Six months after Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States, it feels as if America has never been more obsessed with late-night political comedy.
A willingness to wade ever deeper into political waters has been widely credited for ratings success: Stephen Colbert beat out former late-night king Jimmy Fallon, a happily apolitical host, in total viewers this season largely by attacking the president. Meanwhile, Season 42 of “Saturday Night Live” enjoyed a 23-year ratings high with Melissa McCarthy’s role as Sean Spicer, Kate McKinnon’s turn as Kellyanne Conway and Alec Baldwin’s spot-on Trump.
But as biting as it can be, the humor of “SNL” and “The Late Show” probably isn’t changing any minds.
If anything, the country’s love affair with political comedy may actually be deepening the divides that characterized the 2016 presidential election, according to one researcher.
To Heather LaMarre, who studies politics in entertainment media at Temple University, the Trump jokes and satire that flood social media are nothing new. What’s different about the past several months has been the environment those jokes are landing in. Trump, unlike many of his presidential predecessors, is responding ― loudly and with anger.
Whereas public figures might have ignored comedians in the past, or been good sports and gone along with the jabs, Trump has gone the opposite route, attacking comics over Twitter. His repeated comments have wedged a line: You are either with Trump, and against late-night, or with late-night, and against Trump. That can make Americans just a little bit curious to see what all the fuss is about, driving up ratings to shows.
But in such an aggressive environment, no one softens enough to allow themselves to be persuaded. They just dig their heels into previously held attitudes, meaning conservative and liberal viewers likely turn from the latest “SNL” skit or Seth Meyers monologue with different takes.
“The people who were already anti-Trump are going to become more anti-Trump, and the people who are pro-Trump are not going to walk away from him just because of something a political comedian said,” LaMarre said.
She then added, “Especially if they think of that comedian as a Hollywood elite.”
Despite being a former reality TV star, Trump routinely separates himself from Hollywood, and many of his public lashings out have revolved around a theme of victimization by such elites and the press that cover them.
LaMarre argues that Trump has aligned late-night comedians even more closely with Hollywood celebrities and the press ― groups he does not like ― by attacking them on Twitter or elsewhere. Doing so “raises this automatic reaction among anybody who maybe doesn’t like the press, or doesn’t like Hollywood’s influence in politics, which largely is the conservative base in America,” she said.
For more liberal viewers, late-night shows offer a feeling of catharsis as their beliefs are articulated and reinforced.
“Political entertainment provides a release valve,” LaMarre said.
At least one host sees that as his precise purpose ― as “an emotional release valve” ― and certainly doesn’t have grand ideas about his impact on the American political landscape.
“We’re not actually affecting the world,” Colbert told an audience at New York’s Vulture Festival on Saturday, asked whether he ever felt as if his show wasn’t making a difference. “It’s an art in that we’re an emotional effect on the audience, but we don’t affect the world of policy that much.”
“The truth of it is that you’re shouting into an Altoid tin and throwing it off an overpass,” the host said of his ability to influence politics.
LaMarre laughed at that characterization, countering that even if it’s not changing the world, late-night TV can be “very enjoyable and entertaining for people.”
“It can have a lot of emotional benefit even if it doesn’t have a politically persuasive outcome,” she said.
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