Ask The Jesters: Why Late Night TV is Balancing Education, Politics & Laughter Better Than Ever

How Colbert, Bee, Meyers & Noah continue to teach and call to arms while wrapping it all in humour.

On Tuesday, Jimmy Kimmel made an impassioned speech during his monologue regarding the latest attempt by Republicans to replace the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. In it, Kimmel called out Senator Bill Cassidy, one of the writers of the bill, for lying to Kimmel’s face about it’s contents.

Kimmel’s son, Billy, was born with a heart condition back in April. Jimmy spoke of the wonderful hospital staff that helped Billy then. Now, some five months later, Jimmy was taking a stand against a health care bill that would only cover children like his son if they were lucky enough to have a wealthy father.

Kimmel’s monologues both blew up. The first one in May for it’s heartfelt sincerity, and this recent one for it’s scathing review of the new healthcare plan put into personal context by Kimmel. “I am politicizing my son’s health problems because I have to,” said Kimmel. Many people online asked why a comedian would even be a voice in the healthcare debate.

Turns out, Jimmy has a pretty good handle on the bill. The Washington Post looked into the claims that Kimmel made in his monologue. You can read them here.┬áHe and his writing staff did their homework before coming out that night with his monologue. It’s a pattern more and more late night hosts are following: educated, political commentary that is happening now. It’s not new, but it might be more important than ever.

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, the realm of late night television has become increasingly politicized. Late night is typically thought of as a place for celebrities to just talk about being celebrities and whatever big project they have coming up next. Now though, it has become a place for political discussion.

Newer shows have taken the “funny news” style that was mainstreamed by The Daily Show and brought it to new heights. Last Week Tonight isn’t normally populated with guests, but instead focuses on educating the audience on a new topic. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee has become a smash hit with an increasing following as Samantha brings a fresh perspective and scathing reviews of politics to the masses. The biggest winner with this shift to more political reviews has been Stephen Colbert.

Courtesy of Business Insider

Colbert, now free of his Colbert Report character who was a conservative pundit, has attacked the President and the current administration in almost every monologue. Viewers have turned to his CBS show in droves, leading to him beating Jimmy Fallon in the late night race for the 2016-2017 season. While it may not be the only reason, it has to be a factor.

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon is the archetype for late night. He laughs excessively at his guests jokes, goofs around in fun skits and games, and in general is out for a good time. With more people looking for political commentary and the strong takes from comedians, Fallon has fallen behind.

A big question is: what caused this shift?

While there has been a shift in political consciousness of the masses, especially young people, that isn’t the only option. Another is that the spread of information at this point is faster than ever before. Once a monologue is finalized, it becomes a clip and can go viral in an instant.

Monologues have been a staple of late night television hosts dating back to Johnny Carson. A mini-stand up set on the news of the day which is ever changing and a testament to the writing strength of each show’s team. Mostly these are full of cheeky one liners in the days of Dave Letterman & Jay Leno. While some are political, they didn’t discuss policy or position as much as comments on a politician’s superficial features.

Now, the monologues will be harsh indictments on policies and the political establishment not meant to embarrass the politicians exclusively but also to educate the viewer. These make for excellent YouTube clips. Clocking in at usually 5-8 minutes long, it makes for a relatively quick watch that keeps you up to date and current.

Every day Tuesday-Saturday, the previous night’s monologues will be in the top trending videos on YouTube. They’ll be the most retweeted tweets. They’ll be shared by friends and family on Facebook. It becomes the most acceptable way to frame your opinions on the government or world events: “Watch this video, because Seth Meyers/Stephen Colbert/Samantha Bee sum up what I also feel about this accurately and in an entertaining way.”

Comedians & comedy writers are analytical and sharp by nature. Comedians will be the first people to call bullshit on an argument they don’t like because poking holes in things is what can lead to the best comedy. They look at things normal people take for granted or walk by every day and ask “how can I make this funny.” When given large concepts like race, religion, war, or disaster, their minds go into overdrive. “How can I make this funny and make sure that people understand how important it is.”

We like our news to be packaged in a way that isn’t doom and gloom. It’s why local news shows tend to end on a fluff piece about a cat fashion show or someone baking the world’s largest calzone. These comedians (and they’re all comedians at heart) don’t just come out and say the world is ending. Instead, they wrap it in humour and make it easier to digest, like putting a pill inside some pudding. It’s easier to get down when it’s surrounded by something nice.

Finally, a large portion of the young people believe that some parts of politics are so ridiculous that you have no choice but to laugh at them. Millennials are often categorized as not being able to take a joke. This isn’t true. We’re a whole generation that survives the awful things in the world by bonding over cat photos and other memes. It’s that we need to take things that are so outlandish, ridiculous, or sad, and find a way to stomach the information while remaining interested. Hearing the bad news outright would make us numb to the bad things happening. Keeping the humour around it allows us to take in politics, world events, and keep us informed.

As I mentioned earlier, comedians giving us the news and commenting on politics isn’t new. It’s been happening for as long as funny people have been around.

When 9/11 happened, Jon Stewart still broadcast The Daily Show from New York. On the show, he appeared distraught and shaken. His presence captivated the audience because it was such a change from his regular demeanor. Stewart spoke to the nation, and in a time of great sadness still made the audience laugh. He spoke with sincerity, honesty, and as a representative of New York and it’s people. Stewart wasn’t above them; he was one of them.

The reason we listen when comedians are like this is because of the shift. This man is one of the funniest people on the planet, and he’s struggling to keep it together. It relays the gravity and the importance, yet somehow he still makes us feel like it’s going to be okay. Stewart always had a gift for this type of message.

Today’s hosts still do it as well. They wrap tragedy, heartbreak, and confusion in jokes to make the pain a little less. They educate and explain while still making you laugh. It’s an important role that has been taken by some in full stride. In order to understand the kingdom best, ask the jesters.

I have a pretty simple lunchtime routine. When I can, I come home, grab whatever grub I have, and put on The Daily Show. I watch Trevor Noah explain what’s going on in America & around the world in a 22 minute show. Throughout the day, I may check out what Seth Meyers’ monologue was, or maybe what new segment Samantha Bee made. And yes, I will watch James Corden do some carpool karaoke or watch Jimmy Fallon play slap bet with another celebrity. It’s about balance.

Now more than ever, the jesters who hold court on late night have the tools, a captive audience, and the ability to deliver news and education to the masses. So far, they’re doing a great job. At this point it’s up to news networks to catch up and find a way to get the same information out to people. The class clowns are stepping up as some of the most important voices to listen to.


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