The Sorry State of Late Night Talk Shows
It's been years since Johnny Carson left this world for that final commercial break, yet my body clock is still on Johnny Carson time. Each evening as the time approaches 10:35 a little internal body alarm goes off, alerting me to find a spot not far from the TV (there were no DVR's in those days). Somehow deep in the back of my irrational mind, I still believe the new guys like Jimmy Fallon are just summer replacement hosts and Johnny and Ed will come back in the new season.
One reason Carson and his contemporaries lasted so long is that they knew their primary job was to entertain, and they left their political beliefs for other platforms. Our country has a long and colorful history of having fun at the expense of politicians, dating back to Will Rogers, Bob Hope, Carson, even Jay Leno. Americans have always gotten a special charge out of political humor, if not because we so appreciate the fact that we live in a great country where mocking our leaders don't get you killed but instead get you laughs. Yet unfortunately today's generation of talk show hosts seem instead to be very angry political activists who believe their place on television is to make you agree with their political positions while they also trash the opposing side.
The worst of these is CBS' Stephen Colbert, formerly of Comedy Central, who was chosen to replace David Letterman. Colbert made a name for himself mocking Republicans as a faux flag-waving conservative modeled after Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. There was considerable concern he may have trouble being himself after years of playing a character. He succeeded shedding his right-wing character, but not in ridding himself of politics. Each night Colbert's monologue launches his nightly Trump hate-fest, with no area of Trumpsville off limits: incest jokes about his daughter, intelligence jokes about his sons, sexual jokes about his relationship with Melania,.and gay slur jokes about Trump and Putin. Sometimes a joke peters out and the urge comes he can't control and he just gives Trump the middle finger or shouts an obscenity. During interview segments, the conversation typically turns banal with nothing left to say, so the conversation will inevitably turn to Trump and how much he and the guest hate him.
Colbert's ratings started climbing as he went all out against Trump, so I have little expectation he will change. But I'm also confident the audience will eventually tire of it.
ABC's Jimmy Kimmel is a textbook case of the former outsider with his nose on the glass suddenly becoming an insider and adopting the Hollywood liberal belief system. While earlier in his career he mocked political correctness with his Comedy Central "Man Show" with Adam Carolla, he reportedly is now accepting talking points from Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and spreading Democratic policy points. On several instances he started his monologue telling the audience what health care legislation to support and showing pictures of which Republican senators to vote against.
You could trust Johnny Carson not to deceive or lie to his audience...but when Hillary Clinton was a guest on Kimmel's show, he asked her to open a dill pickle jar to see if she really had the strength to open it (this was when Republicans accused her of hiding health problems). She had no problem opening the jar. But InfoWar's Alex Jones carefully reviewed the tape and found there was no "snap" when opening the vacuum-packed jar. The next night they admitted they had pre-loosened the jar for her. 2 weeks ago Kimmel was at it again, telling his audience there was something new called Trumpcare, and if they supported Trump they need to go to healthcare.gov to sign up for it. In reality it was simply Obamacare....there was no Trumpcare. He again had deceived his audience to further advance Obamacare signup numbers.
Bill Maher first started his foray into politics with an ABC late night talk show called "Politically Incorrect" that had a lively and politically diverse range of guests debate the issues of the day. But then Maher made a joke about the 9/11 terrorists not being cowards, and he was summarily fired. Since then HBO's Maher, like Kimmel, have become the blue-est of California liberals and his hatred for Trump almost matches Colbert, with similar talking points. To his credit, he at least still has a funny opening monologue.
Then there are the also-rans...Chelsea Handler, Seth Myers, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, James Corden...the same Trump narrative, the same jokes, never an opposing viewpoint.
To Samantha Bee, James Corden and John Oliver, all immigrants, I offer this advice: Americans don't like foreigners becoming hosts on American shows and telling viewers they are racist or stupid. Try asking Piers Morgan how well that works out.
There are 2 exceptions that don't quite fall into my overview of the political landscape. TBS' self-effacing Conan O'Brien also begins his monologue with the standard Trump joke repertoire, but it doesn't have an angry edge to it, more of the goal of simply finding the funny side to milk some laughs.
Jimmy Fallon is still the ratings leader in the 18-49 of all the talk show hosts, and his show has always had a "just having fun" air to it rather than a hard political edge. There were rumors that Fallon was being urged by NBC executives to go harder on Trump after Colbert began making ratings inroads, and he has been taking more shots but still without the angry edge of Colbert.
During the campaign, Fallon had Trump as a guest and started a social media uproar when he asked Trump if he could muss up his hair. Many progressives were outraged at Fallon for "normalizing" or humanizing Trump, and that uproar probably had some impact on Fallon.
I would be a bigger fan of Fallon if it wasn't for his insufferable habit of kissing up to every celebrity and what feels like forced laughter at his guests. There's something about watching celebrities congratulate themselves and play beer pong that makes me feel as a viewer like I probably have better things to do.
So what exactly is the problem with these late night comedians/commentators taking a harder line with the Trump administration and holding truth to power? For one thing, I very carefully monitored many of the top shows during the Barack Obama administration and counted exactly how many jokes were made at Obama's personal expense: zero. That's right, not a single joke about Obama or his wife or daughters. In fact, Michelle Obama was a frequent guest on many of these shows and naturally received the royal treatment. I don't think Americans mind commentators taking a harder political edge if they believe it is fairly balanced between the two parties.
Sure, there were some jokes about the poor economy by Leno and a lot of jokes about the failing Obamacare web site the day it launched, but that was pretty much it. Jon Lovitz came onstage one evening complaining about the taxes he was paying, and he was lambasted by the rest of the show bi community. While part of the reason I'm sure such a lack of jokes was due to their common political loyalties, the primary reason I believe because it was considered way too politically incorrect to mock such a historic figure as the first African-American President, so he got a complete pass. Except, if you think about, what's more racist than deciding you won't make any jokes about a President because of his skin color.
What does all this mean for your business? If you feel so strongly about one political candidate or party and want to base your business around that, fine. In this country you have that right. But just be aware that you may have to pay a price, such as losing as much as half your customer base. Feel free to express your politics, but best to keep it on a different platform away from your business.