Donald Trump and Late-Night: Two (Completely Different) Strategies

On Tuesday evening, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel offered telling case studies in covering the president.

He did it live! Stephen Colbert walks up to the camera during his Late Show monologue on Tuesday. (CBS)

In February, the New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo tried an experiment: He ignored news about Donald Trump for a week. Or, more specifically, he tried to ignore news about Donald Trump. What Manjoo found is that, even if one is actively trying to read or hear or learn about anything else in this big, teeming world of ours—even when one is seeking out information about the extremely large percentage of the human population that is not Donald Trump—the 45th president was unavoidable.

“The new president doesn’t simply dominate national and political news,” Manjoo wrote.

During my week of attempted Trump abstinence, I noticed something deeper: He has taken up semipermanent residence on every outlet of any kind, political or not. He is no longer just the message. In many cases, he has become the medium, the ether through which all other stories flow.

Trump’s permeative power is something the American press and its critics are keenly aware of (see Jon Stewart’s recent mockery of “the media,” on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert, for its co-dependent relationship with the reality star-turned-president). Pop culture’s Trumpian subtext, however, is also something that has presented a quandary for late-night comedy and its writers. How much attention should those shows—and their jokes, and their hosts, and their guests—pay to the president, and to politics in general? Should they approach the new administration, with all its new policies and personas, in a quasi-journalistic, truth-to-power kind of way? Or should they, assuming audiences already get enough of Trump through literally every other media source, offer counter-programming—focusing their comedy on movies and TV shows and essentially ignoring politics?

Well. Tuesday evening, in that sense, was striking: It presented, via Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, two diametrically opposed answers to those questions—and, with them, two broader case studies in the way American politics mixes, at this moment, with American culture.

1. The Double-Down—on Trump, and on Politics in General

Tuesday evening, before it reached its late-night hours, brought with it President Trump’s primetime-aired joint address to Congress—a speech that was not technically a State of the Union, but which came with all the political-theatrical fanfare of one. In order to respond to Trump’s first big speech since the one he gave at his inauguration, Colbert shook up his standard early-evening filming schedule: He did his show live, filmed and aired just after the presidential address concluded, so that Colbert could react to it in the rough and real-time manner of a pundit.

Colbert’s monologue, on Tuesday, offered the typical stuff of late-night comedy; it was simply more hastily written than usual. And it was entirely focused on the pseudo-SOTU. Colbert made a joke about CNN’s pre-address headline (“TRUMP LEAVES WHITE HOUSE SOON”). “Don’t tease!” he said. “Not cool, CNN! Not cool. That’s not right—what’s next, covering the president descending a staircase with the headline, ‘TRUMP STEPS DOWN’?”

Colbert also made a joke about the members of Congress watching the speech. “The female members of the House Democratic Caucus all wore white in honor of women’s suffrage,” Colbert said, “while the Republicans were white in honor of who elected them.”

And then, of Trump’s entrance into the Congressional chamber: “So many handshakes, such little hands.”

And then: “Any chance there was a mistake, and Moonlight is the president?”

It was all of a piece with the kind of comedy Colbert has been offering in the months since Trump was elected: directly political, unapologetically partisan, simmering with indignation just below the amiable surface. Colbert, whose unfailingly entertaining show initially struggled to find its place within the teeming late-night landscape, has lately embraced his former Daily Show and Colbert Report comedic personas: His show is now, like his former ones, very much about the news of the day. And he—Colbert, the citizen and the partisan—is very much a part of how he presents that news to his CBS audience. Colbert is, in all that, positioning himself not with his fellow network late-nighters—Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, in particular—but rather with his counterparts on cable: John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee. While Jimmy Fallon, one of Colbert’s time-slot competitors, has (generallyvery generally) avoided politics as a direct topic, “right now,” my colleague David Sims wrote, “it’s Trump and the manifold reactions to him that dominate the internet, night after night, and in that realm, Colbert has the advantage.”

On Tuesday, that advantage was clear. It wasn’t Colbert’s first live show, of course: The Late Show did live programming to cover both the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer. (And on election night, Colbert did a similar event on Showtime.) What’s most notable, though, is that the live-aired approach blurs the line, even more than the taped shows do, between Colbert-as-comedian and Colbert-as-pundit. CBS, Variety notes, has recently been pitching the Late Show in promos as “the smart choice” on late-night; it has made a selling point of Colbert’s clear willingness to be not just topical, but expressly political, in his humor. Tuesday’s show was a culmination of that approach. It treated Colbert less as an alternative to Fallon or Kimmel, and more as an alternative to Wolf Blitzer: He was offering his audiences a similar kind of news and a similar kind of punditry. Just … funnier. Much funnier.

2.  The Totally-Avoid-Any-Mention-of-Trump-at-All Approach

Meanwhile, on ABC, Jimmy Kimmel, fresh off the Oscars and their attendant weirdnesses, took precisely the opposite tack. Kimmel celebrated Trump’s pseudo-SOTU by offering his viewers, explicitly, no mention at all of that event. Or, indeed, of the president at all. Kimmel followed up his time slot-winning Monday night show—one in which he explained his side of Sunday’s Oscars Best Picture debacle—with a show that he dubbed “Trump-Free Tuesday.”

As Kimmel told his studio audience: “The president spoke tonight before a joint session of Congress, and we’re gonna ignore it.” They cheered. “For a very good reason,” Kimmel continued, “and the reason is, I need a break from it, to be honest with you.” The crowd cheered again.

“Tonight,” he said, “if anyone says the name of the orange-colored man with the Russian boyfriend, they will have to put $100 in that jar that Guillermo is holding right there. Okay? So that’s a rule that applies to everyone.”

It was a funny gag. It was also a savvy one: If you’re taping your show in the standard, early-evening hours, and you know that a spectacle-prone president will be delivering a live address on the same night, declaring your show to be pre-emptively president-free is a good way to get around that logistical challenge. “Trump-Free Tuesday” might also have been, though, evidence of a strategy employed by the very field Kimmel had promised to avoid for the evening: politics. “Trump-Free Tuesday” could have been, on top of everything else, a kind of trial balloon, a event meant to test 1) whether Kimmel could even do a show sans Trump, and 2) how an audience might respond to such a program.

The whole event was also, more broadly, a cheeky take on the very thing Farhad Manjoo found after a week of attempted Trumplessness: an acknowledgement that the 45th president is so very everywhere, at this point, that one must work, actively, to get information that isn’t somehow about him. Kimmel was, on Tuesday, offering audiences the ultimate in counter-programming: an evening without politics, without partisanship, without the thing that Manjoo suggested might be, unavoidably, true: that “no living person in history has ever been as famous as Mr. Trump is right now.”

As Kimmel summed up the evening’s premise to his studio audience on Tuesday, as they clapped and whooped and cheered him on: “This will be refreshing.”