Late-Night Hosts Tackle Gov. Ralph Northam's Blackface Controversy

"Even the curtain in the back of that photo had to hold a press conference to apologize," Seth Meyers joked.
Lloyd Bishop/NBC

The controversy over a racist image in Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook is so absurd and twisty that it seems tailor-made for late-night commentary. And sure enough, hosts including Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert had a field day with the story on Monday night's shows amid amplifying calls for the governor to resign. 

Last week, Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, encountered a wave of backlash when his medical school yearbook page, which features a picture of one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, resurfaced on social media. On Saturday, Northam defended himself in a press conference by clarifying that he had not dressed in blackface on that particular occasion after, one day earlier, issuing an apology suggesting he was in the photo. He said, however, that he had made "mistakes" like darkening his face with shoe polish to attend a dance competition as Michael Jackson.

On The Late Show, Colbert pointed to Northam's initial apology, where he said, "I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo" and did not specify which person he was. "Which brings up an interesting question: Which is worse?" Colbert said. "'Uh, I was definitely in the hood, which is why you can't see how mad I was at that other guy for wearing blackface.'"

Colbert then pantomimed Northam when he backtracked his assertion that he had appeared in the photograph Saturday. "'I am very sorry for what I did. Oh, you still want me to resign? I mean I did not do it,'" Colbert joked.

Meyers devoted his Late Night segment "A Closer Look" to the PR debacle. Also addressing news reports that Northam had not specified which person he was in the photo in his initial apology, Meyers joked, "Wow, that's a real lose-lose. That's like being asked whether you're Erik or Lyle Menendez.... Even the curtain in the back of that photo had to hold a press conference to apologize."

Of Northam's change in memory about the photo, Meyers expressed some skepticism. "Normal people if you ask them, 'Did you ever wear blackface or a KKK robe would go, 'Absolutely not, that's insane.' But your reaction was, 'Well, what was the prom theme?'" he said.

Meyers also took umbrage with Northam's memory of the Michael Jackson costume: "He's actually arguing that it couldn't have been him in blackface because there was another time he was in blackface. That's not a defense, that's a confession. Try that the next time a cop pulls you over," he said.

Over at The Daily Show, Noah was quick to address how coy Northam has been in revealing who he was in the picture, with Noah noting that “neither option is good.”

“It’s like taking a trip and your only choices are Titanic and Spirit Airlines. You know?” he joked. “I mean at least on the Titanic, you might get to fuck Leo.”

Noah also argued that though the photograph is offensive, should Northam have admitted he was dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, then he would simply become “part of a community.” Regardless, Noah expressed his disappointment that the photograph proved that racial injustice continues to exist in society. “You know what the real shame is? It’s that if these weren’t costumes, and it was a black guy and a Klansman having a drink together, this would be a huge step forward. Racial harmony, we did it folks.”

During a press conference, Northam argued that though he wasn’t part of the photograph, he has dressed in blackface before for a Michael Jackson themed party. “It does make it more believable that it wasn’t him in the photo. Because who would defend themselves by admitting to a different crime?” Noah said, also noting that it’s ironic that Northam would know that it’s difficult to get shoe polish off his face. “Now it sounds like he’s a blackface connoisseur.”