It seemed as though late-night was going to be all about Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame this week. I was all set to write a story about why the woman who was hospitalized in China for crying too hard probably isn’t true when this clip stopped me in my tracks. For an entire monologue, Stephen Colbert tried to dunk on Joe Biden. But the audience wouldn’t let him.
Have you seen the episode of Pete & Pete where Little Pete and Artie (the Strongest Man in the World) try to beat up the ocean? Incensed that time moves ever forward, Little Pete and Artie punch waves on the Jersey shore. It does nothing, of course. Summer ends, things change, the waves keep coming. That was Colbert trying to stem the tide of clapter that the mere mention of Biden’s name evoked.
Before he was officially running, Biden had a cycle of late-night creep jokes. Jason Sudeikis even reprised his old SNL impression for it. But now that he’s in the race, Biden has been positioning himself as the #Resistance and the closest thing anyone’s going to get to having Obama back. The eager Colbert audience, perhaps the most reactive in late-night, is conditioned to clap against Trump. (Oh God, “Clap Against Trump” is our generation’s “Rock Against Bush,” isn’t it?) They still chant, “Stephen! Stephen!” more nights than not. Conan audiences, on the other hand, are used to semi-ignoring O’Brien’s asides to Andy Richter.
O’Brien’s Biden material was interspersed with bits on the other Democratic campaigners: Beto, Sanders, someone named Swalwell? Except for Colbert and The Daily Show, the late-night hosts are spreading their Dem attention around (to the male candidates, at least). Trevor Noah has done multiple pieces solely on Biden, as has Colbert. As the two hosts most responsive to the 24-hour news cycle, they are picking up what CNN is putting down. TV news coverage has shifted almost entirely to Biden. A CNN poll put him 24 points ahead of Bernie Sanders, his closest competitor. The poll didn’t have statistically significant data on people under 45.* But the 24-point lead was reported by Jimmy Fallon, O’Brien, and Jimmy Kimmel.
Kimmel also mentioned how Biden has been getting a bump from how angry he makes Trump, what with his vows to “make America moral again” — a rather less forceful hat than MAGA, as Kimmel pointed out. Colbert essayed the same joke, using the rest of the Biden sound bite where he rambled on about all the things he’d like to make America be again. That joke duplication is indicative of the trap the news (and late-night that covers the news) has fallen into. News equals Trump, so the Democratic candidate running as “not Trump” and being attacked by Trump is therefore the most newsworthy. And his policies, character, and slogans must be interpreted through Trump rather than on their own merits.
On The Daily Show, Noah evaluated Biden against Trump. Biden is better than Trump because he’s willing to serve the whole country. Biden is worse than Trump because he admits when he misspeaks. Biden’s messaging is impacted by Trump’s nickname for him, “Sleepy Joe.” But we don’t have a Democratic nominee yet. If we are comparing Biden to anyone, it should be his fellow candidates, right? Yet even shows that didn’t focus on Biden used his name for SEO. Meyers’s social-media managers know what search terms are popping, so a clip with lots of jokes — the best of which is an entirely novel Donald Duck impression — gets Biden’s name at the top.
If politics is truly controlled by search-engine optimization, we are doomed. But hey, at least Donald Duck doesn’t have asthma anymore.
*A previous version of this article stated that the CNN poll only included data from responders over 45 years old. The CNN poll instead did not have a statistically significant sample size from responders under 45.