THR Critics Debate: Which Late-Night Host Is Best Skewering This Election?

Samantha Bee on Colbert Screen shot- H 2016
Courtesy of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Some hosts are rising to the occasion, others seem not to be bothering.

THR TV critics Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg examine the late-night landscape and argue over who's offering the sharpest insights into our wild primary season.

Jon Stewart knew that stepping down from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show late last year with a wild 2016 election on the horizon was going to be like turning his back on some of the best material ever. And while that turned out to be true — hello, Donald Trump — the fact is that until very recently, nothing resulted in the late-night world really having a field day.

For starters, Trump seemed like low-hanging fruit to many in the early going and then became almost difficult to skewer when he was saying and doing things that were perhaps spoof-proof. Meanwhile, Samantha Bee's weekly TBS show Full Frontal was not yet here; John Oliver's HBO series, Last Week Tonight, was on break for a lengthy period; Stephen Colbert was trying to find the right balance as host of The Late Show on CBS, which partially meant that joking about the day's news might feel a little too much like his old show; and three of the other late-night hosts — James Corden on CBS’ Late Late Show, Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! — were not exactly practitioners of political comedy to start with.

But now it's almost impossible for anyone in the late-night game to avoid at least a few cursory political jokes while others have ratcheted up their approach as a plethora of debates and primaries make the election the topic of the day.

THR television critics Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg argue about which host/show is doing the best (or shouldn’t be judged for looking the other way.)

Goodman: Let's start this off, then, by first discussing — or perhaps getting out of the way — those who seem the least involved in the political sideshow and more involved in, well, just putting out their nightly shows: Corden, Fallon and Kimmel. Thoughts on this bunch?

Fienberg: I'd start by saying that among the traditional, established, four-or-five-night-per-week hosts, the current best of the bunch may be the one you didn't mention, Seth Meyers. NBCs Late Night got off to a rough start by pretending that Meyers was a traditional stand-around-and-monologue host, but since they decided to put him behind a desk off the top and let him basically do “Weekend Update” at the top of every show, Meyers has been clever, playful and — this is the most important thing — consistent on a nightly basis. 

I think that's something that has to be emphasized: that as phenomenal as John Oliver and Samantha Bee have been, it's a totally different discipline doing it every night. Oliver and Bee can go for depth and off-the-beaten-path targets, but Trevor Noah (The Daily Show), Meyers, Fallon, Kimmel and Colbert are almost forced to make the exact same jokes about Chris Christie's expression as he stands behind Donald Trump, something they all did on Wednesday night with minimal inspiration.

Goodman: Did you just tag the golden boy and discreetly slide Corden, Fallon and Kimmel to the side, you sly dog? I'm going to completely agree with you on Meyers and add this: He's been a real revelation of late. Yep, the shift to the desk was smart and him getting such rich material in this election made that move truly pay off. Among the nightly hosts, nobody is even close to Meyers right now in terms of stingingly funny political observations — something I thought Colbert would own. Meyers is doing fantastic, sometimes angry, sometimes subtle political commentary and it's been very impressive. I'd put Colbert right behind him for the daily hosts, and his qualitative résumé in that department can't be disputed. Part of me misses him doing a full hour of that kind of satire or scathing take-downs, and some nights it appears he feels the same. Other times he seems just as happy to resume his new direction, which is understandable. I don't think Corden or Fallon are really in the political comedy game at all. Kimmel has the funnier bits of those three but he's also shown no interest in doubling the output. So, unless you want to say more about those three, let's move on to The Daily Show and Noah, where I have lots of thoughts. But you first, since you like him more.

Fienberg:Tuning in to Kimmel, Corden or Fallon for trenchant political commentary would be like watching SportsCenter for TV reviews. It's just not what they do. Sometimes Kimmel has a man-on-the-street segment that properly zings the electorate, but they're jesters of a different stripe.

Colbert's résumé for political commentary can't be argued with, but that résumé is entirely built on stuff he did when he was a different guy. As Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, Colbert was incisive, cuttingly ironic and satirically self-lacerating. As the guy he currently is, who may be the guy he truly is, and he's better than Kimmel, Corden or Fallon, but he almost never seems to have a POV, angry or otherwise.

I think the question of tonal anger is important, because as Trump and Bernie Sanders are particularly proving, anger is driving the electorate and it's also where Oliver and Bee so often live so comfortably (and it's where Stewart was at home as well). Noah is being blamed for not being them because he's not angry, and he's being underestimated because his tone often comes with a smile and that sing-song delivery of his. Me, I give him credit for owning his voice. He and Oliver both have an outsiders’ perspective and they both approach the election with a "What are you American clowns doing?" But Noah doesn't fear the apocalypse — and maybe he should. 

Goodman: Because I didn't buy in on Noah early, and wasn't that impressed when I did drop in a few times, I really had to go back and deep-dive for this. And I found it very disappointing because it's clear I want the Stewart-styled Daily Show, and Noah is not giving me that. But this isn't at all a generational thing — it's a comedy thing, mostly. I just don't find Noah funny at all. In fact, I'm shocked at how unfunny he is, almost always taking the easy route to a joke. I also don't find any of his political humor insightful; it's all surface. And I want funny first, insightful a close second, so he (and for that matter, the rest of The Daily Show) has been a huge letdown. He's obviously a different style of comedy than Stewart (or Colbert), but I just don't think this election matters at all to him; he often jokes about having a fallback country, and maybe having no stakes in the election is hurting my enjoyment of his approach?

And yet, I can't say that about Oliver. He's invested (and yes, he does rage magnificently) precisely because what we're witnessing, particularly with Trump, is inarguably something to be outraged about. Noah's smiling distance and weak jokes in an election year have me looking elsewhere. Before moving on to Bee, the newcomer (as far as her show goes), any additional thoughts on Noah and Oliver?

Fienberg: I don't think that Noah doesn't care about the election. I just think he's stuck in a mode that's amused-incredulous, rather than outraged-incredulous, when what might be most satisfying is outraged-incredulous. But the POV that Noah seems to be coming from is, "I've seen worse," and the Oliver perspective is, "How do you not get that THIS is the worst?" Noah is also stuck with a Daily Show format that includes that vestigial interview segment at the end. So take this Monday night, Noah did two political segments I thought were better than any the other nightly guys did, but then after 20 minutes, he had to sit down and compliment Morris Chestnut on how handsome he is. 

Bee doesn't have to do that. She took a weekly approach and that was her call — and she took a weekly approach on basic cable. So she doesn't have to do 80+ minutes per week and she doesn't even have to do a full 30 like Oliver does. She just has to do 20-ish good minutes, so her material had better be fantastic. Fortunately, through four weeks, it has been.

Goodman: Yes, I'm not sure how Bee can keep up the pace. She's sustained outrage (with insight) at a fever pitch. It's pretty impressive. You make good points about both Oliver and Bee in the weekly format, sans interviews. At the same time, it just doesn't seem enough in the current election climate, so I find myself wishing that at least Oliver's show were a full hour (and yes, broken record that I am, that Stewart was still doing this). That said, Bee and Oliver are at least scratching that itch.

And lastly, I don't want to leave Larry Wilmore out — even though his Nightly Show on Comedy Central is really not about politics — because his recent take on Trump stood out for its thoughtfulness. He's got a lot of other issues to cover (and also a rigid format) that cut into his time, but given that Trump's racism is now a key factor, I hope Wilmore keeps revisiting politics. He's got a lighter touch, but also fresh-take wisdom.

Any closing thoughts? Maybe about how any of these hosts/shows will change as the days drag on? Are they serving their audiences the right portions? And are you burned out on any of this just yet? To the point of wanting to hide behind more Fuller House episodes?

Fienberg: Oliver's show is interesting because he clearly doesn't want to attack the election dead-center, because that's not his way. But he got dragged into his recent Trump takedown and it almost certainly got his most exposure to date, so I understand if he goes back to shining light on underexposed topics, or if he feels a responsibility to take a flag and lead the charge. I definitely want Oliver and Bee to start exchanging notes on what they're doing each week, not because the world can't use multiple takedowns of hypocritical conservative policies on abortion, but just to spread the indignant love. 

There are definitely a lot of people doing this, and more than anything, it's important to view what they're doing vis-a-vis their strengths. Noah shouldn't have to do interviews and he shouldn't have to compete with Stewart. Fallon shouldn't be forced to waste 10 minutes on political monologues if he just doesn't care. And more people should be watching Bee and Meyers.

I don't think any comedian, even Jon Stewart, could have changed the direction of this election, so people had better enjoy laughing while it's funny and remember to vote before it's disastrous.