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At least since Johnny Carson made his monologue a must-see ritual, this has been the pattern: A top politician misspeaks, missteps, even misspells, and the jokes fly like flocks of pigeons, the hosts eager to put in their rightful place every exalted man (or woman) bronzed by national fame.
This has become an all-but sacred tradition in American politics — and comedy. It has long been cited as a sign of what America stands for: complete independence, and the freedom to publicly mock our leaders, without fear of retribution. This act of unfettered satirizing has been nowhere more exercised than in the late-night hours on stages in New York and Los Angeles.
For most of the history of late night, this system worked well — mainly because intentions on both sides were never ugly, even if they weren’t always good.
Those were the days. But that is certainly not how the mix of politics and late-night comedy could be described now. In what will inevitably be called the Donald Trump era, the relationship between joker and target became a blood sport.
It was surely not that way during the long dominance of Johnny Carson in late night. Carson, though he navigated times at least as turbulent as today’s — with the civil rights movement, Vietnam and Watergate roiling the nation — resisted taking any kind of overt stand on the issues, big as they were. He offered a simple rationale: Why would I want to alienate half my audience?
Trump may have shaken up late-night traditions more than any individual who preceded him, but he was not the catalyst for the most significant shift in how late-night covered politicians. The true turning point was the naming of Jon Stewart as host of “The Daily Show.”
Which is another way of saying: Stewart injected point of view. Late night has not looked back since. Stephen Colbert elevated the form to satirical ju-jitsu, offering up bombastic right-wing views to illustrate how wrong they were.
It is not only a conservative talking point to say that Barack Obama got through eight years almost completely unscarred by late-night jokes. He was clearly helped by having views more in sync with late-night hosts (and writers). But Obama also steered clear of major scandals and didn’t offer easy caricature.
Virtually every other president has had a comic persona forced on him early and the monologue jokes flow naturally: Nixon was tricky; Ford was clumsy; Carter was a hick; Reagan took a lot of naps; the first Bush was patrician; Clinton was a hound; on and on. Obama was mainly seen as aloof, not exactly fodder for wild comedy.
Trump defied the easily characterized persona as well, because he did and said so much that smashed the scales of political comedy:
Several of the current late-night hosts mentioned to me that this excess amounted to something like a comedy bacchanal — a wild party at first, with everyone having fun throwing things at Trump; then it got to be just too much. Worse, it got to be downright dangerous.
Desus Nice, the co-host with The Kid Mero of Showtime’s late-night entry, “Desus & Mero,” told me it was great for a nascent show like theirs when “Trump falls into our laps.” But there was a problem: It wasn’t funny. “It was like: It hurt people,” Desus said. “And it hurt democracy.”
Mero added, “To be tremendously trite and corny and cliché, it’s like laughing to keep from crying, you know what I mean? Like: This guy is lighting our country on fire.”
The idea that Joe Biden might bring nothing but boring “he’s old!” jokes to the nightly monologues seems a fine prospect to shows happy to be out from under the unceasingly funny but equally unsettling behavior of the Trump administration.