A presidential race in which the presumptive GOP nominee looks like an explosion in a tomato cannery, boasts about the size of his penis, claims to know “the best words,” and says he consults himself on foreign policy because “I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things,” is a race best covered by late-night TV comics.
TV news operations continue to cover this campaign cycle as if they’d been hit on the head by something blunt and heavy at the exact moment they were slipping on a banana peel. Dazedly struggling to figure out a presidential election turned into a reality competition series, they then quickly got addicted to the ratings being ginned up by real estate mogul-turned-NBC reality-TV star Donald Trump. A whopping 25 million viewers tuned in to see Trump in his first political debate last August – the biggest crowd in Fox News Channel’s history and the biggest nonsports crowd ever on any basic cable network. Trump’s second debate outing scored 23M – the biggest audience in CNN’s 30-year history.
Lots has been written about the loads of free airtime they heaped on Trump and did not heap on his rivals, which helped Trump score the biggest voting results in GOP primary history. And Trump, no dummy, has taken a page from his reality-TV training, demanding favorable coverage as a condition of access. Even Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly seemed to succumb, when she wanted to line up him, and his ratings, for her first celebrity-interview primetime special, which was produced not for Fox News Channel but for Fox broadcast network. On FNC, Kelly had, until then, stood up to Trump, who tried to squash her as he best knew how: by boycotting a FNC debate, impacting its ratings. Trump had it in for Kelly since she asked him, at that first GOP debate in August, if a man who has “called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘’slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals’ ” has “the temperament of a man we should elect as president?” (That exchange gave birth to one of this election cycle’s most famous Trump moments, when he complained the next day to CNN’s Don Lemon, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her…. wherever.”)
With TV news this co-opted, it’s up to late night hosts and writers to not only make fun of this unusually loony presidential race, but to take some of the tougher jabs. Not coincidentally, some of the daypart’s best Trump coverage of late is being done by NBCs Late Night host Seth Meyers, who freely confesses it’s because he has no hope of getting Trump on to his show.
Sadly, this election cycle gelled just after the country’s two preeminent late night political satirists got out of the game. Jon Stewart, crowned by some a modern-day Edward R. Murrow, retired from The Daily Show and is focusing on the worthy cause of animal rescue. Meanwhile, his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert, who’d won a Peabody Award for launching his own Super PAC as an “innovative means of teaching American viewers” about Super PACs and how they impact elections, got seduced into taking David Letterman’s spot at CBS. There, he has been watered down in the name of broadcast standards and ratings goals. Still, he’s had some headline-grabbing moments, like last week when he diagrammed Trump’s vaguely worded post-Orlando-shooting comments about Obama and possible ISIS sympathies, and discovered a swastika.
While Colbert reminds rabid fans nightly how much they have lost, Meyers is giving his fans more of what they loved when he was Weekend Update anchor on Saturday Night Live. Meyers last week banned Trump from appearing on the show until he ends his ban on The Washington Post for its headline on those same vaguely worded comments the candidate made in the wake of the murder of 49 patrons of a gay bar in Orlando by a man who pledged his allegiance to ISIS. Meyers kept pounding away at Trump all week, reiterating his ban each night. Tapping into TV news’ coverage of the Never Trump movement, Meyers cooked up his own campaign to get Trump out of the race, making a generous offer on behalf of NBC to give Trump his own scripted primetime show in which he’d get to play the President, though without any of the responsibilities. And, this week, getting no response from Trump, Meyers ginned up a new plan in which the GOP offers Trump $2.5B to bail on his campaign, for which Meyers thinks Mexico would gladly pick up the tab.
Jimmy Kimmel, meanwhile, has carved out his niche in this year’s biggest story by announcing his candidacy for Veep, soon after which he hosted candidates Trump and Bernie Sanders on consecutive nights as part of his search for a running mate. Kimmel made headlines, the way Colbert used to, when he brokered, on his show, a deal between the two “outsider” candidates to debate, though it fell apart two days later when Trump recanted.
Late-night ratings leader Jimmy Fallon has given presidential candidates a stress-free environment in which to put themselves out for inspection to viewers who prefer to get their political news in late-night. Donning spray tan and a wig, he’s played Donald Trump in comedy segments with guests Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and even Trump.
More recently, however, he became part of a well-orchestrated White House campaign in which Obama could officially endorse presumptive Dem nominee Hillary Clinton and begin campaigning on her behalf in an effort to keep Sanders fans voting the Democratic ticket when he inevitably drops out. The same day Obama gave Sanders the royalty treatment at the White House before announcing He’s With Her, Fallon aired his previously taped Obama visit to Tonight Show. During that night’s broadcast, Fallon loaned his much-loved Thank You Notes segment to the president, where Obama launched his campaigning against Trump in earnest:
“Thank you Congress. For spending eight years wishing you could replace me with a Republican. Or, to put it another way: How do you like me now?”