All of art is supposed to hold a mirror up to society, but late-night television might be the most mirrorlike art form there is. If you want to understand an era, watch its late night. We are living in a disaster movie, and as is the style in disaster movies, a supercut of late-night monologues let us know what the stakes are. Upheavaly isn’t a word, but 2018 was a truly upheavaly year: Les Moonves exposed, Koreas talking to each other, Kim Kardashian West working toward prison reform. Not even Dr. Peter Venkman could predict a more topsy-turvy “dogs and cats living together” scenario. These moments spanned nights, shows, and networks.
That’s why we’re counting down the biggest moments in late night, not the funniest. The funniest moments in late night were small: the light leaving Jimmy Fallon’s eyes as someone plays a melodica with their nose, Julia Roberts saying “I cannot believe this is what we’ve come to” when she aims a leaf blower at Busy Philipps’s face. The funniest stuff didn’t give us the cheat sheet for the cultural moment. The biggest moments were funny, but more importantly, they had impact. Like a meteor, or that one font. Let’s take a look.
10. Gaga’s “100 People in a Room” Worldwide Tour
A Star Is Born’s publicity machine was as unstoppable as the movie was improbable. This movie was good, who’da thought?! Gaga got dragged for her devotion to the talking points, but only because Bradley Cooper paraphrased his anecdotes. Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s New York Times profile rehashed Coop’s talking points. Gaga, on the other hand, read the copy word for word like a Blue Apron podcast ad. I saw my first “100 People” on The Late Show, and it rang true as hell to me. I was entranced. It was probably her fifth or sixth, but it felt like the first. And as Jonah Hill recently pointed out, that’s acting, baby.
9. BTS Does the Fortnite Dance Challenge on The Tonight Show
Is any sentence more 2018 than “BTS Does the Fortnite Dance Challenge”? If Paul McCartney’s “Carpool Karaoke” was TV attempting to harness the fading attention of boomers, BTS’s late-night debut was TV’s admission that both American cultural supremacy and television itself are basically over. This was a YouTube clip that aired on television, not a TV segment that ran on YouTube. And when the boys of BTS actually appeared on The Tonight Show, the teen-girl screams were deafening. It was perhaps as seismic a change as the Doors talking about drugs on Ed Sullivan. The young people might have been incomprehensible to Ed, but BTS literally speaks a different language than Jimmy.
8. Trump Hastens the Death of Comedy
Trump lowered the bar on discourse and dick jokes — no easy feat. But when the president is more caricature than man, the jokes can get pretty hacky. One week in March, five late-night hosts told the same Stormy Daniels joke. Donald Trump didn’t sign the NDA, and five comedy professionals went “THAT’S THE ONLY THING HE WON’T PUT HIS NAME ON WOCKA WOCKA WOCKA.” And when The Bachelorette coincided with the North Korea summit, lots of comics squished the two ideas together for one perfect gay joke. In fact, it’s been a banner year for borderline homophobia. Here’s the plot of a recent SNL cold open: Trump loves Putin. Putin’s new squeeze is the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Trump feels like the neglected sidepiece. Nothing is funnier than jokes about how womanly a president is who won in part because his opponent was a woman. Classic.
7. Cardi B’s Baby Bump Reveal on SNL
Cardi B is a celebrity who would never have happened without Instagram. Her popularity is based on being foul-mouthed and off-the-cuff nearly 24/7. Yet when she wanted to announce her pregnancy, she did it on a 44-year-old network show. A variety show, no less. The oldest of TV-show formats. Cardi showed the bump that would become Kulture during her second song on Saturday Night Live. This is an untoppable stunt — hiding your pregnancy during your first performance of the night, then BAM!, a Christian Siriano pregnancy-hugging dress. That is an old-school Hollywood star move. Cardi B uses every medium to its fullest potential.
6. The Lowlifes of Late Night
Donald Trump took time out of his busy schedule of tweeting insults to TV personalities to say some in person at a rally in June. He called Fallon a “lost soul,” Colbert a “lowlife,” and said that Kimmel’s show was “terrible.” According to Trump, Kimmel “would stand outside of the sidewalk waiting for me: ‘Oh, here he comes, Donald Trump.’ … He opens my door. I said, ‘Does he do this to everybody?’ to his people, [who said], ‘He does it for nobody.’” Colbert, Fallon, and Conan O’Brien responded by recording a joint cold open, while Kimmel refuted his story during his monologue. This was just one example of how late night has become radicalized by Trump. Never have I seen so many “Get Out the Vote” segments than in the run-up to the midterms. When your job is to comment on the news, it’s definitely in your best interest to make the news happier.
5. Colbert Calls Out Moonves on CBS
CBS appears to be rotten to its core. The news division, the procedural dramas, and even their head of comedy booking are mired in allegations of sexism and harassment. And of course, the head of the company was a brigand of Les Moonves proportions. This puts Stephen Colbert in an awkward position. “Everybody believes in accountability until it’s their guy,” said Colbert after the Moonves allegations came out. “And make no mistake, Les is my guy. He hired me to sit in this chair.” There has been a lot of debate about how “good men” should address the actions of their friends. Do they hold them accountable? Do they maybe reflect on how their alleged ignorance hurt others? Hopefully both. Colbert has made his career from being a woke bae before that was even a thing. He walked so Matt McGorry could fly. When Les Moonves’s crimes were laid bare, a lot of eyes were on Colbert to see if and how he would address it. (Way more eyes than were on James Corden, who has carved out an impish apolitical space for himself.) Colbert dedicated two segments to the Moonves ousting: one making fun of him for being a perv, and one plainly stating that “accountability is meaningless unless it’s for everybody.”
4. Michelle Wolf
God, I miss The Break. Netflix only gave us ten glorious episodes, but they were so good, biting, and silly in equal measure. Michelle Wolf’s biggest moment of 2018 didn’t occur on her late-night show, but when she appeared as the featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and said that Sarah Huckabee Sanders had nice eye shadow. The right went apeshit and the journalists decided to never have a comic at their very fancy party ever again. Unlike someone further down on this list, Wolf never apologized. If anything, she doubled down, doing a mini-roast of people in the Trump administration on The Break. If Wolf had capitulated to right-wing kooks, would she still have a show? Who knows. But I salute an uncompromising artist who’s not afraid to talk about necrophiliac crow sex.
3. Ariana and Pete’s Entire Relationship Playing Out on Late Night
It was the whirlwind summer romance that still has its nasty little claws in our brains: Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson fell in love, got engaged, then broke up this year. And late night was pivotal in every step of that process. Ariana talked about how she fell in love with Pete on The Tonight Show. Her giant engagement ring was visible taping “Carpool Karaoke.” Pete gloated about their relationship and baby pig on Seth Meyers’s show. He said he was sabotaging her birth control on “Weekend Update.” Perhaps that was the first warning sign. And when their love turned sour, that played out on late night, too. Ariana released “Thank U, Next” less than an hour before SNL, where Pete was supposedly going to have a sketch about their relationship. The sketch allegedly got cut, and Pete gave a brief address on the matter during his “Update” piece where he made fun of the pro-life representative with the eye patch. Even into December, late night is the stage for their drama. Pete commented on Ariana’s comments on Kanye’s comments on Drake (I’m exhausted), alluded to suicide on his Instagram, then deleted his IG altogether. Fans watched SNL eagle-eyed to see if he’d show up, which he did briefly to introduce Miley Cyrus.
Late Night Saga No. 3 blends seamlessly into Late Night Saga No. 2. One of Kanye’s biggest moments of 2018 was his SNL rant, during what are usually good-byes. He donned a MAGA hat and said, “So many times I talk to a white person and [they] say, ‘How could you like Trump, he’s racist?’ Well, if I was concerned about racism, I would have moved out of America a long time ago.” Kenan went on Seth Meyers and said the cast was “held hostage” by Ye. Earlier in the year, Kanye had gone on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where he defended his Trump stanning, despite most people in his life (including Kim, allegedly) advising him against it. “You so famously and so powerfully said George Bush doesn’t care about black people. Makes me wonder what makes you think that Donald Trump does,” Kimmel asked. When Kanye had no answer, Kimmel cut to commercial.
1. The C-Word
Twenty eighteen was the year we weaponized outrage, and no late-night moment exemplified that more than what I’ve taken to calling Feckless Cuntgate. The right lost their flipping gourds when Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a feckless cunt. It was an uncalled for response because (1) they said nothing when Bee said the same thing about Woodrow Wilson, and (2) it’s fucking true. People acted like Ivanka was going to be the Fay Wray to her dad’s King Kong, but she does not give a feck. Bee eventually apologized, saying “it was inappropriate and inexcusable,” and TBS promised to have more editorial oversight of Full Frontal in the future. This gave everyone a blueprint for how to get people censured or fired: Find a thing that was said, construe it as targeting a protected group, and yell until the person who said it goes away. It’s a tactic that can be used in good faith (Kevin Hart) and bad (James Gunn). Bee called Ivanka a cunt during her segment on the children separated at the border from their parents. The actually hurt group gets lost to the group with the loudest cheering section. If that doesn’t represent this year, I don’t know what does.