It's fun to skip stones across a shallow pond, to watch them bounce a couple of times, make a few ripples, then sink and be forgotten. Late-night political comedy used to be just like that, when Johnny Carson would toss out a throwaway quip or two about Richard Nixon – barely more than a one-liner, at best – then quickly move on to the "meat and potatoes" of The Tonight Show, his celebrity guests.
How times have changed. Sure, the stars still come out at night, but they are getting less and less couch time. Instead, they’re being eclipsed by hosts like Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee, who prefer to pour their airtime, comic energy, quizzical correspondents and research budget into biting parody of what has become a daily political firestorm.
In many instances, these contemporary court jesters have become better at reporting the truth than the cable and network news honchos who – as well as being held back by the conventions of traditional journalism and shrinking budgets – cannot tap the comedic tools that help the talk-show tsars nail down the slippery facts in stories that wriggle like eels in our “fake news” era.
“One of the big pop-culture stories of 2017 is the continued relevance of late-night comedy as part of the civic and political conversation,” says Bob Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Centre for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
“I think what’s interesting is that not only are we getting these much more sophisticated programmes, they’re really well-researched. They get the clips. They play the contradictions. I’m not willing to call it journalism – but it is investigative comedy – and it’s an important part of the conversation,” he adds.
David E Kaplan of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, an international association of non-profit organisations that support, promote and produce investigative journalism, gives the entertainers even more credit.
“While steeped in wisecracks and satire, the shows have a hard political edge and often stir controversy,” he says. “Increasingly, in the absence of serious news from the ‘real’ news media, they also are getting into actual journalism.”
The DNA of today's investigative comedy traces back to Saturday Night Live and its Weekend Update, a spoof news segment created by original anchor Chevy Chase in 1975. In successive SNL seasons, it went on to lampoon the revered news show 60 Minutes with its own version of Point/Counterpoint, in which hosts Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain traded insults as they debated the issues of the day.
All fluff aside, things got seriously politically funny with the bruising, pull-no-punches rhetoric of Jon Stewart, who quickly discarded the lightweight, fraternity-boy comic stylings of original host Craig Kilborn when he took the reins of The Daily Show in 1999.
"And then the 2000 US election came along. And that was the one the Supreme Court had to decide, with the hanging chads, and all of that," says Thompson. "At that, The Daily Show kicked in and became something different. While still technically the news parody that it had been, it became much more trenchant, much better researched, with longer pieces – and television's political conversation really changed at that point."
Stewart flexed a ferocity and courage that was often found lacking in the mainstream media. “He did some really important work when the Gulf War started; even journalists were afraid to do that story too hard, because they were afraid they would be looked upon as unpatriotic – and in the post-9/11 era, they were shy about doing that,” says Thompson.
"The Daily Show hammered that story – and the validity of going into a war and the Weapons of Mass Destruction and all of that. And they were off and running. The show became this crucible, this training ground, this nursery for the stars of today's political satire."
First among Stewart's crew to spread his shrieking-eagle wings was Colbert, who did The Colbert Report (2005-2014), a Comedy Central cable parody inspired by outspoken right-wing pundit Bill O'Reilly, before taking over The Late Show on the CBS broadcast network from David Letterman in 2015.
Others who honed their investigative comedy skills at Stewart's satire shop include: Oliver (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO, 2014-present); Bee (Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, TBS, 2016-present); Larry Wilmore (The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Comedy Central, 2015-16); Jordan Klepper (The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, Comedy Central, 2017-present); and, briefly, Noah, who rapidly ascended to host The Daily Show two years ago.
“In some ways, they can do in a comic mode, what journalists have had trouble doing in a journalistic mode,” says Thompson, who singles out Oliver for his “long-form essays on single subjects that sometimes are extraordinarily enlightening”.
Oliver told Rolling Stone last year: "If you're just making fun of personalities and soundbites, then you're just attacking the window dressing, and there's only shallow satisfaction in that. What I liked most about The Daily Show [is] that Jon would really try and reach beyond just the fun sound bites. You could absolutely have fun with them, but that was the dessert. Those are the things that you could use to get people to listen to the main thrust of what you're saying."
The cable successes of the past year or two have not gone unnoticed by the broadcast-network brass, who have beefed up their “old guard” legacy shows with a more aggressive stance – letting Colbert sink in his anti-Trump fangs with an eager vitriol, or having Kimmel cry angry tears about gun control after the Las Vegas massacre, or about United States health care while holding his infant son Billy in his arms.
Others have skewed their hour to sunnier, frothier fare with America's party animal (The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, NBC) or let loose an effusive Carpool Karaoke-loving Brit (The Late Late Show with James Corden, CBS) to set them apart from the political wolf pack.
Although he's now the ratings champ, the politically-vicious Colbert initially "limped into the arena [as a nice guy] when he took over The Late Show at CBS from Letterman", says Thompson. "And then Colbert started becoming one of the most aggressive – I think sometimes over-the-line tasteless – in his satire and parody over Trump. And sure enough, he started getting closer and closer in the rear-view mirror of Jimmy Fallon. Now, in total viewers, he often beats Fallon.
“Kimmel was always doing lots of Trump jokes and that kind of thing, but he’s added voltage to it recently with these impassioned monologues where he cries and all of that kind of thing. You can do that a few times and it gets everybody’s attention – but if you do it too often, it loses impact.”
Meyers has also jacked up his profile through the sheer excellence of his writing, perhaps second only to Oliver, as he fires his A Closer Look segment like a harpoon straight into the dark heart of the roiling news scene daily on his Late Night with Seth Meyers (2014-present) on NBC.
The odd man out these days seems to be the famously ginger, short-lived The Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien, whose Conan (2010-present) on Comedy Central rarely comes up in water-cooler conversations nowadays.
“Colbert has ripped off a lot of his mannerisms, like walking off camera, and doing the big physical stuff,” says Thompson. “Conan’s a lot more avant-garde than Fallon is. I think his comedy is smarter – but it’s not the stuff that adapts when one gets into a massive news cycle like we’re in now.
“Therefore, we see fewer clips of him. We see fewer people providing links about what he says. Conan does a different kind of comedy and I don’t think it adapts as well.”
While the most belligerent of the late-night hosts continue to feast and prosper on the “low-hanging fruit” – plucking away at the most-obvious joke fodder coming out of Washington, DC – they may not have the last laugh.
“In the long run, people like Corden and Fallon and Conan, they have an advantage,” believes Thompson, “because they’re not going to the same well as all of the others.”
When it comes to American investigative comedy, cable is doing a better job of fostering diversity. “Yes, over at network TV, it’s still all white men – Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden, Conan O’Brien and Jordan Klepper,” says Bob Thompson of the Bleier Centre for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “But if you expand to cable and all the stuff that came out of The Daily Show – you’ve got two women, Samantha Bee, host of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on TBS, and Robin Thede, host of The Rundown with Robin Thede on BET.”
Thede, with her celebrated sketch-comedy roots, became the first African-American woman to be a head writer for a late-night talk show (The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore) in 2015. She’s now a third-generation Daily Show success – since Wilmore was groomed by Jon Stewart.
Thompson praises Bee as “one of the relatively rare female voices in this arena. Like John Oliver, she does a very strongly argued, impassioned half-hour once a week”.
The few women who have enjoyed talk-show success over the past three decades include Joan Rivers, the first female to host her own show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers (1986-1988 in syndication), comedian/actress Mo’Nique with The Mo’Nique Show (2009-2011) on BET, and Chelsea Handler, whose Chelsea Lately (2007-2014) ran on the E! network.
Asked by Mother Jones magazine why the late-night gender gap exists, Bee said: “When you think about the women who have come before me in that space, it’s such a small number of people. It’s really unthinkably small. I really don’t know why.”
For a while on Comedy Central, from September 2015 to August 2016, diversity prevailed in a way that had never been seen before, carrying the entire late-night block with its Daily Show hosted by a South African, Trevor Noah, and The Nightly Show, right after it, hosted by an African-American, Larry Wilmore.
Wilmore, 56, however, despite his refreshingly honest Keep It 100 panel discussions on issues of race and US politics, failed to gain sufficient ratings traction with young viewers and was replaced by Klepper, 38.