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American Comedy Tries to Avoid a Repeat of History

US talk show hosts are taking a radically different approach to Donald Trump this time around, reports Eleanor Longman-Rood

British-born US comedy host John Oliver. Photo: Chad Cooper/Flickr

American Comedy Tries to Avoid a Repeat of History

US talk show hosts are taking a radically different approach to Donald Trump this time around, reports Eleanor Longman-Rood

Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin is not a name many will have heard. But, more often than not, people have heard recounts of the story he is most famous for. Back in 19th Century revolutionary France, he called out to a stampede of civilians: “look, there are my people, I must find out where they are going, so I can lead them”.

It is an instructive tale for politicians. One that encourages them to lead, not follow. However, this anecdote is relevant to others, particularly in election year. That includes television hosts and producers, caught out by the shock victory of Donald Trump in 2016, and determined to steer the popular will so it doesn’t happen again.

In normal times, the arts are a good indicator of the political tone of society. However, these are not normal times. The arts no longer follow or mirror politics, but rather attempt to set it. Less than a month away from an era-defining Presidential election, gone are the droll, harmless critiques of Trump; the high-minded mockery of his political inexperience. The mood has become a lot more serious, and urgent.

The Privilege of Apathy

Late night talk shows are a dominant feature of American culture. A political lifetime ago these shows were not so inherently political. John Koblin of The New York Times wrote last October that the formula for these shows used be “simple”. Keep it light and the conversation moving and you’re onto a winner.

However, in light of the erosion of democracy, impeachment and serial incompetence, this formula is outdated, Koblin notes. People no longer use these shows as a form of escapism, but rather a way of understanding the bizarre, challenging political events unfolding before them.

Previously sticking to light-hearted, accessible comedy, Late Late Show host James Corden has become increasingly political. Sharing a video clip of Trump pledging to give the rest of the country the same treatment he experienced when suffering from COVID-19, Corden jibed: “does that mean we don’t have to pay taxes either?”.

Corden’s show has also recently hosted a musical parody of Paul McCartney’s “maybe I’m amazed,” switching the word “amazed” for “immune”, when referring to the President’s somewhat self-declared superhuman recovery. It’s certainly a jump from the tame episode two-years ago, when the musical icon and Corden drove around Liverpool belting out his classics.

Joining Corden is another pond-hopping host John Oliver, who hosts Last Week Tonight. Oliver has amplified his rhetoric in the last four years from jovial yet exasperated to that of utter desperation and urgency.

Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah and Jimmy Fallon have all matched this trend; turning their shows into forums for political debate. In 2020, it takes privilege to turn a blind eye to politics, even for comedians. Especially for those whose flippant derision of Trump backfired on polling day. They don’t want to be culpable again.

And this attitude is not reserved to satire. High-end dramas are returning to influence the debate and reclaim their platform. The obvious example is ‘The West Wing’, the cast of which has reunited for the first time in 17 years for a one-off reimagining of the episode ‘Hartsfield’s Landing’ – in an effort to encourage people to vote.

Critiquing this glorious show seems blasphemous. It’s an iconic political drama that defined a genre. Yet, the reunion does have some problematic elements.


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Despite being used by the left – the reunion is organised in alliance with ‘When We All Vote,’ co-chaired by Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton – the cast and production team remain predominately white. Naturally, it is possible for a predominantly white cast to highlight issues that afflict black and minority ethnic communities. However, given this election is framed by racial injustice, it seems remiss to shut out minority ethnic voices.

The famous, heart-wrenching, catchphrase of The West Wing is “what’s next?”. This is ironically the question now on everyone’s lips; the question that no-one knows how to answer. What happens if the Trump campaign does emerge victorious on 5 November? Will satire run out of jokes?

As the separation of power weakens in the United States, politics is now everywhere, even on late-night comfort television. When the stakes are so high, it is sheer privilege to expect otherwise.

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