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It’s become a common sight on late-night television to see the host somberly address the nation in the wake of a tragic event like the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Orlando and Paris.
In fact, critics like The Hollywood Reporter‘s Frank Scheck have argued that such figures have often found themselves comforting a grieving nation.
“It’s late-night talk show hosts who seem to be doing the national hand-holding,” Scheck wrote after all of the major late-night players addressed the Las Vegas shooting in their first episodes since the incident occurred. “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.”
As for their “heartfelt, emotional speeches that invariably included sending thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families and appreciation for the courageous first responders,” Scheck wrote, “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.”
During a New York TV Festival panel on Tuesday night, presented with the Writers Guild of America East as part of a “Comedy for Change” series, late-night writers Opus Moreschi (The Late Show With Stephen Colbert), Ashley Nicole Black (Full Frontal With Samantha Bee), Zhubin Parang (The Daily Show With Trevor Noah) and Dina Gustovsky (Late Night With Seth Meyers) talked about crafting appropriate responses to tragedies.
While they all seemed to recognize an obligation to address the major story of the day when a tragic shooting occurred, at least Parang voiced mixed feelings about the late-night host serving as a moral compass for the nation.
He explained that in crafting the host’s speech, the Daily Show writers usually get together and talk about what they’re feeling, what there is to say that hasn’t been said before and how host Noah’s feeling about it, taking his reaction and trying to put that into an eloquent address with a few jokes where appropriate.
“I have a lot of mixed feelings about our role in doing this, just speaking on a personal level. It feels strange to me that late-night comedians are expected to be these moral compasses for the nation,” Parang said. “It feels unfair to everybody involved to ask someone whose primary job is to make jokes and give their point of view comedically on events to then suddenly don a moral armor and talk to the nation about what a tragedy means and how we’re going to rise above it. … I think now it’s become expected for every late-night comedian to do it in a way that I think is unfair to everybody involved. I recognize we don’t have the moral paragons that we used to have in President [Barack] Obama, for example, who I think regardless of what you thought about him politically certainly had a moral authority for the country. And I think with the lack of those completely in politics, the fact that it’s sort of devolved to comedians, I think, is sort of a mistake, and I kind of don’t like it.”
Added Late Show head writer Moreschi: “It’s hard because you have an obligation with your audience. They are tuning in to hear about what happened that day and that’s what happened that day. It’s this gross clash, like toothpaste and orange juice. It just doesn’t fit: Comedy and some tragedy — they are opposite sides of the coin for a reason. But you still have this obligation to address it. I think it would be disingenuous not to, to some degree, but then it also becomes a thing where you just struggle as a human to figure out a way to react to things in an honest way that isn’t diminishing the tragedy of it while at the same time, it is our job to write for comedy shows, so it is a hard thing.”
Late Night‘s Gustovsky pointed out that Meyers typically writes the opening of those shows himself before the show moves on to address other issues.
“I think it would feel a little odd not to [comment on the tragedy] because we are commenting on the day’s news and the day’s events and everything that’s going on, so to ignore something like that probably wouldn’t feel right either,” she said.
The panel, titled “The Crossroads of Journalism and Comedy,” was moderated by The New York Times‘ Jason Zinoman and billed as an exploration of how leaders in journalism and comedy are affecting the spread of news and how it is absorbed, particularly in an evolving news cycle that seems to move as fast as people can tweet.
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