Chloe Fineman and Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump during the “Trump Rally” Cold Open on Saturday, October 26, 2019.
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In the late ’90s if late night comedians wanted to get a quick laugh, all they needed to do was make a quip about President Bill Clinton.
Clinton’s womanizing persona and public sex scandal made him an easy target and his status as political figure and a celebrity made impressions instantly recognizable.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton was the subject of more than 1,700 jokes on late night television, according to a report from Robert Lichter, professor of political communications and sociology at George Mason University.
These days, it’s President Donald Trump that has become the most popular target for late night jests.
According to Lichter, in 2017, there were more than 3,100 jokes made about Trump during late night programs.
“He’s turned comedians into watch dogs,” Lichter said, noting that comedians aren’t just poking fun at the president, but dissecting his policies and speeches on-air.
Since Trump first announced his candidacy, most of the late night shows have followed the model set by Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show.” Instead of focusing on pop culture and Hollywood, there’s a clear push towards discussing political issues and political news. Segments like “A Closer Look” from “Late Night With Seth Meyers” have almost completely been devoted to covering Trump, his family and his allies since launching in 2015. John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” is a weekly program on HBO that devotes 20 to 30 minutes on single topics and has often used that time to discuss Trump’s policies and the individuals he has hired to work top government posts.
Comedian Stephen Colbert has been outspoken about Trump since the previous election, often using his monologues as a chance to talk about the president in a frank and often caustic way. Even Jimmy Fallon, who infamously used a 2015 interview on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” to tousle Trump’s hair, has shifted to more politically based monologues in recent years.
Political humor has always been a staple of late night television, but under Trump, the line between news and satire has blurred. However, just because Trump will be exiting the White House in January to make room for President-Elect Joe Biden, it doesn’t mean he’ll disappear from late night.
When Clinton left office in 2001, comedians continued to take jabs at him. Throughout George W. Bush’s first year in office more jokes were made about Clinton than Bush, Lichter said.
“I fear he’ll never leave the public eye,” said Zack Bornstein, an Emmy-nominated writer and director who has worked on “Saturday Night Live,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and for Netflix and CBS. “This isn’t the kind of evil dude who goes quietly into the night and starts painting watercolors. He’s going to start his own media company to fuss 24/7. And then there will be the trials. We’re going to have to talk about those.”
Trump may dominate the late night slate, but that doesn’t mean comedy writers are eagerly filling hosts’ monologues and segments with the president’s rhetoric and headlines.
“We’re not writing about Trump all day because we want to,” said Jenny Hagel, a comedian that writes for “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and works as the executive producer and head writer for “The Amber Ruffin Show.”
“It’s not like there’s a bunch of other subject matter in the news,” she said. “We are talking about Trump because he just somehow manages to dominate every minute of every news cycle. I look forward to the day that he doesn’t.”
Hagel explained that much of comedy is about heightening the drama or silliness of the news for laughs. However, when it comes to Trump “most stories are already so surreal,” she said, making it difficult to satirize.
“A lot of times I would look at a story and go ‘where do we even go from here? Because this is already the most ridiculous version of this story,'” Hagel said.
Host Seth Meyers comments on Donald Trump during a segment on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
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Meyer’s “A Closer Look” segment has become a central piece of his late night show, dissecting the daily headlines generated by Trump or his closest allies.
“He’s sucked the air out of the room,” Bornstein said. “It’s nearly impossible to do a show without mentioning him, because whatever the craziest news would have been, he did something crazier.”
Like Hagel, Bornstein sees Trump as a detriment to comedy, noting how difficult it is to match the over-the-top incidents that playout on a near daily basis.
Most recently, a mistake made by Trump’s campaign where they booked a landscaping company instead of a hotel for a press conference has been fueling jokes and ridicule from comedians.
“I could write jokes for 800 years and I’d never think of something funnier than Trump booking the Four Seasons for his big comeback presser, and it turning out to be the Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot between a dildo store and a crematorium,” Bornstein said.
“I truly love the idea of a small landscaping company getting a call from Rudy Giuliani to book their space, something that a landscaping company does not do, and them just agreeing and not correcting him,” he said. “Then the twist that they announced Biden won during the conference, and Rudy asked which network called it, and the reporters said ‘all of them.’ What a way to go out.”
Lichter noted that in 2016, Trump jokes on late night programs outnumbered Hillary Clinton jokes three-to-one. In 2020, Trump jokes outnumber Biden jokes 30-to-one.
That domination was part of what led Rebecca Drysdale, the head writer at “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” to leave the program’s staff last week. According to a Facebook post found by The Chicago Sun-Times, Drysdale’s departure was, in part, motivated by her desire not to write more comedy bits about Trump.
“The project of making fun of Trump, or doing material about Trump, has led to divided creative teams, anxiety, tears and pain,” said the post, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “I can’t decide the outcome of this election, but I can make the choice for myself, to vote him out of my creative life.”
“I believe that comedy is a powerful tool,” she wrote. “I believe that it can handle anything, no matter how unfunny. I don’t believe that making fun of this man, doing impressions of him, or making him silly, is a good use of that power. It only adds to his.”
Representatives for Drysdale could not be reached for comment.
A still from “A Late Show with Stephen Colbert” during the Thursday November 5, 2020 episode.
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Even though Trump lost the 2020 election, he’s not going to disappear from public view. Bornstein and Lichter expect the businessman-turned-politician to remain at the center of the news cycle for a while.
“It’s hard to ignore that 70 million people were tricked into voting for this guy,” Bornstein said. “That’s a cult. It’s not going to go poof overnight.”
Lichter noted that Trump could use the next four years to develop a political moment and run for the top office again in 2024. He also mentioned that there could be a number of legal battles in the coming months that could keep Trump in the public eye long after his White House tenure.
Not only that, but his impact on late night comedy shows isn’t likely to go away either.
“When you see the head writer from ‘The Tonight Show’ quitting because she can’t do any more Trump jokes and you see Stephen Colbert reduced to tears on camera over Trump’s speech, this is really new territory,” Lichter said.
Disclosure: “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and “The Amber Ruffin Show” are owned by NBCUniversal. CNBC and NBCUniversal are both owned by Comcast.