How Late-Night Shows Stand Out When Tackling Trump

Courtesy Photos; Jacquelyn Martin/AP PHOTO

The hosts and their writers are tasked with finding unique ways of commenting on the president's daily mayhem: "It's about coming up with that perfect amount of spoonful of sugar to make that medicine go down," 'The Daily Show's' Trevor Noah says.

On Feb. 7, when the Pentagon revealed that President Trump had requested a military parade be planned, late-night hosts and writers around the country went on high alert. That evening, each of the hosts had his or her own take on the president’s latest harebrained idea, with Stephen Colbert saying, “No one comes up with dumber ideas — at this point he’s really his own competition. He’s the Usain Bolt of stupid.”

That was not the first time the president’s actions changed the course of a late-night monologue, nor would it be the last. Each time POTUS tweets at Kanye West, fires his latest staffer, rants about the economy to children on Easter or gives out “fake news awards,” late-night shows are faced with figuring out how to cover it in a way that stands out from the scores of other programs taking on the exact same moment. On any given night, one quote from the president could lead to 10-plus different takes on 10-plus different channels (and streaming platforms, YouTube channels and Twitter feeds). 

This “breakneck pace” of the news cycle is nothing new to Late Night’s Seth Meyers, though he has seen his writers room faced with new challenges. If the writers see a certain take already on Twitter, it’s out. If more than one writer comes up with the same joke, it’s out.

“Because if three of my writers come up with it, then that means other writers on other shows will come up with it,” says Meyers, who adds that there are limits to these rules. “We really have no airtight way to make sure that every joke we tell is a snowflake that no one else will ever come up with, but you accept that as part of the gig.”

Similarly, Colbert’s Late Show keeps a log of what is tackled on rival programs to avoid repeating.

The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, who is from South Africa, says his approach to American politics “as an outsider” allows him to respond to moments like Trump’s “shithole” controversy from a very personal place. That night in January, he took to his Comedy Central desk to defend his home nation of “South Shithole.”

Since September 2015, when he first slipped into Jon Stewart’s seat, Noah says he’s also tried to stand out among the late-night crowd by developing a group of correspondents and writers with distinctive perspectives.

“Our diverse cast means there is no topic offlimits to us,” he says. “That’s what I’ve chosen to make the differentiating factor: I make sure that we have the voices. It makes the stories not as abstract to us.” 

Meanwhile, the most watched host week after week continues to be Colbert, whose Late Show has never shied away from a major political issue. Colbert’s strength as a host, according to Late Show executive producer Chris Licht, is he is a natural storyteller. His monologue takes on fewer topics but stays with each of them longer, and as he’s proved often, he’s not afraid to speak his mind directly to Trump.

“Everything you see is Stephen’s authentic take,” says Licht. “This seems like a golden time for late night where we can kind of do our own thing. You feel in writers rooms across the country they’re doing their own thing.”

Noah likens it to his own familiar world of stand-up, where the “late-night camaraderie” resembles comedy clubs where stand-ups rely on telling the same dating story in hundreds of different ways. “We can all be doing very different things in very different ways living in the same world,” Noah says. 

Noah’s pitch for The Daily Show, for example, comes down to what he thinks American viewers need each night. “This is the way that you catch up with the news that doesn’t make you want to blow your head off,” he says. “It’s about coming up with that perfect amount of spoonful of sugar to make that medicine go down.”

And while Trump material may be copious day by day, it’s also limiting, notes Meyers: “I certainly look forward to the day where there’s a bit more variety as to the subject matter we’re covering.”

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Trump’s ‘Shithole’ Comment: Who Trashed It Best?
Each host put his or her spin on the president’s slur about immigration

When it was reported Jan. 11 that Donald Trump expressed frustration about immigrants coming to the U.S. from “shithole countries,” all the nightly talk show hosts (and, later, the weekly hosts) scrambled to react. 

Trevor Noah, Comedy Central's The Daily Show

“Guys, I don’t know how to break this to you, but I think the president might be racist … As someone from South Shithole, I’m offended.”

Stephen Colbert, CBS’ The Late Show

“Sir, they’re not shithole countries. For one, Donald Trump isn’t their president.”

James Corden, CBS’ The Late Late Show

“So this is the point in the show when we find out what CBS will let me say when I try to repeat what the president said.”

Conan O’Brien, TBS’ Conan

“A lot of things have changed. Last time I was on TV, I had to get permission to say ‘shithole.’ Now I can just quote The Wall Street Journal.”

This story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.