The fantastical set and projection design stole the show in the Northwestern University Opera Theater adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress.
Stephen Colbert was hosting a live TV special on Nov. 8, 2016, armed with an arsenal of jokes reflecting what nearly all of America expected — the election of the country’s first female president. Instead, as the vote returns filtered in, he captured — unfiltered and in real time — the disorienting and surreal shock much of the country was experiencing: “What the f#@% is happening?”
With no script to rely on, Colbert called the prospect of Donald Trump’s election “horrifying” and said he might burst into tears and scream. “I can’t put a happy face on that. And that’s my job.”
In the 17 months since then, the host of CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and his fellow Northwestern alumnus host of NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers have managed to not only provide post-traumatic comic relief to millions of Americans but also some of the sharpest political criticism of the Trump presidency, bar none.
The constant focus on the day’s Trump headlines has reinvigorated late-night television, and Northwestern is indisputably ruling this newly politicized landscape. Featuring a satirical blend of news and comedy, Colbert ’86, ’11 H and Meyers ’96, ’16 H have launched a relentless assault on Trump night after night since he was elected — demonstrating that dissent is alive and well in America.
“I felt very lucky to have a show where I could talk about what I felt watching the [election] returns come in,” Meyers says. “We did make a promise that night to try to keep our eye on the Trump administration, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of executing on that promise.”
Joining the fray last October was comedian Robin Thede, whose new weekly show, The Rundown with Robin Thede on BET, was hailed by critics as one of the groundbreaking TV programs of 2017. A former head writer for Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Thede tackles pop culture and politics from a black woman’s perspective. (Read “Robin Thede Works the Late-Night Shift.”)
“My show began 10 months into Trump’s presidency, so we started the show knowing that taking on the president and his policies would be part of our subject matter,” says Thede, a Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications alum. “My show is on BET and isn’t reliant on solely bashing Trump. Black people largely didn’t vote for him, so to tell them how bad he is for 30 minutes isn’t necessary. And now that being said, inevitably he does something egregious every week that must be addressed and ridiculed.”
POLITICS: THE NEW NORMAL FOR LATE NIGHT
Historically, late-night broadcast TV has played it safe, not wanting to alienate a segment of the audience by taking sides on serious issues. “Hosts from a different generation were really surface in their comedy,” says Medill grad Michael Schneider ’95, executive editor at IndieWire and editor at large at Variety. “They really focused on the more silly aspects of politicians — how they looked, how they acted. That doesn’t work right now because of what’s going on, because of the real issues we’re facing and what this administration is actually doing.”
“Johnny Carson was edgy, but he certainly never made anyone feel uncomfortable,” says Lou Wallach ’91, a communication studies graduate, independent producer and former programming executive at Comedy Central. “The last thing before you went to bed was sort of nice, not polarizing or provocative. Times are changing. Now there’s an expectation — dare I say an obligation — to be polarizing and provocative, and I think Colbert and Meyers do it brilliantly.”
These may be politically polarizing times, but left-leaning political satire has proved popular with late-night viewers. Once Colbert started taking on Trump, he overtook his more apolitical competitor Jimmy Fallon, host of NBC’s Tonight Show, in total viewers and significantly narrowed the ratings gap among young viewers.
“I think the audience is like me: They’re desperate for some relief,” Colbert says. “If half of the country votes for somebody you feel is the absolute nadir of what it means to be an American, and that person gets the highest job in the land, it can be a lonely feeling — that maybe you do not have a community to belong to … . People seem grateful that there are shows like ours or Seth’s on the air to put the day into some context and make you feel not alone.”
Even the affable and typically apolitical host Jimmy Kimmel, whose ABC show Jimmy Kimmel Live! is executive produced by School of Communication graduate Jill Leiderman ’93, has been unable to stay neutral on the sidelines. Kimmel’s highly personal monologues about his son’s heart condition were credited with helping defeat the initial attempts to repeal “Obamacare.” And after one of the worst mass shootings in American history, the concert shooting in Las Vegas last October, Kimmel’s heartfelt call for commonsense gun reform resonated with Americans frustrated to see no action — other than thoughts and prayers — under Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.
“It especially resonated because Jimmy generally doesn’t take on these types of issues, so when he does, it means this is real,” Schneider says. “This is something personal. He’s not trying to be political. He’s just speaking from the heart.”
In fact, most of these hosts would bristle at the notion that they’re acting in a partisan manner. “They don’t want to be painted as purely liberal or left wing because that does sort of alienate a chunk of the audience,” Schneider says. “They basically shy away from those labels and say they’re just pointing out what’s going on in Washington and speaking truth to power. And right now, who’s in power? It’s Donald Trump and the Republicans.”
ALTERNATIVE PROGRAMMING: SOURCE OF SANITY
Colbert, who was never very political during his time at Northwestern (see "The Real Stephen Colbert," winter 2010), insists he is not the voice of any political movement. “I just want to be clear, we are not members of a resistance,” he says. “We are alternative programming to what is being fed to you out of the White House, what you are seeing on the news every day. We talk about politics, but this is not a political show. It’s a comedy show that talks about what happened today. But that’s not the same as being part of the resistance. Because then you fall strictly into a camp, and what happens if your own resistance is the thing worth making fun of? Then you can’t.”
Nevertheless, many Americans rely on Colbert and Meyers to keep them feeling sane in an era when basic facts are under assault.
“My attitude toward the news every day is to acknowledge the ongoing crises and what we think of as our standards and normative behavior in our politics, and to point at it and go, ‘Hey, there’s a crisis over there. Because that norm, that standard, is on fire,’ ” Colbert says. “And I stand as close as I can to the fire, and I go, ‘OK, should we all just agree that it’s on fire?’ That’s the first crisis. Can we agree on the same reality? Can we all agree it’s on fire? Now, do you think that should be on fire? That’s debatable, but that it is on fire should not be debatable.”
The relentless pace of news — and the wealth of material Trump provides — is often difficult for late-night hosts. “Since Donald Trump has become president, it’s almost as if every day has the urgency of a live show,” Colbert says. He and his staff can spend all day writing a monologue — only to have Trump disrupt their best-laid plans at the 11th hour. “At 4:30, 4:45, he’ll hold an impromptu news conference, and we have to throw everything out. We’ve worked all day to create that eight to 10 minutes, and now we have to completely redo it in about 45 minutes. That’s really challenging.”
Colbert relies on his training from Northwestern theater professor Ann Woodworth ’75, ’79 MA to survive the daily grind. (See “NU: Cradle of Comedians.”) “She taught us discipline,” he says. “One of the things that was sort of drilled into me was to get off yourself and just do the work. If it’s difficult, don’t engage in a personal pity party — just continue to work. She held us to a higher standard of focus and dedication in class, and that returns to me all the time. However you’re feeling right now about the work or whether you’re achieving or not, the only way for it to get better is to work more.”
LATE NIGHT: UNCONVENTIONAL NEWS SOURCE
Given the president’s behavior, satire may be the best format for communicating Trump news, and viewers are relying on late-night hosts to get their news analysis. “When someone’s doing something so outside the boundary lines of what we’re used to, it’s kind of nice to have comedians who are good at pointing out absurd behavior,” Meyers says. “Journalists still hold themselves to really high standards. But when you have a president who doesn’t hold himself to any sort of standard, it’s kind of helpful to have low-standard comedians out there who are more willing to roll up our sleeves and tell people exactly what we think.”
Meyers has introduced a segment called “A Closer Look” that takes a deep dive into analyzing issues for seven to 12 minutes. “The thing that’s really exciting is the audience has this appetite for content that has, for lack of a better term, nutritional value,” Meyers says. “The conventional wisdom when we started the show was that the key to having something go viral the next day was to keep it really short — the lighter the better. And that’s completely changed. The things most people consume from our show the next day are the longer, more in-depth takes on things that are happening in the world.”
Late-night hosts can deliver the day’s news without being bound by the conventions of news organizations to treat Trump with a degree of seriousness his behavior often doesn’t warrant.
“[Late-night hosts] can simply point out how crazy things are and not fear the traditional journalistic rules of balance,” Schneider says. “They can call things out for what they are, and that’s refreshing. That’s what people are looking for. These late-night hosts are the only ones who are really reminding us that this is not normal and that they are sharing our pain. And we need to be reminded that it’s not normal.”
“I think a lot of newspeople would like to say some of the things said in late night,” Colbert says. “They have standards. We have no standards. They have respectability. We have no respectability. It’s really important. It’s important to have no respectability … . Respectability is the enemy.”
It’s often said that comedy is tragedy plus time, but late-night hosts have to poke fun at what many consider an unfolding national tragedy in real time. Last August, when neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Va., and one allegedly drove into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing a woman, Colbert mocked Trump’s condemnation of bigotry “on many sides.”
“Here’s one thing that’s not difficult to express: Nazis are bad. The KKK, I’m not a fan,” Colbert said in his monologue. “If only the president was as mad about neo-Nazis murdering people in the streets as he’s been about Hillary Clinton, the New York Times, CNN … .”
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether Trump’s presidency itself evolves into tragedy, Colbert says. “It is certainly a crisis. Something drastic is happening in the expectations we have for elected leaders. Something strange is happening. That is the challenge, to be able to name the strangeness every day. But if it really tipped over into tragedy, I couldn’t talk about it. We don’t know yet. I think there’s trepidation because people are afraid we are headed toward tragedy — that these crises are unresolvable.”
Colbert suspects we’ll look back on this moment in history “with our heads in our hands.
“I don’t think we’re going to get out of this one cleanly,” he adds. But “as long as we can speak our minds and, from a selfish point of view, I can still tell the jokes I want to, it’s a great country.”
Professors who helped groom Northwestern’s late-night talent say these voices of satirical dissent are what continue to make America great.
“I don’t know how to say this without sounding corny, but I’m just incredibly proud,” says Paul Edwards ’72, ’73 MA/MS, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Performance Studies, who taught Meyers in four classes and Colbert in one. “I’m proud that they’re using their public platform as a kind of bully pulpit against a politics that I think we all now realize we can’t afford to remain silent about. And I admire the courage with which they’re making a certain kind of comedy that’s willing to speak back to power. I think that’s terribly important.”
Given the wealth of comedic material that Trump has provided, it’s hard not to wonder whether these hosts will miss him when he’s gone. Are they secretly hoping not only for a full Trump term but another four years?
“I’m not so selfish as to want something this important to only serve my best interests,” Meyers says. “I think we’re all anxious. Up to this point, there’s been no permanent moment in American politics, and this will change, too. And when it does, it’ll be a fun thing as a show to figure out what the next chapter is. So if a new political moment brings in a new moment for our show, we would be excited about that.”