If you want to get really good at compartmentalizing trauma, study late-night comedy. The format demands commentary on current events, while simultaneously being about movie promotion and an audience’s last little chuckle before bedtime. Late night during the week of a national tragedy is complicated, to say the least. You can almost see the arithmetic in hosts’ heads: I am sad, but my comedy persona is a happy guy, but I don’t want to come off as insensitive, but I don’t want to make this tragedy about me, but I don’t want to trivialize it, but am I the person to speak to this, but also this show is supposed to be non-triggering sleep material fuck fuck fuck.
At least the guests were loose, bringing a chumminess that was a balm during a rough week. St. Patrick’s Day, usually a holiday to celebrate surrounded by people, went mostly unobserved. And then, of course, the nation’s increasing trend toward anti-Asian violence erupted in the murders of eight people in Atlanta. Week 53 of quarantine was one of celebrations cut short by death, of no one being on the same page. Here are the late-night highlights.
5. Tooning Out the News Puts it Bluntly
Sometimes the only thing that makes you feel better is to say the awful thing as bluntly as humanly possible. Tooning Out the News did that March 17 by calling the Atlanta shooting “the most vivid sign yet that America is returning to normal.” Yes, there’s been a rise in anti-Asian rhetoric during COVID, but the combo of misogyny, racism, and anti-sex work discrimination that enabled this act of violence goes back literal centuries and is American as hell. Rather than express sorrow over lives lost, the cartoon pundits of “Big News” went for thinly veiled rage over how the media is portraying the event. Sometimes you just want to be really mean, and this segment does that well.
4. Joel McHale and Conan Spar
Joel McHale actually showed up to Largo to have an IRL sit-down with Conan O’Brien. You could tell that O’Brien was excited to show off in person for someone new, name-checking Andersonville Prison and calling out McHale for his tendencies towards sponcon and taking his shirt off onscreen. This isn’t the Conan who’s been on TV for 30-ish years, this is the Conan who used to derail the Simpsons writers’ room with incessant bits. “The rule in show business has always been ‘Give the people what they want,’” O’Brien said at one point during the interview that aired on March 17, “and I’ve always been like ‘Nah, fuck that.’” As McHale and O’Brien said in the interview, they are real-life frenemies. So the two were in full roast mode, competing to see who could find the best looks-based insult for the other. McHale inhaled the Maker’s Mark he’s getting paid to drink as well, harkening back to the drunken insults of a Rat Pack get-together.
3. Lilly Singh and Kelly Marie Tran Support Each Other
This week should have been a celebration of Asian and AAPI accomplishment in Hollywood. Chloe Zhao became the first woman of color nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Minari’s Steven Yeun became the first Asian American ever nominated for Best Actor, and Kelly Marie Tran was on her publicity tour as Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess. Tran and Lilly Singh talked on March 16 about the weirdness of being the “first” something, and how people pressure them to just be grateful rather than speak up for themselves in the predominantly white spaces in which they’ve pioneered. “Being the first is really cool,” Tran said, “but what’s more important to me is making sure that I’m not the last.”
2. John Oliver Takes Control of His Tonight Show Appearance
One of the regular games on The Tonight Show is “Hey Robot,” where celebs play Password with an Alexa. But during March 15’s edition of the segment with Jimmy Fallon and guest John Oliver, things took a turn. Less than enthused about being a cog in Amazon’s PR machine, Oliver asked Alexa about the company’s working conditions. “I really hope, Jimmy, you didn’t cut out my question about what union busting is,” Oliver said. Fallon left it in, as well as the part right after when he stopped Alexa from answering.
But the interview provides more delights than just Oliver being a bee in corporate America’s bonnet. We get a true understanding of how different Fallon’s life is from ours. Somehow, the conversation got to Instagram-famous animals, and Fallon became confused about whether he met a particular famous dog at work or backstage at a Kevin Hart show. The phrase “I met this famous dog backstage at a Kevin Hart concert” obsessed Oliver. He started interviewing Fallon, getting more details on the surreal demimonde of fame that is his life. It rolls around in his head like the famous Lewis Black “horse college” bit. And yet there is still more in this interview, with Oliver reminding all of us that we should talk more about Prince Andrew and his alleged crimes. A tour de force guest spot from someone who knows the format well.
1. Karen Chee’s Grandpa
Late Night With Seth Meyers writer Karen Chee laid out the facts of the Atlanta shootings: that the shooter was a coward, that the targets of the shootings were working-class, and that the model minority myth is used in the U.S. to prevent solidarity among minorities as they compete for token slots in predominantly white spaces. Once again, Seth Meyers is proven extremely shrewd for making stars of his writers. It juxtaposed nicely with the more caustic approach of Tooning Out the News. Speaking of nice, Chee also described what she does on a bad day (instead of committing a spree killing): eating a whole pizza and rewatching Ted Lasso. In the spirit of kindness that Ted Lasso embodies, she closed the segment with a picture of her and her grandfather in matching bucket hats. Hell yeah.
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