Late-Night Left: The Cost of Being Political
September 30, 2020
In an era characterized by fear and worry, many Americans find comfort in television as a lighthearted sanctuary from everyday life. And with late-night talk shows hosting over 8 million national viewers across each broadcast, it’s no surprise that people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and political beliefs enjoy the lighthearted entertainment delivered by late-night hosts such as Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Stephen Colbert to mark the end of a long day.
But during the week of May 25, following the murder of George Floyd, late night talk shows did not deliver their usual quick-witted jokes and skits. Fallon, Kimmel, and Colbert, among other hosts such as Conan O’Brien, James Corden, and Seth Meyers, each used their scheduled time on the air to discuss the issue of systemic racism, as well as express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Fallon in particular made headlines as he began “The Tonight Show” with an apology for a previous blackface impersonation he had done of Chris Rock twenty years prior.
With Black Lives Matter’s reputation among right-wingers as a politically-motivated subject, the break from the usual entertainment caused a tumult with regular viewers: many Republicans stopped watching Kimmel and Fallon, who openly supported the movement. Meanwhile, favorability of the hosts increased among Democrats who agreed with the message.
While this loss in viewership could prove to be a huge cost for late night hosts, it’s not the first time it’s happened over a political message. Last October, Colbert and Kimmel each lost 27% and 16% of viewers respectively after delivering punchlines about President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
All late night shows have tuned into political talk shows. That's why I haven't watched them in years, including Saturday Night Live. They aren't funny anymore.
— Scott Houston (@ScottHTown) September 29, 2020
With the fluctuation of viewers tuning in and out of late night talk shows, controversy has arisen concerning the place that politics has in entertainment, if any at all. While late night shows have had the long-standing reputation for providing mindless amusement, each host possesses a platform that could deliver an important message to millions of people. The question is begged by many Americans: what responsibility do late night talk show hosts have in advocating for a political belief, if any at all?
Since the late-night show format began to take shape in 1954 with “Tonight Starring Steve Allen,” late-night television has been categorized by quick, observational humor as a lighthearted way for viewers to unwind. Although political conversations and jabs were a staple of early late-night shows, they became few and far between by the turn of the century, as political tensions between the two parties deepened.
Now, since the presidential election of 2016, late-night commentary has seen a shift from its benevolent, unbiased humor, to left-leaning monologues and frequent jabs at the Trump administration. As a result, 62% of Republicans dislike when late-night hosts get political, and favorability among all late-night hosts has dropped considerably, with Fallon’s 45% approval rating being the highest of the ten most popular hosts. Meanwhile, 62% of Democrats enjoy the political commentary, giving Fallon and Kimmel approval rates of over 70%.
“I think that talk show hosts should stick with the comedy and the entertainment. While I think it’s important to address important issues, I don’t think it’s their place to be politically biased and use the air time to express their opinions. People are tuning into the show to escape the political world. It should be a space where you don’t have to worry about being on the wrong side,” said Arianna Cortes (‘23).
Relative to other hosts, Fallon’s high ratings across all parties are likely a product of his refusal to participate in the President Trump ridicule, or political commentary in general. “I have feelings about [political] stuff, but my job with this show is to entertain and make lots of people laugh. I don’t want in any way to incite anger or fear or violence . . . I want my show at the end of a long day to be a wind-down,” said Fallon in a 2019 interview. However, after his open support for Black Lives Matter in June, over 40% of viewers say that Fallon’s show is left-leaning.
— jimmy fallon (@jimmyfallon) May 31, 2020
With the frequent jeering at the Trump administration, accompanied by the rise of Black Lives Matter commentary, it’s no surprise that Republican viewers are scarce. Many Americans across all parties regard late-night TV as responsible for mindless entertainment and nothing more.
“I watch talk shows for the celebrity interviews and the segments that make me laugh. I watch them to be entertained, and that entertainment goes away when the hosts get political. I don’t care what they have to say, and I’m not gonna watch it. I tune in to escape the political world, and when they bring it up, the whole show loses its value,” said Grace Cronen (‘21).
However, in a time of great turmoil, others believe that platforms as great as those of late-night TV stars are essential to spreading awareness about issues and injustice. Many hosts, like Kimmel, agree.
In 2017, Kimmel got political on the air when he called for a gun control law to be passed, following the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas. Kimmel next blasted a new GOP health-care bill, as well as the Republican senator who proposed it, that did not guarantee insurance coverage for preexisting health conditions. Despite the instantaneous loss of thousands of Republican viewers, Kimmel stood so strongly on the issues that he “would do it again in a heartbeat.”
“If someone believes so strongly about something, I think it’s important for them to use their platform no matter what it is. If we ignore issues and do not speak up out of fear of what others think, then too many important issues will go unnoticed. Speaking up is what brings awareness and allows for people to not only hear new issues, but learn more about them,” said Qemamu Reddick (‘21).
Similarly, following the murder of George Floyd in May, popular hosts like Kimmel, Fallon, O’Brien, Cordon, and Meyers abandoned the usual structure of their shows to have conversations about race and the role of privilege.
“As a white man, I can’t speak of the deep-rooted and justified fear African Americans have when encountered by police,” said Meyers on his show, as he gave the rest of the air time to Amber Ruffin, an African-American writer on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” who explained many of the nation’s racial problems on TV.
“I think it’s really cool that all these popular hosts have been talking about important current issues like racial injustice. While there’s a lot of negativity going around about Black Lives Matter, if icons like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, or anyone else can talk about in a way that destigmatizes it, that will be really beneficial,” said Crista Guevara (‘23).