The Awful State of Political Humor on Late Night TV

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

If you ever needed a perfect example of the dreadful state of political humor on late-night television, you cannot do better than last weekend’s Saturday Night Live season finale Hillary-Bernie sketch. Kate McKinnon certainly does a fun Hillary Clinton, emphasizing her frustrated angst at not being universally acclaimed as the candidate she thinks every Democrat should rally ’round. But Larry David was hauled back to do his Curb-ed version of Sanders, which has become predictable, and — most important — the writing here was terrible, ignoring policy differences in favor of contrasting their personal styles.

I know, I know: SNL hasn’t been relevant for years, you say. But things are no better on the weeknight network shows. Jimmy Fallon seems to think that once he gets into orange makeup as Donald Trump, his job is done: Whatever jokes his writers give him seem like afterthoughts. Stephen Colbert is still struggling to find his CBS tone. Once so confidently brilliant on The Colbert Report — boy, would his blustery old persona be perfect for the current campaign season! — he must now grapple with a very real dilemma, one that has already led to the appointment of a new showrunner: Colbert’s problem is that he will probably lose more viewers to Fallon if he plays to his strengths and becomes more pointedly political.

Why? Because over the years, the network late-night audience has grown far more intolerant of political humor it considers to be one-sided, despite the fact that, for example, The Tonight Show under both Steve Allen and Jack Paar was cheerfully liberal. The result, so far, is dismaying stuff like the recurring character of Cartoon Donald Trump, which is really like a cartoon of Colbert’s true humor.

Jimmy Kimmel will host Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders later this week, both for the third time on his show. Can you remember the conversations from the last time those guests were on? Of course you can’t, because nothing substantive was said, there were no fireworks, and neither guest nor host uttered any interesting/revelatory/funny lines.

Seth Meyers has, for a while, been developing a taste for regular political satire, but his post-monologue “A Closer Look” segments have become victims of their own popularity — he does them too frequently to maintain proper quality control. Conan O’Brien is doing journeyman labor, the closest anyone is coming to a gently-rib-both-sides-of-the aisle, Johnny Carson-like monologue. (James Corden? He’s too busy to read the headlines on a news website, preferring instead to chase the viral grail by locking himself in a car with singers.)

Is anyone doing good, sharp political humor? Yes. Samantha Bee, on TBS’s Full Frontal, continues to be slashingly good on a weekly basis. Last week’s segment on “The Victim of Super-PACs,” with its faux-sympathy for rich folks who have sunk millions into the losing campaigns of Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, was superb. Bee is both a distinctive performer and thinker, and she’s the only true heir to David Letterman, the one late-nighter who would have been willing to hammer Trump on specifics and brawl with the Donald in person.

Over on HBO, John Oliver continues to mine the gold lying on the ground with his lengthy explainers, such as this week’s fine parsing of why primaries and caucuses have irritated so many voters this year. Oliver has benefited from the absence of Jon Stewart and the rise of online viewership: Go to YouTube and see that Oliver can spend 15 minutes talking about Scottish independence and still get 8 million-plus views. As for Stewart’s replacement, Trevor Noah, by last week he was reducing himself to chiding Megyn Kelly for her Trump interview and getting his ears boxed by the Fox host in return.

I’ll conclude by giving you some homework for tonight. Here’s a litmus test for current political humor. Over the weekend, Trump called in to “Three People Trying to Keep a Straight Face,” aka Fox and Friends, where he managed to come out against the presence of guns in schools and in favor of teachers carrying guns in schools, all in the same sentence:

Now, watch Fallon, Colbert, Kimmel, Conan, and Meyers tonight and see (a) which of them makes a joke about that quote (which in better times would have been red meat to late-night monologue writers), and (b) if they do make a joke about it, tell me if any of them are truly funny or, even better, if they express an actual opinion about Trump’s stance/non-stance. I’m not optimistic about your test results, but I’ll grade on a curve…