By Jim Sabataso
As far as years go, 2016 was not great. From Brexit and Donald Trump to the war in Syria and ISIL — not to mention the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and even Alan Thicke — it felt, at times, like the world was coming apart at the seams this year. At times like this, humor is essential in helping us cope with such uncertainty and anxiety. Late-night television has always served as a platform for processing those feelings on the news of the day with a dose of humor.
The degree to which a particular show engages with real-world issues, however, is entirely up to the host. Much has been made about the late-night format and its degradation at the hands of Jimmy Fallon, whose congenial reign on NBC’s “Tonight Show” and previously “Late Night” has traded genuine comedy for easy entertainment. Yes, watching celebrities lip-sync and play charades can be fun, but it’s decidedly not comedy. And the fawning way in which Fallon treats all his guests — see: his chummy, hair-ruffling interview with Donald Trump — makes him seem like a network yes-man who’s more interested in pleasing everyone than doing anything remotely innovative or interesting with the format.
To be fair, that’s Fallon’s choice. And there is nothing inherently wrong with what he’s doing on the “Tonight Show.” Television needs one-size-fits-all shows; let’s just not pretend they are anything more than easy-to-watch, advertiser-friendly, if occasionally entertaining, schlock.
In 2016, however, several late-night talkshows stepped up their games and delivered the kind of smart, trenchant satire audiences are desperately craving right now. Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president, the common refrain has been that, despite all his terrible flaws, he must be great for comedy. While most comedians would likely happily trade all those bad-hair jokes for a world without a President Trump, the events of this year did provide the right conditions for the kind of righteous liberal comedy we haven’t seen since the heyday of George W. Bush.
There were a lot of bright spots this year, so let’s take a look at a few of them. Full disclosure, my coverage here is less than comprehensive. Like most viewers, I consume my late-night TV via the day-after clips that get passed around on social media. Apologies, “The Daily Show,” though I hear Trevor Noah has been doing great work lately. Also, condolences to Larry Wilmore on the cancellation of “The Nightly Show.” It was a good and important show that just took a little too long to find its feet. Hopefully, Wilmore finds another platform; his wit and insight is necessary now more than ever. (I’ve also omitted HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” which has been consistently great. I’ve talked about it at length already so, for brevity’s sake, I don’t feel the need to revisit it.)
‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ (CBS)
When Stephen Colbert debuted as the host of the “Late Show” on CBS, he seemed like a worthy successor to David Letterman’s comedy throne. It was a rocky start. There were flashes of Colbert’s former impish self, but the incisive wit and bold commentary of “The Colbert Report” were largely absent. This summer, however, Colbert found his voice when he allowed himself to get political. His live coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions brought a new energy to the show. His full-throated opposition to Donald Trump has since made him the most visible dissenter of the president-elect on TV. Five nights a week, Colbert rails against Trump on a major broadcast network. Critics have questioned CBS’ wisdom in allowing this — why deliberately alienate half your audience? — but so far the network has been content to let Colbert be Colbert. The result is a markedly better show, with a host who is clearly more relaxed, engaged and energized.
‘Full Frontal with Samantha Bee’ (TBS)
A woman trying to make it in a man’s field, former “Daily Show” correspondent Sam Bee knows how to stand out among the boys. “Full Frontal” debuted quietly on TBS in February, where it was unclear whether it would sink or swim on the second-tier cable channel. The political climate of 2016, however, created the ideal conditions for Bee’s success. Her show-opening monologues served as humorous and withering political analysis on issues of racism, misogyny, the alt-right and every other deplorable aspect of the 2016 election. Her clips consistently went viral, especially the ones where she took on Trump. As a woman, Bee was in a unique position to take on Trump’s misogyny and alleged history of sexual assault. On the show, she exposed hypocrisies and took male politicians to task for their positions on women’s health issues. In doing so, Bee became a major player on late-night and an essential satirical voice in the Trump era.
‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’ (NBC)
Seth Meyers’ run as co-anchor of “Saturday Night Live’s” “Weekend Update” was one of the segment’s better runs in recent memory. Meyers is clearly interested in politics and news, and has keen insight on a number of issues. His quick wit and ability to form compelling, intelligent arguments made him well-suited for the 2016 election. In his “A Closer Look” segment, he expounds at length on a single topic — Trump’s conflicts of interest, the alt-right, the North Carolina GOP — offering clips, examples and righteous commentary reminiscent of “The Daily Show” or a CliffsNotes version of “Last Week Tonight.” The segment succeeds as a solid piece of both comedy and criticism, pointing to and calling out bullshit in ways most traditional media outlets dare not.