“Comedy is a pretty good BS detector”: 5 writers look back at getting through year one of President Trump.
When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, many people found it impossible to understand what the coming age of Trump might actually entail. But within a few months, as the first year of Trump’s presidency began to unfold, it became clearer that at the very least, there would be chaos. News cycles started to break and conclude at an increasingly rapid clip, making the mere act of keeping up with headlines a competitive sport — and frequently, a deeply depressing one.
This presented something of a challenge to late-night comedy shows. As most people who work on such programs would be quick to remind you, late-night shows have a much different function than cable news: They’re comedic first responders, synthesizing the news of the day and presenting it in more palatable, punchline-filled segments that try to make some sense of what’s going on in the world — or, barring that, to highlight how the most ridiculous news stories can be hilarious too. But in 2017, more often than not, the late-night segments that seemed to resonate most with viewers tended to be more searingly mad or uncharacteristically somber than usual.
So it’s safe to say that late-night TV faced some unique challenges in 2017. That’s why, after watching and writing about their shows all year, I reached out via email to some of the people who make late-night shows happen with three questions about how they dealt with this unprecedented year and what they’ve learned to make things easier going forward. Here’s what they had to say.
The following interviews have been combined and condensed for length and clarity.
1) What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from adjusting to 2017’s breakneck news cycle?
Sal Gentile (writer/producer, Late Night With Seth Meyers): The first thing I’ve learned is to slow down, literally. During that frenzied week when Trump fired James Comey and it seemed like earth-shattering news was constantly breaking at 6 pm every night, I had a habit of sprinting up and down the halls of 30 Rock with stacks of paper flying out of my hands, running into people. It got to the point where the news cycle was literally becoming a physical hazard to our staff.
Zhubin Parang (head writer, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah): Much of it was just adapting to the faster pace of a workday, which has felt like going from college football to the NFL, both in speed and brain trauma. It’s not a lesson so much as a resignation that your script can be thrown out two hours before showtime.
Melinda Taub (head writer, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee): I’ve learned not to try to write the show early. If you think you know what the big story of the week is on Monday morning, Trump is sure to tweet something bonkers on Tuesday. We’ve had to learn to be very nimble, but that’s good in a way — we do our best writing when we are freaking out.
Steve Bodow (executive producer, The Daily ShowWith Trevor Noah): Trump provides. So don’t sweat too hard if you’re not 100 percent sure what you want to talk about on tomorrow’s show — because something will happen.
Gentile: There are days when news breaks late in the day and we literally have maybe 10 minutes to come up with something, and you just have to go with it. Even though it’s a little nerve-racking, it can also be liberating. Comedy writers tend to be overthinkers (myself very much included), but when news breaks late in the day you just have to be efficient, economical, and go with what you think is funny.
Ashley Nicole Black(writer/correspondent, Full Frontal): Verify everything! With the news cycle moving this quickly, it is easy to make mistakes. It’s also easy for people with an agenda to put out tempting false information to try to trick you into making a mistake.
Gentile: The news these days can feel so manic and disorienting and head-spinning, one of our guiding principles every day is just to sort of plant our feet on the ground of reality and say, “Things feel crazy right now; let’s reassess where we are, how we got here, and why it matters.” And we’ve gotten good at doing that on a very tight time frame.
Prang: If anything, it’s taught us to value those few segments where we’re able to take a breath and talk about a larger trend or issue. Our Chicago episodes, for example, gave us a chance to look more in depth at Chicago’s history of violence and how it’s used as a political weapon, and we went through multiple drafts to refine our thoughts and jokes, because the time feels like such a luxury now we don’t want to waste it.
2) Name a segment your show did this year that you’re particularly proud of
Black: Any time we get music on the show! It’s always a lot of fun, and it’s a particular challenge to write music that is funny, engaging, and factually accurate. Sometimes we do all that and even manage to rhyme! I’m particularly proud of “Kris Kobach: Racist Music Man.”
Bodow: Our string of Trump/Comey/Mueller/Russia coverage in that nutso week in May was an ideal blend of late-breaking, adrenaline-y jokes with some wider-angle observations from Trevor. And Trevor’s interview with Tiffany Haddish was maybe the funniest thing I saw this year.
Taub: I’m very proud of our segment about journalists who covered Hillary Clinton’s campaign who have since been disgraced for sexual misconduct. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of how much damage those creeps have done to all of us. We’ve certainly only scratched the surface of how angry I am about it.
Gentile: The [“A Closer Look”] segments on Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and Trump, because we worked really hard to place the news in the broader context of the systemic misogyny that pervades virtually every institution and industry in American society. And we also wanted to make sure we explored how that systemic misogyny enables these predatory men and their abuses of power.
Taub: I am also proud to be the first female comedy writer to put a joke on the air about how Mark Halperin has a bad dick.
3) How do you balance writing comedy about increasingly scary news with knowing that your show is sometimes people’s primary news source?
Bodow: The Daily Show has been dealing with this tension for 10 or 15 years: “Given that polls show most young people get their news from you, what obligation do you feel…” And the answer truly is: We feel no obligation per se. The impetus to inform, when we feel it, doesn’t come from the outside. It’s completely internal. Stuff has happened in the world, we have feelings and opinions about it, and we want to express them on our TV show.
Black: Our job is to provide a laugh, and some context or perspective that isn’t already out there. Sometimes we do cover issues that have not gotten a lot of mainstream coverage, but even then, we rely on the work of real journalists to do so.
Taub: We start from the assumption that our audience is already up to date on the news and it’s making them depressed.
Gentile: Our mission first and foremost is to be funny. But on top of that, I always want to make sure we’re synthesizing the avalanche of bewildering news that seems to come at us every day in a way that makes sense of things for the viewer and gives them important context for understanding what’s happening and why. And we want to be unflinching. A lot of the news this year has been pretty horrific and depressing, but we want to take it head on, and we’ve found that doing that can be cathartic, and in that catharsis there can be comedy.
Bodow: We’ve always believed — under Jon [Stewart], and now very similarly with Trevor — that we’re here to tell jokes first and make points second. And we’ve assumed that audiences come to us because they also want both of those things, in that priority order. However, that assumption may have become less accurate in 2017.
I literally just saw a headline, “The Year’s Best Late Night Moments Weren’t Funny At All.” (Which — one, #sad, and two, how long can that last? The emergency novelty of comedians as truth-telling sincerity beacons is going to wear off, right?)
And we feel this shift in our studio audience on many nights now too. Yes, most folks are still there for an entertaining good time. But there are people now who clearly haven’t come for jokes — they’ve come for church. Progressive, secular church, but church just the same.
Gentile: Something else I’ve realized this year is that comedy is actually surprisingly well-suited for these head-spinning times in at least one sense: Comedy is a pretty good BS detector. When you do comedy, you’re essentially just pointing out strange or unusual things — things we all, on some level, universally recognize as strange and unusual — and commenting on those things. We all have an innate BS detector, which is our sense of humor. So using comedy can be especially powerful in pointing out and making fun of disinformation, and that can feel cathartic too.