In the world of late-night television, 2017’s biggest media story was the fact that, after initial stumbles – and even rumors that he might get replaced – Stephen Colbert’s much-hyped Late Show overtook Jimmy Fallon’s seemingly invincible Tonight Show in the ratings. (NBC’s boyish, game-loving host still has the advantage in the much-coveted 18-to-49 demo, but that lead keeps shrinking.) There were many reasons to cheer this news. From his time on The Daily Show to hosting The Colbert Report, Colbert has proved to be one of the best, most politically incisive comedians of our era. As for Fallon, if his playful tousling of Donald Trump’s hair during the 2016 campaign wasn’t irritating enough, then his repeatedly inane Tonight Show shenanigans served as a consistent reminder of how vapid a presence he is. Sure, he introduced the Roots to the world. If that means suffering through another “Thank You Notes” segment, however, was the trade-off really worth it?
But while much has been made of Late Show‘s ratings ascendance being tied to Colbert’s bashing of our very unpopular and disastrous president – a tactic that the apolitical Fallon mostly eschews – it doesn’t entirely mitigate the fact that, two years into its run, Colbert’s CBS show still isn’t that great. That may be hard for us old-school fans to accept, but The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum (a longtime champion of the comic) made exactly that argument back in April when she wrote, “Attacking Trump isn’t in itself subversive … When Colbert’s jokes make obvious points (about nepotism, say), they feel weightless, but bolder ones (about Putin murdering journalists) feel trivializing. … There are nights when he’s still a marksman, nailing the day’s hypocrisies. But, in 2017, it doesn’t seem outrageous to long for a talk-show host famed for his ethical clarity to deliver something tougher: comedy more like reporting and less like op-ed.”
Nussbaum mentioned some programs that do exactly that, namely Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. But those cable programs operate in the post-talk, post-Daily Show universe, doing away with celebrity chitchat for hard-hitting, welcome-to-the-resistance political comedy. Those shows are great but, in fairness, it’s a different world when a host has to worry about losing sponsors (and high-profile movie stars) with each piece of pointed cultural critique.
That’s why it’s even more remarkable that not one but two network talk shows came of age in 2017, finding a political courage that wasn’t just funny but also showed how sharp commentary could work in the traditional chat-show universe. While Colbert continues to find his footing on Late Show, Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel soared. They may not have the former’s ratings, but their shows speak to our Trump moment more trenchantly, emotionally and hilariously.
Late Night With Seth Meyers premiered on NBC in February 2014, just a few months before Colbert was named David Letterman’s successor. And like a lot of talk shows, Late Night struggled initially as Meyers tried to make the adjustment from Saturday Night Live head writer/Weekend Update host to leading his own program. Much was made about how Meyers righted the ship when he decided in August 2015 (about a month before Colbert started on CBS) to do his monologues from his desk, jettisoning the idea that a host always has to walk out from behind a curtain and deliver a bunch of jokes on a stage. “I feel like that’s one of the luxuries of being the 12:30 show, you can try to be a little more specific,” he told The Atlantic at the time. “At the end of the day, though, you can only try and execute the best version of your sense of humor.”
And as part of that seemingly simple change, Meyers was freed to return to his joke-telling newscaster persona from Weekend Update, which allowed him and his writing team to devote more time to desk segments – especially “A Closer Look,” which is the single best recurring piece of political comedy on television not produced by John Oliver. Generally running about eight to 10 minutes, “A Closer Look” focuses on the major news out of Washington – Trump’s attempts to gut Obamacare, Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible election-campaign collusion with Russia – with the host balancing between here’s-the-facts recapping, commentary and some great jokes.
In one recent segment – tied to Mueller’s prosecution of Michael Flynn and the GOP’s ruinous new tax plan – Meyers made clever quips about Trump’s incoherence at public events and Senator Mitch McConnell’s contemptuous laugh when being interviewed by reporters. But there’s always a calm, measured anger underneath the barbs, as the comedian ends the pieces with a direct, brutal analysis of the plain truth about this administration. This particular segment concluded with: “Republicans are coming for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid next. And they’re doing it all so they can pay for tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy with this bill. Republicans have once again made clear who they serve – and it’s not you. And Trump has once again revealed who he really is. If you’re someone who voted for Trump because you thought he was your ally, just remember …” – and here, he did a familiar, brilliant “Closer Look” trick, which is to bring back a clip he’d used earlier in the segment: Trump telling a young boy, “You never know about an ally. An ally can turn.”
Throughout these recurring segments, the former SNL MVP wields the same deadpan control he brought to his Weekend Update gags: He always wants you to laugh, but the laugh has a little sting underneath. Unlike Colbert’s sometimes cutesy reactions to his own Trump bits – two years into Late Show, he still often feels swallowed up by the enormity of the Ed Sullivan Theater’s cavernous space – Meyers delivers intimate, sharp comedy that feels juiced by his contempt for this president. “A Closer Look” is often really funny, even though there’s nothing funny about what he’s discussing.
The argument against this approach, of course, is that the news is demoralizing enough already: Why flip on a comedy show to be further incensed and depressed? That rationale has been proven false by Fallon’s slipping ratings. But it’s also been debunked by the miraculous rebirth of Jimmy Kimmel.
Jimmy Kimmel Live! is now the longest-running late-night network talk show, premiering in 2003 and hosted by a man many would have never suspected would be embraced as America’s moral compass in 2017. For years, he wasn’t taken particularly seriously – partly by design. Getting his start working on radio and, later, serving as the sidekick on Comedy Central’s late-1990s game show Win Ben Stein’s Money, Kimmel flaunted a bro-friendly, frat-boy demeanor. This is the guy who co-created and hosted The Man Show, a celebration of big-breasted women and buffoonish behavior, a blatant flaunting of immaturity – although Kimmel swore it was more subversive than that. Speaking in October, he told Vulture, “We always said The Man Show‘s audience was divided between people who thought it was funny and understood we were joking and other people who really thought we had some kind of an agenda.”
Whether it critiqued or coddled its youthful male audience, Kimmel parlayed his hit show into a late-night gig. An acolyte of David Letterman and Howard Stern, he tried to give ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! a not-ready-for-primetime irreverence that set itself apart from the brand recognition of The Tonight Show and Late Show. Not that Kimmel quietly stood in the shadows. In 2010, he made news by appearing on The Tonight Show to attack Jay Leno for trying to back out of an agreement to let Conan O’Brien take over the hallowed NBC program. And, of course, there was that running “feud” with Matt Damon, which made for fun viral videos. But it wasn’t until this year that the Las Vegas native fully came into his own.
The start of 2017 seemed promising for Kimmel’s rising profile. Already a veteran Emmy host, he landed the plum assignment of hosting February’s Academy Awards. It’s a prized but daunting task – Letterman famously bombed doing the gig a generation ago – and that’s not taking in to account being on the sidelines as the wrong envelope was presented for Best Picture. It was an impossible situation, and Kimmel handled the now infamous La La Land/Moonlight fiasco as best as he could, meekly telling the former’s producer Jordan Horowitz that he wished both films could take home the prize. “Have any of you ever hosted the Oscars before?” he asked with faux-curiosity on his show the next day. “Well, let me tell you about it: Except for the end, it was a lot of fun.” In that moment, it’s fair to say that a lot of people who had never given Kimmel a second thought started paying attention.
In fact, without really trying, he repeatedly collided with the zeitgeist this year. In April, upon hearing the news that his hero and friend Don Rickles died, Kimmel devoted that night’s show to the comedy legend. Crying from the beginning of the broadcast, he apologized to his studio audience, saying, “I’m not good with this sort of thing.” A few weeks later, Kimmel launched into a monologue detailing the birth of his son Billy and the harrowing open-heart surgery he underwent almost immediately. In the 13-minute monologue, the host got emotional, told some jokes and expressed his gratitude for the doctors who cared for his newborn. But he also spoke critically of Trump’s plan to cut significant funding to the National Institute of Health – funding that would have affected Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which performed the surgery.
“We were brought up to believe that we live in the greatest country in the world,” Kimmel said, trying to stay composed. “But until a few years ago, millions and millions of us had no access to health insurance at all. You know, before 2014, if you were born with congenital heart disease, like my son was, there was a good chance you’d never be able to get health insurance because you had a preexisting condition.” Soon, emotion got the best of him. “If your baby is going to die, and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make,” he added, his voice quivering. “I think that’s something now, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right?”
It was the sort of heartfelt, plainspoken address that his hero Letterman used to do on occasion to bring the nation together. In the months that followed, Kimmel seemed emboldened, clashing with Republican lawmakers who tried to use his personal story to propose legislation that, in fact, wouldn’t provide better health care to Americans. It was clear that this wasn’t a “bit”: The host was genuinely angry at the cruelty Congress was showing the country’s most vulnerable citizens by slashing their benefits. If Meyers was the sober, intellectual critic dissecting this administration, Kimmel was the average guy spouting common sense while decrying Trump and the GOP’s policies. (He also used his show to advocate for stronger gun control after the October massacre in Las Vegas, where the host grew up.) As Kimmel told Vulture, “To hear the guy from The Man Show talk about [political issues] – I have some credibility.” And that credibility has resonated: Long a ratings also-ran, Jimmy Kimmel Live! has started to offer serious competition to Colbert and Fallon.
Trump’s presidency has ignited plenty of protests on America’s streets and commentary in the talk-show world, from The Daily Show With Trevor Noah to Conan. In 2017, more viewers may have tuned in to Late Show to see Colbert’s jokey but sincere takedowns, but it’s Meyers’ brains and Kimmel’s heart that will be remembered as the cornerstones of a tough year made tolerable by funny TV hosts. Let’s hope they lose none of their nerve in 2018. The resistance will be long. We’re going to need them.