Seldom has keeping up with the news felt so urgent, and seldom has it been so difficult to do so. The latest update is always just a tap or click away, but the sheer volume of revelations and tragedies is hard to stay on top of, while the onslaught of bleakness on our screens means choking in sadness and rage on the good days, and giving in to numbness and indifference on the bad ones.
In such an unrelentingly demanding climate, late-night political comedy has become all the more important for delivering the news within a contextual framework (let’s all laugh in this direction) and a built-in relief valve. I’ve never been a TV news watcher, but I’ve been watching topical comedy since my late teens; I often use it to help me mentally organize the various details I picked up that day and figure out what the national conversation revolves around that week. (I also laugh, sometimes.) So it’s been disappointing to watch the recent decline of the “A Closer Look” segments on Late Night With Seth Meyers, a popular and once-ambitious project that proved cable didn’t have a monopoly on late-night smarts.
When “A Closer Look” debuted in 2015, it was a shining example of what network late-night talk shows could learn from their cable counterparts. (The segments currently attract about 1.5 million to 2 million views on YouTube, dwarfing the view numbers for Meyers’ opening monologues.) Devoting 10 or so minutes to a single political news item, the “Closer Looks” segments recall the deep dives on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. (Not insignificantly, another reliably viral bit, “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” which features show writers Amber Ruffin, a black woman, and Jenny Hagel, a lesbian, is clearly inspired by The Daily Show’s tradition of diverse correspondents.)
“A Closer Look” remains Meyers’ hallmark achievement as a political satirist, as well as a gold standard for fusing news and jokes on TV. But the segment’s increasing laziness, and its rushed scramble to cover as much White House news as possible, unwittingly exposes the crisis in lampooning Trump. Airing two or three times a week, the segments have calcified Trump and his associates into the cast of a Gothic soap opera: The president is an ineffectual dimwit, his son Eric an unloved troll, Stephen Miller a vampire, etc. Most frustrating, especially after a week that saw a seeming coordination between right-wing power-brokers to give Trump a second Supreme Court vacancy to fill, is Meyers’ continued implication that the president is a clown so stupid it’s a wonder he doesn’t constantly trip over his own too-long neckties.
In the most recent “Closer Look,” for example, Meyers mocks Trump for briefly blanking on Justice Kennedy’s name. “How do you forget the name Kennedy?” he asks. “It’s one of the most famous names in American history. Is that why Trump puts his names on all his buildings, so he won’t forget it?” Then, with a photo of Trump Tower on the screen, Meyers does an achingly dumb impression of Trump: “My name is Donald, Donald Tower.” Neither that cartoonish portrait nor the insinuation of POTUS’ isolated dopeyness feels accurate, as aides like Miller spearhead the policy of separating children from their parents at the border and Trump deploys his strongman charisma to justify those cruelties. The more the real-world effects of Trump’s presidency become apparent, the further from the truth Meyers’ caricature of him seems—and the less funny the “Closer Look” segments are.
Meyers bluntly knocks Trump’s intelligence and his inconsistent messaging. The comedian imagines the summit with North Korea thus: “You’re Kim? But that’s a girl’s name! Oh man, I have to talk to you? Is that your normal haircut? You’re very fat. [Video of nuclear explosion].” Meyers responds to an off-the-cuff Trump during a press conference by comparing him to “a teenager who didn’t prepare his oral report and is now stalling for the bell to ring.” Responding to POTUS’ bizarre rant about elitism at a recent campaign rally, Meyers addresses Trump directly: “LeBron James is an elite athlete because he’s the best at what he does. You’re more of a J.R. Smith because you have no idea what’s going on and you think you’re winning when you’re not.”
But look around; of course Trump is winning. His party has control of all three branches of government, and scenarios that would have been unthinkable three years ago, like the Muslim ban and family separation at the border, are now the law of the land. Being told I’m smarter than Trump isn’t helpful in any way. Nor is Jon Stewart’s great innovation, pointing out politicians’ hypocrisy, remotely useful in a political context where lying to the public is a requirement for a White House job. The “Closer Looks” are still a good way to drink from the news cycle’s firehose. But focusing on Trump’s malapropisms rather than the vileness of his actions, suggests that what we should be most indignant about is being ruled by an intellectual inferior, not a morally bankrupt wannabe autocrat.
Which brings us to the question of what a late-night political comedy show that deserves our attention and adulation would look like. It no longer feels like enough to tell jokes. Comedians can’t stay neutral or eschew political commentary. Pointing out falsehoods is a Sisyphean task. Devoting airtime to non-topical issues or international news, as Sam Bee and John Oliver do, is utterly necessary, and yet seems akin to looking out the window while our sleeve is on fire. Distraction can feel like a guilty pleasure. Nothing feels like enough because nothing is enough. The current moment is maddening because we haven’t figured out the right ways to respond. We can’t lose the agility to respond, either.