Critic's Notebook: After Tragedy, a Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to Late Night

Stephen Colbert Jimmy Kimmel Seth Meyers - Getty - H Split 2017

In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting and other tragic events, late-night talk show hosts have become both national grief counselors and anger translators.

A tragedy rocks the nation. Grieving, shell-shocked citizens are in desperate need of comfort and context. So, whom should they turn to? Political leaders? Religious figures? Influential social commentators and authors?

None of the above, sadly. Instead, it's late-night talk show hosts who seem to be doing the national hand-holding. It's clearly not a role that any of them relish. For the most part, such predecessors as Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin avoided politics and social issues like the plague. But in the absence of moral leadership at the White House, Congress and the major religious institutions, someone has to fill the void.  

The trend was very much on display Monday night in the aftermath of the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas that, in a grotesque example of American exceptionalism, set yet another national record for fatalities. All of the major late-night players, including Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, James Corden, Seth Meyers, Conan O’Brien and Trevor Noah, opened their shows with heartfelt, emotional speeches that invariably included sending thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families and appreciation for the courageous first responders. At this point, it's a speech that any of them could give in their sleep, considering that most have had ample practice thanks to the events in Orlando, Paris, Newtown … and the tragic list goes on.  

But besides deep sorrow and anguish, there was another element as well — one that began during the George W. Bush administration and has become increasingly common in the age of Trump. It was anger. Deep-rooted, barely contained anger filling television screens across the country. An anger so all-consuming that even normally apolitical figures like Corden and O’Brien expressed, however veiled, urgent pleas for stronger gun control.

Colbert, as usual, was straightforward. He urged Congress to pass one of several tabled gun control proposals or come up with "a better answer." "Doing nothing is cowardice," he pointed out. He also directly addressed his nightly target, Trump, saying that if he really wants to be a transformational president, "This is your chance to prove it."

"I mean this sincerely," Colbert added. "You do not owe the Republicans anything. You want to make America great? 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."

Meyers, after admitting, "I know nothing I say will make any difference at all," also urged Congress to act. But as if to acknowledge that there's virtually no chance they actually will, he asked them to at least come clean about it. "If you're not willing to do anything, just be honest and tell us," he pleaded.

Corden and Noah, born in England and South Africa respectively, each had an outsider's take on our national scourge. "I come from a place where we don'’t have shootings at this frequency so it's hard for me to fathom," Corden commented. "How does every other developed country do a better job of preventing these attacks? We can't be surprised that gun crimes will always occur where there is such a wide availability of guns." Noah expressed disbelief that there have been 20 mass shootings in this country just in the two years since he moved to New York. Speaking to the people of Las Vegas, he said, "I’m sorry that we live in a world where there are people who would put a gun before your lives."

Not surprisingly, it was Jimmy Kimmel who was the most emotional. Never particularly political in the past, he's become a sort of national conscience in recent months, first with his impassioned and deeply personal arguments about the health care debate and now with a monologue in which he cried openly.

"Here we are again in the aftermath of another terrible, inexplicable, shocking and painful tragedy," Kimmel began. He mocked Second Amendment advocates ("Our forefathers wanted us to have AK-47s is the argument, I assume"); attacked "our so-called leaders" ("The NRA has their balls in a money clip"); and said that "they should be praying for God to forgive them for letting the gun control run this country."

While Jon Stewart was known for active politicking, it is a sea change for many of these entertainers seeking nightly viewers from across the country. But then again, they're not risking much. The numbers are on their side, with a significant majority of Americans, including Republicans, in favor of stronger gun control laws of one kind or another.

Not that being a national grief counselor is a role that these hosts relish. After pointing out, "I am not the most political of our comics, I never have been," O’Brien nevertheless pleaded, "Something needs to change. It really does." He added, "I hate to come out and set this tone." Kimmel delivered a similar sentiment, sounding almost apologetic as he told his audience, "I want this to be a comedy show. I hate talking about stuff like this."

Not all the hosts have distinguished themselves. Jimmy Fallon reaffirmed his lack of gravitas when he announced, after brief remarks about the tragedy, "We're here to entertain you tonight, and that's what we're going to do." That was followed by a rendition of "No Freedom" performed by his weeklong guest Miley Cyrus and Adam Sandler. Because when the nation is in trouble, the people you want to hear from are Hannah Montana and Happy Gilmore.

It was David Letterman who set the gold standard with his seemingly off-the-cuff opening monologue in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Coming across as modest ("I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes") and self-effacing ("I don't trust my judgment on matters like this"), he delivered a deeply powerful speech that was all the more moving for its everyman quality.

It's not that late-night hosts aren't capable of comforting us, or shouldn't comfort us, after tragedies. Or that they shouldn't weigh in on policy and tragedy. It's just a shame that it's become a job requirement.