this week in late night

Trump, Late Night, and the Motif of Harmful Sensation

Michelle Wolf on The Break. Photo: Netflix

One of the best tropes in horror is the motif of harmful sensation: something is so awful to look at or to be exposed to that it will drive a person mad or even kill anyone that comes in contact with the big bad book/art/song. Stephen King’s “1408,” Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, or Monty Python’s “Funniest Joke Ever Written” all center on people whose grip on reality and physical well-being are imperiled by even being aware of something. Perfect website TV Tropes named this phenomenon the Brown Note after the alleged tone that will make someone shit their pants.

The news has become a Brown Note, and it’s affecting our late-night hosts.

Watch Conan O’Brien remark that the best thing about doing his show at Comic-Con is being that close to Mexico. Should America go tits-up, he’s 15 minutes away from a saner country. (Although if you saw John Oliver’s piece on the Mexican presidential election, you’d know things aren’t exactly tits-down over there.) Then he practically baits the audience of nerds to tear him limb-from-limb by ragging on Solo: A Star Wars Story.

It makes sense that late-night hosts are heavily impacted by this insanity-causing administration. First, they watch more news than most in order to mock it. But more important, late-night hosts all see themselves as the last scion of Carson: America’s funny uncle. Talk-show monologues are supposed to be a report on the monoculture. They reflect whatever consensus our nation can come to — that’s why you cut to Leno’s monologue in every movie or TV series to show that your main character is having a national impact. But there is no common consensus in America anymore. We can’t even agree on the basic definition of words or what the weather is like. There is no middle ground, which has to wear on the people who are supposed pander to the middle. Sanity slippage might account for why Stephen Colbert is clinging to “lol Trump is gay for dictators” jokes. Surely a sane man would have cut that shit out a while ago. His feeling of defeat, bordering on nihilism, pervades even celebrity interviews. How does Colbert sneak in the sentiment that it feels like God is missing from the universe into an interview about Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again?

Late night did find a way to reflect on the one thing we all seemed to agree on this week: Trump really screwed the pooch in Helsinki. Even Fox News slammed POTUS for his ham-fisted attempts to (depending on how you vote) either obfuscate his own collusion or play the diplomat. He clearly sucked at both. Seth Meyers’s Closer Look on Wednesday was all about the imploding Republican party, and The Daily Show pointed out that “Donald Trump is so bad at being president, he made the Terminator sigh.”

Everyone is coping as best they can. Samantha Bee came back from a long hiatus reinvigorated, and pointed out all the ways women’s reproductive rights are imperiled by Brett Kavanaugh.

Jimmy Kimmel threw his hands up in resignation and declared that we’d be better off with a chimp as president. And Michelle Wolf came after the genre that feeds her, lampooning the current state of political satire with “Segment Time.”

Wolf broke down the formulaic nature of viral political segments, addressing both the insanity of the news and the inanity of weak political humor. The segment could have been slamming any number of political comedians. Her emphatic, pause-for-clapter delivery could be Sam Bee or John Oliver or anyone who came out of the Daily Show school of rhetoric. The structure most closely followed Closer Look by Wolf’s other former employer, Seth Meyers, who appeared on her show last week. Why, in the words of write-ups everywhere, “eviscerate” your mentors? Because a wounded animal lashes out at everyone indiscriminately, and the grind of constantly churning out outrage fucking hurts. Trump jokes hurt to make. You can either turn off your empathy, or cry on camera and call it a joke. Clapter comedy is a fly that lives on the big pile of shit that we call government. It vomits acid all over us, dissolves our will to live, then sucks up our essence with its proboscis. Every week is like this! Every week is a recap of all the worst fears we have with dick jokes drawn over them to make them palatable. Each day you think it couldn’t get worse, and then, it invariably does.

We don’t want to be here anymore, on the turd with the fly and fighting over whether “no” means “no” if the president says it. Children are jumping out of cars, gleefully, as a meme! Perhaps Jimmy Fallon has the right idea by just regressing into absurdity and nostalgia. Let’s all let Charlie Puth sing us back into the ’90s. Maybe we’ll never have to come back.

Trump, Late Night, and the Motif of Harmful Sensation