The earliest “A Closer Look” segment on YouTube from Late Night With Seth Meyers is from June 2, 2015, and is a discussion of the Patriot Act. At the time, the provisions of the law that allowed the NSA to collect phone metadata had just expired, and Meyers set out to explain to his viewers what that meant. To do so, Meyers staged fake interviews with two NSA agents and a Boston housewife named “Isis,” played by his writers. It’s striking to watch this now that the show has changed the segment into something more akin to a news roundup; here’s what it looked like:
It’d be hard to argue that an intrusive national surveillance program that ran for years is less important or worthy of taking seriously than a war with Iran that hasn’t happened (yet), but the national mood has changed, and so has Late Night With Seth Meyers. Here’s Monday night’s segment, about Trump’s aborted attack on Iran:
It’s obvious, and not all that surprising, that the show’s tone is very different than it was in 2015. It’s been a rough few years! It’s tempting to explain these changes as a case of the writing staff deciding that more serious current events required a more serious approach. But nothing about that 2015 segment would have been out of place on The Daily Show during the Bush years, and that guy killed hundreds of thousands of people. So it can’t just be a function of things getting worse, although it could certainly be a function of things seeming worse. It’s impossible to say how late night shows would have responded to George W. Bush flailing around like Trump—he had his own way of flailing around, which was somehow less alarming—but we can see how they approached George W. Bush starting an actual war. It was pretty much exactly the way Late Night With Seth Meyers approached the Patriot Act:
What’s really different, I think, besides everyone being in a very grim mood over the rise of white supremacy, the constant drumbeat of mass shootings, the internment camps, and the Game of Thrones finale—which, to be fair, are more than enough reasons for a late night show to change its approach to current events—are two things, both of which are on display in this section:
Meyers: Trump swings wildly from one position to the next because he has no moral compass or strategic vision, and that combination of ignorance and impulsiveness has been on full display during his administration’s march toward war with Iran. Now, war with Iran would be catastrophic: It would be reckless, unjustified, and illegal. And yet many of the people around Trump have been agitating for a war with Iran for years. Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly refused to divulge any details about what his administration might do.
Reporter: Mr. President, are we going to war with Iran?
Trump: I hope not!
Meyers doesn’t deliver a punchline at all here (although he has plenty in the full segment). What he does do is straightforwardly state that everything is incredibly fucked up right now because the president is a monster, which is something many people are feeling and very few authority figures are saying. Every straight news segment about Donald Trump should include the background information that he is ignorant, impulsive, and has no moral compass or strategic vision, something that is apparent to anyone who watches him for more than 30 seconds. Almost none of them do. In other words, there is a market for stating the obvious which the news is not meeting, so Meyers’ straightforward approach is a welcome one. As for the diminished comedic potential inherent in deciding to deliver an op-ed instead of telling a joke, well, Donald Trump, walking punchline, supplies more than enough punchlines all on his own, even if they’re exceedingly dark. “I hope not!” Jesus Christ. “I hope not.”