this week in late night

Late Night’s Theater of the Absurd

From The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Photo: NBC

Dianne Wiest is performing Beckett dressed as a fake rock in Madison Square Park, which can mean only one thing: the Theatre of the Absurd is back, baby! Wiest is reprising her role of Winnie in Happy Days, a play about a woman buried in earth after the apocalypse. Extremely relatable content. We all feel neck-deep in the apocalypse, don’t we? Late night is supposed to comment on the times. By exaggerating reality, comedians highlight what they think is important. But how do you exaggerate the unexaggerate-able? How do you heighten what is already the peak of bullshit? Late-night jokes so often go something like “A? That would be like if B did C in a D!” But when “A” is “state-sponsored murder,” the joke falls flat. Weirder stuff is required.

Comedy is found in the specifics. It’s a lesson hammered home in every writing and improv class. “Nine Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.s” is funnier than “some seafood restaurants.” Saying “Hyundai Elantra” is funnier than “car,” and sometimes gets you paid by Hyundai. But the specifics of our time are simultaneously funnier and more tragic than anything you could write. Khashoggi was getting paperwork for his upcoming marriage when he was ambushed and killed in Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know that until Seth Meyers told me while he was trying to make a True Life: I’m Getting Married joke.

Normally I love a True Life reference (especially if it’s their most frivolous topic, True Life: I’m Backpacking Through Europe), but this one fell flat. Someone died on the eve of their wedding; that kind of thwarted joy is comedy poison. It ruined Eddie Murphy’s Haunted Mansion movie, and it ruins this “Closer Look.” Some things you can’t joke directly at. Then there are details too absurd to support comedy. For example, the pipe bombs were made in Florida, because of course they were. They also had Larry the Cable Guy/ISIS meme stickers on them.

This is a specific detail that a writer would toss out as hacky, too on-the-nose. Pipe bombs labeled “git ’er done” fail to get ’er done. To try to top such a thing would be folly. Like how Trump is getting policy ideas from Steven Seagal. You know, special U.S.–Russian envoy Steven Seagal?

On I Love You, America, Sarah Silverman concluded her monologue with a fatigued “Nothing surprises me,” and girl, same. Every week we say things can’t get worse or weirder, and every week they do. Every week we say that every week we say that! The melting of the ice caps has resulted in a perfectly rectangular iceberg, and our government has officially argued that the Earth is beyond saving. You can’t mock such beliefs with our normal tools. When confronted with unending cruelty and nonsense, the only recourse is to respond with equal nonsense. Kevin Nealon gets it. Sometimes things are rough, and you need an emotional support baby.

Men working, wearing Baby Björns, and getting emotional fulfillment from being caregivers. Is there any more potent image? Jimmy Kimmel Live may have been responding to Piers Morgan calling out Daniel Craig, or they may have just thought Kevin Nealon walking out with a baby was funny. Either way, they stumbled into a surreal image of gender-flipping and the gnarly facts of the body. It’s wild that we all used to be that little and vulnerable.

Late night is the perfect vehicle for existential absurdism. Theatre of the Absurd, and its offshoot, Antoine Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, juxtaposes comedy of manners with the most horrific tragedies of mortality and flesh. Social conventions and routine fail to hold back the universe’s entropy. And late night is 100 percent social convention and routine now. Streaming TV and YouTube have chunkified late night and unmoored it in time, yet the nightly 11:30 p.m. time slot remains. It happens because it’s always happened. Regardless of what happens in the news, late night will put a shiny veneer over it. That’s why the political comedian we need in this moment isn’t a wry observer like Seth Meyers, or even a #Resistance darling like Stephen Colbert. It’s Jimmy Fallon.

Yes, Trump-tousling Jimmy Fallon is our generation’s Harold Pinter. Nothing resonated this week like Fallon, Questlove, and Steve Higgins staring blankly into the camera as Lynchian chords intoned. Aren’t we lucky to be in showbiz? Wouldn’t the lottery be swell to win? Au contraire, Fallon seems to say, all success is its own kind of failure. Starting with SNL, Fallon’s constant breaking has shown how failure can be a kind of success, but now we see the dark mirror. This week Fallon’s monologues brought a surrealism unmatched since the death of Comedy Bang Bang on IFC. A man holding up a sign of his own angry face, a nose melodica, a guy in a panda costume — each image is as meaningful as anything Trump has said about the caravan, and that is to say completely meaningless. We are all Dianne Wiest in Happy Days, and today is a happy day if we say it is.

Late Night’s Theatre of the Absurd