to deny him the presidency, is it likely to be any more effective now that he is the president?”
As it happens, Stephen Colbert came close to grappling with that question during his Election Night special. When it was clear that Trump would defeat Hillary Clinton, Colbert took a moment to reflect on the toxic state of American politics:
So how did our politics get so poisonous? I think it’s ’cause we overdosed, especially this year. We drank too much of the poison. You take a little bit of it so you can hate the other side. And it tastes kinda good. And you like how it feels. And there’s a gentle high to the condemnation, right? And you know you’re right, right? You know you’re right.
It was a serious, sobering thought, particularly for liberals trying to cope with the shock of Trump’s victory. Yet in the three months since Election Night, Colbert and his fellow late-night lefties have gone back to “destroying” Trump and other Republicans. This has been good for Colbert’s ratings. In fact, the CBS host recently scored his first weekly ratings win over Jimmy Fallon since September 2015.
As Tonight Show viewers know, Fallon practices a different brand of comedy. He’s the nice guy of late night—the one who likes to goof around with politicians rather than “destroy” them. Unfortunately, he never got the memo that goofing around with Donald Trump is tantamount to “normalizing” him. Thus, in September 2016, Fallon had Trump as a guest on his show and engaged in some silly, harmless banter that included messing up Trump’s famous mane of hair.
The Left—including, most notably, Samantha Bee—promptly went nuts. “Network execs, and a lot of their audience, can ignore how very dangerous Trump is because to them, he isn’t,” Bee said on Full Frontal. “They’re not gonna be deported. They’re not gonna live under a president who thinks of them as a collection of sex toys. They’re not racist—they just don’t mind if other people are. Which is just as bad.”
In Bee’s world, it is impossible to separate comedy from politics. In Fallon’s world, by contrast, comedy is still primarily about having fun and making people laugh while treating everyone with a basic level of respect.
Sadly, comics like Fallon seem to represent a bygone era in American life. More’s the pity.