For the last 18 months, comedy’s relationship with the presidential election has been an uneasy one. Some late-night hosts, like Jimmy Fallon and James Corden, have largely avoided its darker implications, plowing on with less uncomfortable humor to try and unite a polarized audience. Others, like John Oliver and Samantha Bee, have been polemical, offering an unfiltered point of view applauded for its honesty, if pitched at a smaller crowd. Late Night with Seth Meyers has tended toward the latter approach, with its host clearly articulating his left-leaning point of view and taking apart many of Trump’s stated policies.
Last night, in his first broadcast since Trump’s election, Meyers gave a 10-minute speech that could help chart a path for the next four years in his job. He was at once sharply funny and nakedly emotional. He made an effort to speak to Trump supporters without seeming entirely condescending. He acknowledged that in his position as a well-off white guy, his anguish at the electoral result was not the only perspective required on the night. He told jokes, of course, but with the awareness that jokes alone won’t be what his audience needs going forward.
In the last two days, much ink has been spilled on the notion that society has become excessively blinkered, sectioned off by social media that echoes back like-minded thinking at everyone who uses it. Before the election, the same was said of shows like Full Frontal or Late Night, that wide swaths of voters were sick of being lectured to by TV comedians. Meyers did well to address that without seeming like he was pandering, or suddenly blowing with the wind—his beliefs are still obviously his beliefs, but that doesn’t make him ignorant of the world around him.
“I felt a lot of emotions last night and into today, some sadness, some anger, some fear,” he said. “But I’m also aware that those are a lot of emotions that Trump supporters felt, emotions that led them to make their choice. And it would be wrong for me to think that my emotions are somehow more authentic than their emotions. We’re always better as a society when we have empathy for one another.”
Still, Meyers’s greatest empathy was for those around him crushed by Clinton’s loss; including his mother, who he noted was excited to cast a vote for the first female presidential candidate. Meyers’s voice cracked as he delivered that anecdote, dropping the typically arch, fake-newsman personality he honed over years at Saturday Night Live and Late Night. He also did well to acknowledge the people of color and LGBTQ viewers watching, saying, “As a white man, I…know that any emotions I’m feeling are likely a fraction [of theirs] ... Hopefully the Trump administration and Trump supporters will be compassionate to them. Because they need your compassion.”
Most importantly, Meyers voiced the thought pulsing through every Clinton voter’s mind a day after the election: that maybe Trump’s changeability, his willingness to adopt different political positions over the years as he wooed difference audiences, would mean his administration would surprise them. It’s a slim hope, and a strange one—to rely on someone’s untrustworthiness. But while moments of Meyers’s monologue were punctuated by anger, others by fear, and others by self-deprecating humility, it was that naked honesty that felt the most memorable.
Best of all, though, was his promise for the future, one that’s likely to echo across other programs like Bee’s, Oliver’s, Trevor Noah’s, and more. “Democracy is a fantastic thing, even when it doesn’t go your way. It gives everyone in America a voice, and last night, those voices spoke,” Meyers concluded. “Donald Trump made a lot of promises as to what he was going to do over the next four years, and now we get to see if he will, if he can, fulfill them. So I’d just like to make one promise to him: We here at Late Night will be watching you.” During the Obama administration, the role of political comedy was at times listless, poking fun at what seemed like the margins—cable news, extremism, and outspoken celebrities like Trump. Now, that celebrity is in the White House, and the focus will no longer be at the margins, but at the seat of power. It’s a bigger responsibility, but also one with greater weight.