Why Late Night Comedy Has (Seemingly) Followed Cable News Into Hell
“What if instead of telling people the things they need to know, we tell them what they want to know?” - Ron Burgundy, Anchorman 2
The old motto in television news used to be “if it bleeds, it leads” -- meaning the most sensational and/or violent stories led off the broadcast every night. That made gawking at grotesque gridlock grief as easy as reclining on your La-Z-Boy lounger. “Lookee there, Ma -- a seven-Chevy pile-up! Pass me another Leinenkugels!”
That slogan changed with the advent of cable news. According to political analyst Ezra Klein, the new axiom was “if it outrages, it leads.” And the best way to outrage was to pick a side and throw rocks at the other guys. Ron Burgundy had it wrong. Don’t tell people what they want to know. Instead, tell the people what they hate -- and how smart they are for hating it.
Fox News was the first to figure it out. By 2002, aided by partisan POV, nonstop 9/11 news, and leggy blondes manning the anchor desks, the conservative news channel overtook behemoth CNN and never looked back.
MSNBC figured two could play at that game. Around 2008, the news outlet began a conspicuous lean to the left, immediately followed by a massive spike in the ratings. Yes, MSNBC was still dominated by Fox but now it was at least in the game again.
Even venerable CNN got in on the act, essentially becoming the Anti-Trump Channel during the four years of his administration. Once again, the tone shift led to a ratings surge though it may have come at the cost of destroying its brand as a centrist news source. New CNN head Chris Licht is reportedly trying to steer the channel back into more neutral waters.
You can argue that journalism is worse off now, but it doesn’t change this truth: Strongly slanted news turns up the volume on viewer numbers. And now, we’re finding out, the same goes for late-night comedy.
The Biggest Was the Blandest
Do we dare long for the days of Jay Leno? As recently as 2014, Leno dominated the late-night ratings by doing just the opposite of what cable news was doing. Leno, often to comedy’s detriment, was trying to appeal to everybody.
“Like McDonald's and Wal-Mart,” culture critic Nathan Rabin wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Jay Leno became the biggest because he was the blandest.”
Sure, Leno would make jokes at the expense of George W. Bush or Barack Obama, but they were the same kinds of fill-in-the-punchline gags that Bob Hope might have made about Dwight D. Eisenhower. Taxes are too high, Congress can’t get anything done, what about those campaign promises, hey fellas? If either Bush or Obama would have been in the audience for one of Jay’s monologues, they likely would have chuckled politely if they hadn’t fallen asleep.
Jimmy Fallon picked up the banal baton, taking over The Tonight Show with an enthusiastic emphasis on goofy games and silly song parodies, an offend-no-one approach that initially put him on top of the late-night rating heap.
For a minute. Then something happened. Maybe it wasn’t Trump getting elected, but the timing works out right.
Colbert’s Hard Lean to the Left
When Late Night with Stephen Colbert debuted in the fall of 2015, the CBS Letterman replacement held its own against Jimmy Kimmel but trailed Fallon’s Tonight Show. The show slowly gained ground in 2016 by shifting its focus to the presidential campaign, a move, ironically, led by the show’s producer Chris Licht. (Yep, the same Chris Licht who is now trying to move CNN back to the center.)
With Trump’s election, Colbert leaned in hard to the resistance. The first time it narrowly edged Fallon in the ratings? That would be the week of Trump’s inauguration, an event savagely satirized on the CBS show. Colbert’s late-night lead would only grow from there as he spent night after night pummeling the new administration. “For Stephen Colbert,” noted the Hollywood Reporter, “his continued lean into politics is paying dividends.”
It really started in earnest the night Trump won the election. No more playing both sides -- Colbert told it the way he saw it.
“I was completely emotionally raw and I think it's important for the audience to know that you're not lying to them or you're not selling them a bill of goods,” Colbert told Anderson Cooper. “It doesn't mean like every night's a confession, it just means there's some emotional truth to what you're talking about.”
Lest we get too cynical here, Colbert really appears to believe what he’s saying (vs. pandering for ratings). But by becoming the MSNBC of late night, Colbert was the recipient of the same rating surge enjoyed by news outlets who leaned into politics. Maybe it was a happy accident, but it wouldn’t go unnoticed.
We bet you can figure out what comes next.
There’s a new co-king of late night! And he ascended to his spot on the comedy throne by taking political polarization to a whole new level. And the move was pulled off by the news channel that started this whole thing.
People on the left who assumed the right couldn’t do comedy never met Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld. Well, perhaps they did meet him and drew the same conclusion. But what some liberal comedy nerd thinks of Gutfeld doesn’t really matter -- the guy now beats the heck out of Kimmel and Fallon, even drawing a bigger audience than Colbert on some weeks.
And he’s using the techniques of traditionally left-leaning comedy shows. Watch an episode of Gutfeld! (exclamation point his) and you might recognize the skeletons of bits you saw previously on The Daily Show or Real Time with Bill Maher (in its earlier, less-woke days). Add a “Sleepy Joe” where a Donald Trump used to be, throw a “Hunter Biden’s laptop” into an old Dick Cheney sketch, substitute Antifa instead of Iraq. It’s conservative comedy Mad Libs, and if the wit isn’t inspired, the jokes at least resonate with a lot of late-night viewers who previously felt like they didn’t have a place to laugh.
With the delivery of a pro wrestler auditioning for a spot on Smackdown Live, Gutfeld starts each night by owning the libs, cackling to cue us when he’s pulled off a badass finishing move.
Even though Gufteld’s jokes don’t always land, he’s undeniably a hit. “There are a lot of conservatives out there who are not watching late-night monologues because they object to the ideological tilt,” says communications professor S. Robert Lichter. “Republicans love to make fun of liberals, and they don’t have anybody to do it for them on TV. (Gutfeld is) a natural match.”
So here we are, with a late-night landscape that looks a lot like cable news. Don’t like it? Too bad -- it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. The Colbert folks continue to double down, as evidenced by several of its staff members being recently arrested at the Capitol for filming outside conservative Republican offices. (Here’s Fox News’ fair and balanced coverage of the stunt.)
Hard political leans are undeniably good for ratings. But for those who turn to comedy as a respite from ugly politics? We may have no choice but to see what Jimmy Fallon is up to.
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Top image: Fox News/Spartina Productions