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How Politics Made Late-Night Great Again

No, the Trump administration has not been good for comedy. The comedians say so.

“For me, my first thought is always, ‘We’re all going to die,’” says Christine Nangle, the head writer on Comedy Central’s The President Show. “That’s my first thought with every story. And it’s, like, you get to process it as a person first and then remember, like, ‘Oh, yeah, is there anything there for us to pull from?”

“I always look at it, and I’m, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to have a stomachache all day today again,’” says Ashley Nicole Black, a writer and correspondent on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, about the exhausting pace of the horrifying political news she skewers weekly on the TBS series.

“I hate that that’s the routine now, is, like, wake up, look at the phone, get depressed every morning,” says Jason Reich, the head writer of The Jim Jeffries Show.

Reich, Nangle, Black, and Hallie Haglund, a writer on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, are speaking on a panel titled “Has Politics Made Late-Night Great Again?”

The answer to that question, gauging by the critical raves their shows have received and the impact they have culturally, is almost indisputably “yes.” But making comedy out of the Trump administration isn’t as easy as it might seem while watching the circus act from your couch—and, resoundingly, these writers would be just as happy to not have such a fount of material to mine.

Take the chaos of a typical day, for example, in which Trump’s unhinged tweets can come in at any time. Is “covfefe” good material? Sure. But it’s hard to react intelligently when the news comes at a nonstop pace.

“I feel like the tweets usually come in, like, right as we’ve finished our morning meeting and just planned the entire show for the day, and then they come in,” says Haglund. “It’s like, ‘Well, fuck that. We shouldn’t have even had a meeting, because now we have to do all this stuff.’”

Keeping up with the news has become late-night’s biggest challenge. It’s nearly impossible to be prepared anymore, or to act on expectations and predictions—something that Election Night certainly taught everybody. Full Frontal, for example, had already produced a glut of footage it planned to air in a show celebrating Hillary Clinton’s victory, most of which had to be scrapped. That was the first, though not the last, time that Black slept at the Full Frontal offices.

Then there’s the challenge, too, of making comedy out of an administration that is, for lack of a better term, a joke in and of itself.

“It’s sort of like, ‘How do I heighten this? How do I not just show it and step back and be, like, ‘Well, there’s nothing left to do with this because it’s so ridiculous,’” says Haglund.

“I think one of the challenges is to try to avoid the low hanging fruit of, like, this person talks funny or has funny hair or something so easy,” says Nangle. “So, at least speaking for The President Show, we try to look at what goes deeper than all that insanity, like, what made this man, how are we implicated in this? He’s not just someone that dropped out of the sky and said, ‘I’m going to ruin everything for you.’ We made him. We allowed this to happen. So as much as you can go deeper without being heavy-handed, that’s what we aim for.”

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And if comedians dispute the idea that the Trump administration is, as is widely theorized, “good” for comedy, they do appreciate how his election spotlighted the attitudes and values of a large segment of society discounted by the media, and has forced them to reexamine political comedy and think more about parts of the country they had previously been ignoring.

“What it’s unearthed in terms of aside from this current administration, I think, and for what satirists can address, is to go deeper into that part of the country that I think a lot of people didn’t even know existed,” says Nangle. “That this man didn’t come out of nowhere. So that’s been, I think, valuable.”

The current cultural climate has also forced late-night shows to think about their audience. Their shows are certainly critical of the president, and there’s clearly an audience clamoring to laugh and cheer at that. But there’s also people on the other aside to think about, and a lot of them, at that. How do they think about creating comedy about the current political situation that might reach outside of the base they are currently enjoying the support of?

“I think, for our show, especially because Trevor is not from the United States, he sort of approaches everything with, like, ‘Let’s just look at the idea,’” says Haglund. “He doesn’t come to it with a lot of partisan baggage. And because our audience is so young, I think, it’s really important for him to cover issues at face value. And a lot of times, he’s sort of this voice in the room that [when] we’re sort of, like, foaming at the mouth to go after Trump, he’s, like, ‘Well, I don’t see what’s so crazy about this instance right here. Like, what exactly is he doing wrong here?’”

Plus, she says, it helps that Noah is always happy to keep things in perspective.

“There’s sort of a lightness to him because, you know, he grew up under apartheid, and he is just, like, ‘You guys, it gets way worse,’” she says, laughing.

“We also go out every week and we talk to people on every side of the aisle very extensively,” says Black. “And I think what I’ve learned that I was unaware of before I had this job is really, really, really how bifurcated the media landscape is. And I truly do not know if there’s a way to reach the other side. And I don’t even mean that in terms of content. Just in terms of straight eyeballs, I don’t know if there’s a way for those people to see even an ad or a commercial, because people only watch certain channels and only read certain outlets. Certainly we’re not going to put a Full Frontal With Samantha Bee commercial on Fox. So I don’t know. I think the real problem of our country right now is that people are so… their media diets are so separated that I don’t know what could get across. It’s a very rare thing that does.”

The Jim Jeffries Show only premiered last month, and before it even debuted conservatives were dismissing it.

“Before we even were on the air, we had people tweeting, like, ‘Oh, look at this, another Trump-bashing show from a liberal comedian,’” says Reich. “We haven’t done anything yet. Like, maybe wait and see what we are going to do. So I think there is a knee-jerk reaction on both sides, but we are trying to keep an open mind about our material.”

In the grand tradition of Jon Stewart, the material is now richer and more informative than ever before. Hosts like John Oliver and Samantha Bee have been called journalists as well as comedians because of the research and investigation that goes into exposing political hypocrisy in their segments.

Ever since The Daily Show became a phenomenon and polls began reporting that people trusted Jon Stewart more than most news anchors, there’s been the notion that viewers come to these shows for information rather than MSNBC and CNN. How much responsibility, then, is there in informing viewers as much as going in for the joke?

“I think you have to do both at the same time,” says Haglund. “I feel like you can’t make the joke until you inform them because they won’t know what they are laughing at.”

“We don’t want to deliver a lecture to people or make it a history lesson, but hopefully, we are able to expose people to a topic maybe they didn’t know a lot about or approach it from a different angle,” says Reich. “So, in that sense, there is an informative component, but I think we are always first and foremost, we are trying to make it funny.”

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