Yesterday, less than 24 hours after the mass murder in Las Vegas, TV’s late-night hosts went into crisis mode. They know how to do this now, just as cable news anchors know how to pack a go-bag and be ready to jump on a plane so they can report from the latest site of tragedy and horror. And we, the audience, now look for it; we’re no longer surprised or jarred by the suspension of comedy or by a talk show beginning with a performer looking ashen. We look to these hosts to speak to us — and sometimes for us. At the Emmys this year, there were joking grumbles from Stephen Colbert and James Corden about what an unfair advantage it is that this year’s winner in their category, John Oliver, only has to do one show a week. But the kind of breaking news that rivets the country to its TV sets is the one area in which the nightly guys can claim the advantage of immediacy.
On Monday, they did so in ways that were both respectful to the moment and true to who each of them are, all beginning their shows with remarks delivered as cold openings. Conan O’Brien, a meta-master of the joke about the joke, went for the non-joke about the non-joke, noting that when he “began this job in 1993, occasions like this were extremely rare … Today, when I came into work, my head writer was standing in my office with a sheet of paper, and said, ‘Here are the remarks you made after the Sandy Hook shootings and the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando’ … That struck me: How could there be a file of mass shooting remarks for a late-night host? When did that become normal?” Corden, who is, of course, English, spoke as America’s bewildered ally — how could his currently adopted country be so defined by gun violence? “I come from a place where we don’t have shootings of this frequency so it’s hard for me to fathom,” he said plaintively. “It should be hard for everyone to fathom. Gun violence should not be a staple of American life.” Stephen Colbert, who comes to politics more naturally, called for Congress to act, saying bluntly, “Doing nothing is cowardice,” and Seth Meyers, who tracks political hypocrisy and double-talk more savagely than any of his colleagues, aimed his remarks directly at Congress as well, saying, “It would be so much more honest if you would just admit that your plan is to never talk about it and never take any action.”
All of these hosts spoke from the heart, appropriately and effectively. Their demeanor was somber and their words were thoughtful and well chosen. But for the second time in a month, the one we found ourselves wanting to watch — the one we let ourselves believe might share our feelings and actually make a difference — was Jimmy Kimmel, who has become television’s most unlikely spokesman for a nation baffled and frustrated by Trump and the Republican Congress in 2017.
The other hosts spoke calmly for two or three minutes each. Kimmel, shaky and intermittently crying, spoke for nine. This is the second major news story of the year to hit him where he lives; the first was the health crisis faced by his infant son Billy, born in April, which turned Kimmel into an impassioned advocate for universal health care and a guarantee of coverage for preexisting conditions, leading Republican senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana to coin the phrase “the Kimmel test” when explaining what a GOP ACA repeal bill would have to offer. When Cassidy’s own bill failed that test last month, Kimmel went from frightened father to infuriated scourge, using the platform of his show to call Cassidy out for dishonesty over four consecutive nights. His caustic, fact-packed monologues got reams of news coverage and emblematized the degree to which the political can become personal when it’s about your life, your family, your child. Cassidy tried to fight back, but to the extent that this became a national debate, Kimmel won.
Last night, it was personal again — Kimmel grew up in Las Vegas and reminded audiences that’s not a dream palace but a real city filled with real people. And he got very specific about Congress’s consistent failure to pass or even consider gun laws, saying bluntly of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan that “the NRA has their balls in a money clip. [They sent] their thoughts and prayers today — which is good. They should be praying. They should be praying for God to forgive them for letting the gun lobby run this country.” This wasn’t Kimmel chasing the studio-audience political approval known as “clapter”; his audience leaned in, absolutely silent for more than seven minutes before finally applauding at the line, “No American needs an M16.” Kimmel concluded his remarks, his voice continuing to break, by saying, “I’m sorry for getting emotional. I’m not great with this kind of thing. But I think it’s important.”
Being “not great with this kind of thing” is exactly why Kimmel is, right this minute, the most important host in late-night TV, a designation he would no doubt shun. In March, I wrote a critical piece that rounded up how various hosts were handling the Trump administration. I had a lot to say about many of them, and little to say about Kimmel other than that he doesn’t “seem to have an immense appetite” for taking on the politics of the moment. I stand by that: He doesn’t. And his reluctance — he didn’t ask for this — is what makes him so essential. In politics, elected officials fear few things more that the swing voter, or the voter who goes from indifferent to galvanized. That does not describe Seth Meyers, who gets into politics with welcome precision and terrier avidity, or John Oliver, who makes a banquet of wonkish specifics. Kimmel doesn’t — or didn’t until this year. His awkwardness — his voice quavers when he’s angry or upset, he can ramble, and every word isn’t perfectly chosen — is the awkwardness of someone who is awakening to the fact that “politics” can’t be walled off in an area that’s separate from personal experience. Kimmel is why, in every State of the Union address and political stem-winder, elected officials trying to make a point resort to “Like the story of Mary Smith, from Ames City, Iowa, who …” In their clumsy, manipulative, PowerPoint-and-whiteboard way, they’re trying to teach you that “politics” matters when it happens to you.
Kimmel embodies that right now. He’s the guy who got hit in the gut because it was his family, his hometown, his life. And his response — to fill himself with information and to insist that what he is embracing is so steeped in either common sense or human decency that it can’t even be consider a partisan position (though of course it is) feels both instinctive and remarkably shrewd. As I write, Kimmel’s remarks from last night have already been viewed on YouTube by three to five times as many people as those of his late-night colleagues. He is not the comedian I would have guessed would have become the avatar for a fed-up reaction to our political era — and I recoil from the word “authentic,” which has too many different meanings to too many different users to be of much value as a discussion point. But these days, Kimmel feels like the real thing — shaky, flummoxed at the way things are going, and increasingly insistent that our elected officials be better people. More than anyone in late night, he is speaking in a way that seems to invite if not insist upon consensus — his strategy, if it can be called that, is to say, “We may not agree on much, but can we at least agree on this?”
Gun control is a notoriously difficult issue on which to budge Congress. It is hard for me to disagree with all the people who have said that if 20 dead children in Connecticut didn’t prick at the souls of elected officials enough for them to take action, nothing will. But if that is to change, it will probably take more voices like Kimmel’s to do it. I don’t want to overstate his impact, but I will also note that in the era of Twitter, streaming, and TV coverage about TV, his words are reaching far more people than those few million who watch his show in real time every night. “Far more than a few million” is a number that can scare just about any elected official. And right now, Kimmel is scaring them better than anyone else on television.