The Year Late Night Got Serious

5:30 AM 12/22/2017

by Patrick Shanley

A look back at the issues, scandals and tragedies of 2017 that brought politics to the forefront in nightly comics' acts across the dial.

From left to right: Courtesy of ABC, NBC and CBS

A statement likely uttered every December: "It's been quite a year."

However rote those words may seem, 2017 certainly lends them merit. From the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history to raging health care debates to white nationalists, KKK members and Nazis marching on Charlottesville, Virginia, to numerous sexual harassment allegations, there was more than enough fodder for late-night hosts to tackle on their daily shows. 

While generally approached from a place of humor, some stories proved so serious, so sensitive, that late-night comics turned the knife and addressed social and political issues with anger, severity, criticism, sorrow and, of course, a twist of wit. 

Here's a look back at the year late night got serious. 

  • Weinstein Takedowns and Pulled Punches

    Perhaps nothing will be remembered more from 2017 than the swirl of sexual harassment allegations that embroiled Hollywood, Washington and beyond in the latter months of the year. What began with damning New York Times and New Yorker reports on disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein soon opened the door for accusations from women and men across the country against many high-profile names in media and politics. 

    When the Weinstein news originally broke, late night hosts initially were silent on the issue, perhaps due to the timing of the report's release on a Thursday afternoon, shortly before or during filming for most late night programs (many shows also either don't air on Fridays or pre-tape Friday shows on Thursday). Whatever the case, some late night hosts, such as Jimmy Kimmel, initially addressed the news with much lighter gloves than previous scandals. Kimmel began his show on Oct. 9, the Monday of the week after the Times story published, by approaching the story hesitantly and without much time spent on the subject: "I'm not sure if you know about this but there was an exposé done in the New York Times about decades of sexual harassment accusations made about movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who is not the president and is not particularly well-known outside of L.A. and New York. The insinuation was that we, as part of the biased left-wing media wouldn't say anything about [Weinstein], because he's a Democrat. Never mind the thousands of jokes about Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton and all the other Bills of their ilk." He preceded these comments by addressing a Twitter spat with President Donald Trump's son, Donald Jr., and then immediately returned to that subject after his one Weinstein comment.

    The Tonight Show's Jimmy Fallon similarly was light on the issue, as the host called Weinstein's behavior "not good" and made a single joke: "They said if [Weinstein] keeps it up, he'll wind up with his own show on Fox News."

    Other hosts, however, were much harsher in their takedown of Weinstein. Stephen Colbert referred to him as "human Shrek" and said that the disturbing allegations of sexual harassment amounted to "monstrous behavior that in a just world would not have been allowed to go on for decades. It is indefensible." Meanwhile, NBC's Seth Meyers invited female members of his writing staff to address the scandal in their own segment. In part, they said, "[Weinstein] blamed his disrespecting of women on the era he came from, which would be a good excuse if he came from a time machine."

  • Kimmel Takes on Health Care

    In May, Kimmel revealed on-air in an emotional monologue that his newborn son had required emergency open-heart surgery shortly after his birth. Kimmel ended his tear-filled speech with a call for health care affordability which sparked a new political edge for the previously neutrally-inclined host.

    Kimmel soon went to war with the GOP and President Trump's attempts to repeal Obamacare with the Graham-Cassidy health care bill. He criticized Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, one of the bill's author, for misleading him on his intentions on health care reform and then accusing Kimmel of "not understanding" policy. As with most others in late night, however, the majority of Kimmel's derision was aimed at Trump. "I guarantee [Trump] doesn’t know anything about this Graham-Cassidy bill. He doesn’t know the difference between Medicare and Medicaid. He barely knows the difference between Melania and Ivanka!" Kimmel quipped in September.

    The host went hard at senators during his monologues, imploring them and citizens to vote down the Graham-Cassidy bill. Some criticized the host for his lobbying, claiming he was not qualified to comment on the issue. "You know, a lot of people have been saying I’m not qualified to talk about this. And that is true — I’m not qualified to talk about this. But I think those people forget Bill Cassidy named his test after me!" Kimmel responded, citing Cassidy's appearance on his show in May when the senator touted what he called "the Jimmy Kimmel test," which Kimmel explains is an idea — which Cassidy said he would support in any future bills — that no child should be denied health care, emergency or otherwise, because the family cannot afford it.

    When the bill was voted down in late September, the host celebrated its defeat on his show: “I haven't been so happy about something being dead since Bin Laden,

  • Las Vegas Shooting & Gun Control Debate

    On Oct. 1, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history occurred in Las Vegas when a gunman opened fire on an outdoor country music festival from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel. The following night, late night hosts addressed the senseless violence on their programs. 

    Kimmel, a Vegas native, opened his show on Oct. 2 with a teary monologue. "Here we are again in the aftermath of another terrible, inexplicable, shocking and painful tragedy — this time in Las Vegas, which happens to be my hometown. Of course, we pray for the victims and for their families and friends, and we wonder why, even though there's probably no way to ever know why a human being would do something like this to other human beings who were at a concert having fun, listening to music." He went on to call out "our so-called leaders" and question why they continue to allow these deadly acts of violence to occur. "Maybe a better question — why do we continue to let them allow it to happen?" the host asked. The host noted that his stance wasn't about gun control but about "common sense," adding, "Common sense says no good will ever come from allowing a person to have weapons that can take down 527 Americans at a concert. Common sense says you don’t let those who suffer from mental illness buy guns." 

    Meyers shared a similar sentiment on his program, saying, "It always seems like the worst displays of humanity in this country are immediately followed by the best, and then, sadly, that is followed by no action at all. And then it repeats itself." He then made a pointed statement to Congress: "I would just like to say — are there no steps we can take as a nation to prevent gun violence? Or is this just how it is, and how it's going to continue to be?"

    On the Daily Show, host Trevor Noah also made a political cry for gun control, saying, ""To the people of Las Vegas, I can't give you thoughts and prayers. I can only say that I'm sorry. I'm sorry we live in a world where people will put a gun before your lives."

    On TBS, Conan O'Brien expressed his sadness over the "terrible and numbing" tragedy, telling his audience, "When I began in 1993, occasions like this were extremely rare. For me, or any TV comedy host, to come out and need to address a mass shooting spree was practically unheard of. Things have changed."

    After expressing his sorrow for the victims and families, Stephen Colbert took jabs at President Trump during his opening remarks, urging Trump to be the president to make a difference. “Today, the president called this an ‘act of pure evil.’ And I think he’s right,” Colbert began. “So what, then are we willing to do to combat ‘pure evil?’ The answer can’t be nothing.” He further pressed the issue, saying, "You want to make America great again? Do something the last two Presidents haven’t been able to do. Pass any kind of common sense gun control legislation that the vast majority of Americans want. Think about what you need to do and pray for the courage to do it.”

  • Charlottesville & Trump's "Many Sides" Comment

    On the weekend of August 12-13, white supremacists, KKK members, Nazis and more marched on downtown Charlottesville, Va. to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee. Opposing marches arrived and violence ensued, resulting in the death of one woman, Heather Heyer. Shortly thereafter, during a press conference, President Trump addressed the incident, of which he had been silent on Twitter over the weekend, and claimed there was violence on "many sides," sparking backlash, and late night hosts addressed the "shameful" incident and Trump's comments on their shows that Monday night.

    Colbert went after Trump's comments during his opening monologue, saying, "Here's one thing that's not difficult to express: Nazis are bad. Many sides? Mr. President, this is terrorism, not your order at KFC." Colbert said he's seen "angrier Yelp reviews" than how Trump responded Saturday and said it was especially disturbing because his comments immediately following the tragedy made it hard for "reasonable people" to discern if he was condemning Nazis or not. He added that Trump is not a "shrinking violet."

    Meyers began his show with a serious statement for Trump on his presidency, saying, "The leader of our country is called the president because he's supposed to preside over our society. His job is to lead, to cajole, to scold, to correct our path, to lift up what is good about us, and to absolutely and unequivocally and immediately condemn what is evil in us. And if he does not do that and if he does not preside over our society, then he's not a president. You can stand for a nation or you can stand for a hateful movement — you can't do both." During his "Closer Look" segment, Meyers further dissected the president's remarks, which he called the lowest moment in Trump's presidency, saying that Americans "shouldn't have to shame or pressure the president into saying Nazis are bad."

    "This whole thing was such a bummer because Nazis were the last thing we all agreed on," said Meyers.

    On the Tonight Show, Fallon also lambasted Trump for his delay in addressing the issue and his comments by referring to his daughters and what he wants for them. "They need leaders who appeal to the best in us," Fallon said. "The fact that it took the president two days to come out and clearly denounce racists and white supremacists is shameful."

    As like his fellow late night contemporaries, Kimmel also criticized Trump for his statements. "There were two sides, not many sides, and one of those sides had Nazis on it. All he had to do was condemn the Nazis, it shouldn't have been a difficult thing," the ABC host said.

  • Sexual Harassment Scandals

    What began with Weinstein quickly became a reckoning for many powerful figures in media. From Kevin Spacey to Matt Lauer to Charlie Rose to Sen. Al Franken to Senate candidate Roy Moore, hosts tackled the allegations night after night. On certain occasions, breaking news affected the guest lineups of the late night shows, as was the case when Jeremy Piven, accused of sexual assault, was dropped as a guest from The Late Show in early November, just days before he was scheduled to appear.

    In late October, Spacey was the subject of a Buzzfeed expose in which Star Trek: Discovery actor Anthony Rapp Spacey of making a pass toward him when he was only 14. In response, Spacey tweeted his "sincerest apology" late Sunday night and came out as a gay man. His statement was met with backlash

    The Daily Show's Noah took aim at Spacey, ridiculing his apology. “Talk about the worst time to go public with your sexuality. I mean, it’s always good to live your truth, but don’t use it to get out of trouble," the host said. “Imagine if a cop pulled him over. He’d be like ‘Sir, are you drunk? I need you to come out of the vehicle.’ He’s like, ‘That’s not the only thing I’m willing to come out of.' "

    When news broke of Rose's alleged sexual harassment, Colbert compared the legendary journalist to Star Wars' Yoda.  “First [Bill] Cosby, then Weinstein, now Charlie Rose, who’s next? Yoda?” Colbert said. "Mmm, tense you seem," Colbert went on, imitating the Jedi master. "Shoulders I will rub. Reported to HR I am." Meyers focused his "Closer Look" segment in part on Rose, comparing it to ABC's The Bachelor: “This whole situation is like a reverse Bachelor. Nobody wants to accept this rose.”

    Colbert had Gayle King, Rose's former CBS This Morning co-host, on his show the day that Rose was fired. The host commended King on addressing the story earlier that morning, particularly given her personal relationship with Rose. “That’s what you have to do," King replied."To be honest with you, it still isn’t easy. It’s still very painful, it’s still very hurtful. Charlie and I worked together, been friends, but when you think about the anguish of those women, despite the friendship, you still have to report the news."

    The ridicule was not contained only to members of the media, however, as hosts also took down politicians and political candidates accused of sexual harassment and assault. Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, accused by multiple women of sexual assault and misconduct when they were minors, was the subject of much ridicule. Kimmel, who sent a correspondent to one of Moore's rallies to mock his supporters, found himself called out directly by the candidate on Twitter. Moore invited Kimmel to Alabama to meet him "man to man," an offer Kimmel accepted on his show, saying, ""I accept the invitation. I'm going to come down with a team of high school cheerleaders. … And when the girls and I show up, if you can somehow manage to keep little Roy in your cowboy pants, you and I will sit down in the food court and have a chat about Christian values."

    On the other side of the political aisle, Sen. Franken was accused by multiple women of groping, unwanted kissing and sexual harassment, which included a damning photo of Franken posing in a lewd position with a sleeping Leeann Tweeden in 2006, his costar at the time in a USO show. Colbert showed the photo on his show, commenting, "For those of you not in showbiz, actors call that technique sexual harassment." The CBS host also responded to Franken's statement that the photo was "clearly intended to be funny but wasn't." "Intended to be funny, but wasn’t? No. You’re movie Stuart Saves His Family was intended to be funny but wasn’t. That photo was intended to embarrass her. That’s why he did it while she was asleep. Nobody goes up to their buddy when he’s awake and says ‘Hey can I draw a penis on your forehead?’ ”

  • Colbert, Conan Act as Ambassadors Abroad

    In July, Colbert traveled to Russia for a week-long series of shows from the country at the center of much collusion talk surrounding President Trump. While there, Colbert made a guest appearance on Russian talk show Evening Urgant and took to the streets of St. Petersburg to mingle with passersby.

    Colbert also spent time in Russia with oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns the Brooklyn Nets. "This is how things work over in Russia," said Colbert, introducing his segment, "Over there, the political system is controlled by wealthy elites who buy influence and pull strings of the government. Whereas in America, we speak English." The culmination of "Russia Week" on The Late Show came when Colbert got to tour the Moscow hotel suite referred to in the now-infamous and debunked Russia dossier about Trump released by BuzzFeed in January. Colbert launched his full investigation of the "pee pee tape" on his show, where he checked in to the hotel and saw the infamous hotel room himself. "It's soaked in history, it just washes over you," he joked. "It's not even like it's in the past, you're in history."  

    Colbert wasn't the only host to travel abroad this year, as Conan O'Brien also had special remote episodes in both Mexico and Israel, where he met with locals and tried to bridge gaps between the foreign nations and America. Conan Without Borders: Made in Mexico began with timely jokes about Trump and his proposed border wall, including a bit with O'Brien trying to enter Mexico, but getting stopped because, as the border agents put it: "Clearly, they're not sending us their best." 

    O'Brien commented that in speaking to Mexican people while he visited the country, they felt misunderstood by the Trump administration, and the host clarified that Trump's view "is a misrepresentation of how people feel," and doesn't represent everyone. He welcomed former Mexican president, and outspoken Trump critic, Vicente Fox to the show, who came with a gift: boots with the words "No f—ing wall." Fox also aimed a firm assurance to Trump: "We're not paying for your f—ing wall!" The TBS host reiterated to his audience that he wanted to spread positivity by his visit and use comedy as diplomacy, to cheers from the crowd and his guests. 

    While in Israel, O'Brien met with refugees in the West Bank and traveled to the Syrian border where he visited Ziv Medical Center, a hospital where Israeli doctors are treating wounded Syrians.