Late night talk shows are meant to raise awareness. It’s their function and their goal: promotion for a guest’s new movie, emphasizing today’s trending topics, or proving the host is conscious of the pop culture you’re already enjoying.
They’re centrist, broad comedy by nature, approximating what the largest possible cross-section of people will like. (Especially now that they live on the next day as YouTube clips.) Jon Snow comes to dinner. Adele raps Nicki Minaj. What hashtags can be remixed and wed for maximum appeal? In that way, late night actually makes awareness its business.
Then, they’re also aware of this photo, and what it says about the mostly quite traditional faces of the timeslot. But recently, acknowledging that straight, white, maleness gets you Stephen Colbert asking DeRay McKesson how to check his privilege, or having Rashida Jones define feminism, or running to hug his bandleader for ally cred while interviewing Laurence Fishburne about #OscarsSoWhite and Black-ish. In these instances, the still-evolving Late Show may be noble in its bookings and interview topics, but it all feels like playing a special kind of CBS-dumb from Colbert, who, of course, not long ago hosted the most unflinching satire in television history. In Letterman’s wake, Colbert’s political curiosity impresses when he’s Errol Morris-ing Donald Rumsfeld better than Errol Morris did in his own documentary, but the interviews don’t reliably have teeth.
Plus, Colbert is a network host who’s actually trying to open up his desk and chair for political dialogue. There’s no such space on the politically allergic Tonight Show. Most often, late night hosts feel like they’re searching for a kind of permission just to exist from guests or sidekicks they don’t resemble. Colbert and Jimmy Fallon easily fall prey. I have a lot of friends who are black… they play in my band.
Enter a countervailing segment that’s appeared three times this summer on Late Night With Seth Meyers. “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” is an idea as genuine as it is intelligent as it is simple. (The Seth Meyers triad, you might call that.) Late Night writers Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel alley-oop the punchlines to shelved monologue jokes, or as Meyers puts it, “jokes that due to my being a straight, white male would be difficult for me to deliver.” The schtick is so thoroughly premised that its preceding jingle and writer introductions make fun of the need to even do it. ”I’m black!” Ruffin cries joyfully. “I’m gay!” Hagel adds. “And we’re both women!” On the most practical level, this means back-burnered jokes by black and gay women are actually making it to air. Here, raised awareness is actually altering the makeup of the show.
They really shift into high gear when Meyers giddily turns to Ruffin or Hagel as though they’ve just gotten away with something. See Ruffin delivering a pointed police brutality slam: “African Americans are seeing a gain in life expectancy… said police, ‘Sorry, we’re trying our best.’” Meyers shimmies and squirms and says appreciably, “I’m really glad I didn’t tell that one.” Ruffin responds with an earnest, bit-breaking “I’m really glad I did.” And the look Ruffin gives the camera in that moment says, “I await your angry tweets, if I didn’t just paralyze your typing fingers.”
The segment’s best quality, though, is staging and simulating a comedy debate about who can or should make what jokes, without actually having that debate. Posing that topic directly risks an interview question comedians dread, or this portion from Talking Funny where four 50-year-old men largely dismiss cultural sensitivity. These discussions about what identity in comedy allows concern both a trade and a philosophy where the results really depend on the source’s personality and appreciation of their own socio-political limits.
“Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” is having this entire conversation about identity within a four-minute bit. Meyers would be off-brand and out-of-bounds to do the material, but remiss to let it die in the writer’s room. Each segment ends in fake outrage when, because it’s gone so well up to this point, the writers encourage Meyers to try one of the race- or gender-specific zingers. When Meyers makes a go of it, Ruffin and Hagel feign horror and the host claims betrayal with an exaggerated accusation like “Black women and lesbians are liars!”
By the third and most recent installment of the sketch, they’re prodding the lunacy of humor licensing for different groups even further. Fellow writer Jermaine Affonso appears to sign off on behalf of all Indian-Americans so Ruffin can tell an IT guy joke. That same episode, Hagel finishes off a line about New York City apartment buildings being quiet during the Puerto Rican Day Parade and Meyers tries to play identity legislator: “Wait, Jenny, the problem here is you can’t tell that joke…”
“Yes I can,” Hagel responds, “I’m Puerto Rican.”
“Oh, you don’t look…”
“I don’t look what?”
Through the planned missteps from Meyers, the innocence of the gag is that its rules are all read out front. It’s saying, “We don’t think it’s a good idea for a straight white guy to tell these jokes, so you should hear them from the people they concern.” Late Night is, after all, the most politically plugged-in network talk show (see the near-nightly “A Closer Look” segments, which Hagel co-writes), with a host whose lack of onscreen ego doesn’t end at self-deprecation. Meyers isn’t the secret star of “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” either. You walk away wanting more from Ruffin and Hagel. The face of the show is, in effect, emphasizing that the production has a body and that the former SNL head writer has deep feeling for more than what makes it to air for an hour each weekday. And it looks socially healthier than what, four years ago, would have been obligatory cut to Kevin Eubanks for a permissive laugh, or a host’s racial awareness reaching its conclusion with Conan’s awkward white guy pantomime.
Zero in on the split second at which Meyers tells the conclusive joke. In the instant before the mock offense (when the crowd explodes in laughter), the audience is actually unsettled, mumbling or oo-ing low in apprehension. If the true test here is what an audience finds applaudable from whom, the jokes Seth can’t tell prove the heart of the comedy equation correct.
Chance Solem-Pfeifer lives in Portland, writes about film for Willamette Week and produces the movie podcast Be Reel, Guys.