The Weirdest Dream

Why it was such a tricky high wire act for late-night comedians to cover Trump’s win.

late night.
Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton, Conan O’Brien, Seth Meyers, and Samantha Bee.

Screenshots via NBC and TBS

In the days after Donald Trump was elected president, late-night TV struggled with the rest of us to come to terms with the new reality. In his monologue the day after, a rattled Stephen Colbert asked repeatedly if he was dreaming or on drugs. Jimmy Kimmel said he’d had “the weirdest dream last night,” that we had elected “the guy who used to host The Apprentice.” Seth Meyers delivered an emotional monologue addressed to “the first female president,” whomever she might be. Samantha Bee, full of cathartic rage, joked acidly that “the X-factor that none of the forecasts accounted for” was her own bad luck: In voting for Hillary Clinton, she had jinxed the whole election. On Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon, dressed as Clinton but stripped of the voice and the mannerisms, sang a raw rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Only Conan O’Brien seemed free of existential angst. It was a “strange day,” he said, but the country had “been here before” and ought to be proud of its functioning democracy.

The broad spectrum of responses was a window into the particular challenge of covering Trump’s win as a late-night comedian. In some ways, these shows seemed to be applying a formula minted by Jon Stewart in the immediate wake of 9/11: When tragedy strikes, you take a moment to gravely register it, channeling the mood of a shaken nation. But unlike 9/11, the election of Donald Trump wasn’t 9/11. About half the country disagrees that Trump’s ascendance is a problem, let alone a tragedy. And if there is a tragedy to speak of, it is cultural in nature: the failure of one segment of the population to communicate its values to another.

We will be unpacking that cultural calamity for some time to come. Did our left-leaning culture drive right-leaning Americans to “register dissent” at the voting booth, as Ross Douthat suggested might happen? Did it “normalize” Trump, presenting him first as a hapless wannabe and then as a lovable schmuck, but never as a credible threat? Whatever the role our culture played in the election of Donald Trump—the second pop culture figure to become president, after Ronald Reagan, and the only one never to have served in government—you can’t pin the blame on any one artifact, performer, or institution. Not the “hectoring” Samantha Bee (Douthat’s phrase), not “professional sycophant” Jimmy Fallon. Not Hollywood, not Hamilton, not even Jeff Zucker. No one alone caused Trump, and no one alone is responsible for reversing the damage. No one alone can fix it.

But if you’re on national TV at 11 p.m. on Nov. 8 as the results are coming into focus, or midnight the day after as reality is sinking in, or that Saturday night as protests pound through cities, you have to say something. Do you tell jokes? Do you mourn? Do you apologize? As a liberal comedian charged with reaching mass America, how do you establish the seriousness of the moment and convey your own grief without presuming a consensus among your audience that may not exist?

For one thing, you fumble in the dark for some other consensus. A visibly shaken Colbert—going all in on the unifying power of observational humor—ended his live election night special by calling on the audience to cheer for “a few things that bring us together,” like paying extra for guac and being annoyed at people who reply all to mass emails. Samantha Bee reminded her audience that America is still the country of Beyoncé, Shonda Rhimes, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and peanut butter. James Corden gave it a shot too, in a more earnest mode. “We put people on the moon,” he offered, apparently addressing people who had fallen into a coma right before Watergate and just woken up.

And you look for silver linings. Meyers and Bee, like Slate, shined a light on the three new women of color elected to the Senate. There were the vows of vigilance, the calls to action. Meyers, addressing Trump, said, “We here at Late Night will be watching you.” Bee urged her viewers, especially white women (who voted for Trump as a bloc), to “get busy” and work off their bad “karma.” John Oliver was the soberest of them all: “If we don’t get actively involved to at least mitigate Trump’s damage, things will not be OK.

These responses varied in tone and authenticity, but no one broke, profoundly, from the form of the late-night monologue. That, in itself, was a statement. The humor was bitter, sometimes dark, but not quite gallows. “In the face of something horrible,” said Colbert on election night, “laughter is the best medicine.” Jo Miller, the head writer on Samantha Bee’s show, acknowledged in an interview with Vox that they’d be dealing with “heavy stuff” but affirmed that laughter was a “subversive act” right now. A few hosts made committed, purposeful gestures at pure silliness. To finish off his monologue on Nov. 9, Colbert donned a pair of cat ears—“When I’m feeling shaky, I like to put these on”—and pretended to be a “sexy kitty.” Conan O’Brien, attesting to the power of “cheap visual comedy” as a healing tool, brought out the “Really Tall Dachshund” (a dachshund on stilts). Seth Meyers fondly described his infant child going to town on a pear, oblivious to the election results.

It was Saturday Night Live, in the end—the show perhaps most responsible for normalizing Trump’s campaign, in its early stages, on the network most responsible for his popularity—that made the clearest break with its format. As McKinnon sang selections from “Hallelujah” in costume as Hillary Clinton, accompanying herself at the piano, it was not entirely clear whether she was in character. The lyrics resonated: “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah.’ ” There was palpable fear in her voice. After the song ended, she turned to the camera with tears in her eyes and said, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”

From one perspective, the performance looked like an act of cultural surrender (despite that encouragement not to give up). It seemed to be saying that comedy had failed us. There was no longer any use in trying to be funny, no potential in it, no need to keep up the charade of satire. There was no longer any responsibility to extend our contempt to both sides of the political divide—a comedian’s calling—or to sublimate our own loyalties (like McKinnon’s to Clinton) to the project of creating art for everyone. SNL’s Clinton character had been an extension of the campaign, the campaign had failed, and now it was time to give the candidate and the character a Viking funeral.

But there was still something deeply right about it. It was comforting, strange to say, to see McKinnon waver in and out of character. “Hillary Clinton,” the politician, has been a grueling marathon performance; the closest she can come to letting down her guard is showing up to a speech without makeup. McKinnon’s performance gave her audience access to both that side of Hillary—the side that has to say, even if no one believes it, “I’m not giving up”—and the other side, the inner life we imagine for her.

While Stewart’s now-famous 9/11 monologue answered an objective catastrophe with a rousing paean to democracy, these shows pulled off what was arguably an even trickier high wire act: They had to acknowledge something that felt, for liberal comedians, like a trauma, without indulging it too deeply or sentimentalizing it, then figure out a path forward, toward either defiance or reconciliation. And for the most part, they delivered. Of course, in the very next episode of SNL after the post-election one, which aired this past weekend, the show seemed to reset itself: Alec Baldwin’s impression of Trump was back with all its blustering grotesqueness. The show had taken a breath to gape at the results of the election, and then, because it had to, gotten back to the hard project of trying to make the idea of Trump funny again. We can only hope that over the next four years, as Trump keeps finding new ways to break the country, they’ll keep finding ways to break the mold.