The late-night TV landscape has been silenced by Hollywood strikes, leaving audiences with fewer laughs, depriving candidates of an easy way to get attention and generally upsetting the nation’s normal political discourse.
Instead of polishing monologue jokes or getting ready to poke fun at the crop of 2024 candidates, late-night’s lineup of network funnymen — including NBC’s “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert “The Late Show” on CBS, and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel — is staying off the airwaves in solidarity with actors and writers on the picket lines.
It’s a problem for the shows, which usually use the fall season to make themselves relevant in the national conversation.
“It’s OK for the top shows to run reruns during much of the summer, when the hosts might be taking vacations or the audience might not be there, but as the election cycle draws closer, their absence at 11:30 p.m. will be sorely missed by millions of viewers who had gotten used to tuning in,” said University of Mary Washington professor Stephen Farnsworth.
Beyond the punchlines and wisecracks, with the hosts MIA on late-night TV, Democrats are also deprived of rallying voices.
In 2017, Kimmel made an impassioned plea on his ABC show for ObamaCare, saying tearfully that his son was born with a heart defect.
Just days after the 2020 presidential election, Colbert choked up during his “Late Show” monologue as he accused Donald Trump of being a “fascist” after the then-president claimed without evidence that the election was being stolen from him.
“I didn’t expect this to break my heart. For him to cast a dark shadow on our most sacred right, from the briefing room in the White House, our house, not his, that is devastating,” Colbert said at the time.
Republicans, for their part, will likely see fewer critical one-liners told at their expense given the liberal leanings of the network shows.
Colbert was one of Trump’s fiercest late-night TV critics throughout his presidency, ripping the 45th commander in chief nearly nightly and seeing his ratings climb.
“If this continues into 2024, this is very bad news for Democrats, not just because the narrative tends to be more critical of Republicans than Democrats, but also because late-night television is a key vehicle for getting younger people interested in politics,” said Farnsworth, the co-author of 2019’s “Late Night with Trump: Political Humor and the American Presidency.”
“We’ve seen in survey after survey that late-night comedy is sort of a gateway drug to political involvement for some 20-somethings or those not naturally interested in politics,” the scribe said. “The absence of Colbert, and Fallon, and Kimmel and others will mean the Democrats will have to work double time when it comes to engaging the turnout of younger voters.”
Yet Republicans — particularly 2024 White House hopefuls — don’t necessarily have reason to jump for joy at the muzzling of GOP-slamming TV hosts, either.
“I think the big challenge for every Republican not named Donald Trump is how to get noticed,” said Farnsworth, the director of University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, of the GOP presidential primary field.
“You’re simply not going to learn very much about [former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson] on the debate stage. But if he were willing to sit down for a 10-minute late-night talk show segment, people would be exposed to him in a much more extensive way than would be possible in a big field,” he said.
Lizz Winstead, the co-creator of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” said there’s a real opportunity for social media to help fill that late-night void — if political campaigns are savvy enough to utilize it.
“[Republican presidential candidates] need to figure out how to differentiate themselves from their front-runner, because no six-minute, one-time appearance on a late-night show is going to help them do that,” said Winstead, an abortion rights advocate.
“If they were smart,” she said of the GOP field, “any of these candidates, they would use TikTok to create an entire space that allows them to really have a bunch of facets of who they are laid out, so that people could watch short videos, see their brevity, see their humanity and see their ideas.”
Although contract negotiations between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the major Hollywood studios are expected to resume Wednesday, the strike also means no viral “Saturday Night Live” sketches — whether it’s Alec Baldwin taking an Emmy Award-winning turn as Trump or current cast member James Austin Johnson portraying President Biden.
“Who knows what impact Will Ferrell’s version of George W. Bush during the recount and all of that, or during the whole time, had in softening up that image? Or Tina Fey as Sarah Palin? Obviously, those late-night jokes are making fun of people,” said Wayne Federman, a comedian and lecturer at the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts.
But Federman, an Emmy Award-winning producer and former head monologue writer for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” who’s been on the picket line with SAG-AFTRA and the WGA, said, “I really think there’s no way to definitively say how much it moves the needle.”
“The Sarah Palin years — I think the country’s perception of her as a candidate was very profoundly shaped by Tina Fey’s impression,” said Laura Valk, a former senior segment producer at TBS’s “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” Fey made nearly weekly headlines on “SNL” playing Alaska’s Republican governor who became a 2008 vice presidential candidate.
“I think shows like that, with the resources that they have, are able to reenact political discourse in a very theatrical way that has a bigger effect than say just, you know, a one-off performer on a different platform, like TikTok or Reels, or something like that,” said Valk, a production supervisor on “Saturday Night Live” from 2013 to 2019.
“The political environment is so toxic that the one thing that comedy does is just cut through the chaos to make somebody feel like, ‘This is a clown show, and I’m feeling the clown show, and this person is articulating that for me,’” said Winstead, who was a “Daily Show” head writer and correspondent.
“So the exhale and catharsis that you get from late-night shows zeroing in and pinpointing on what’s happened I think is what really can be lost,” added Winstead, a member of SAG-AFTRA and the WGA.
Going to bed without a nightly dose of political humor might prove to be no laughing matter for politicians and TV watchers alike, according to Farnsworth.
“Late-night television is one of the best vehicles out there for politicians who are trying to humanize themselves, to make themselves appear to the country as regular Joes and regular Joanies,” the political science professor said.
“Without it, the conversation will be nasty attack ads and gotcha clips from a smattering of debates. The political discourse suffers, and will continue to suffer, from the absence of these late-night shows.”