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Punch Line, Please
I believe this is yet another post of mine that was inspired by one of the weekly VIP Gold live chats. This is also a conversation that I’ve had with other comedians and non-comic friends of mine in the last four years.
People closer to my age grew up during the Golden Age of late-night television comedy. We had Johnny Carson on the weeknights and Saturday Night Live when it was funny on the weekends. I know the young’uns like to think that SNL is funny now but, trust me, Michael Che is no Chevy Chase.
The weeknight late-night shows are, put mildly, a clogged toilet of unfunny.
I’m often asked what happened to late-night comedy. Is it just awful because they’re doing political comedy and they (Colbert, Kimmel, Fallon, Noah) are all whacked-out lefties?
No, it’s because they aren’t doing comedy at all.
Before I explain, I’d like to make clear that political comedy is difficult to do at all, let alone consistently. That’s true even if you’re hosting a show that has a team of writers.
Again, though, these guys aren’t doing comedy. They’re doing highly partisan talking points for highly partisan audiences that are conditioned to respond. There are no real punch lines. Yes, you’ll hear some laughs but you’re mostly hearing applause and cheering. It’s the stuff of political rally speeches given a slightly humorous treatment. Even if they were doing actual jokes with punch lines, the comedy would still be weak because they’re all too timid to really go after any Democrats. The late-night comics — Craig Ferguson being the lone exception — spent the eight years that Obama was in office telling the same Sarah Palin joke from 2008 over and over.
Late-night hosts now are earnest, not funny. I’ve been watching a lot of clips from Ferguson’s show and they’re hilarious because he was never too serious about anything. Neither was Carson during his monologues.
It’s not that Carson never joked about politics, it’s that, when he did, he didn’t do it in a hyper-partisan way that risked offending half of America. He kept it light and — more importantly — he actually told a joke. Here’s a classic example from 1987 when he was joking about our current president, who was then making his first presidential run:
Another failing of the modern late-night hosts is that they truly do see themselves as political influencers, not entertainers. Carson knew what his job was. In this next clip, he starts a political joke but it quickly goes off the rails. Carson keeps it alive because never at any point does he take himself too seriously:
Colbert and Co. all take themselves too seriously. It’s only going to get worse now that they have to keep up with the Trump rants because Biden is a comedic sacred cow for the lefties, despite providing perhaps the most target-rich comedic environment of any president in the modern era. I don’t even like doing political jokes that much and I’m certainly going to have a go at this guy if I can ever get in front of an audience that’s not wearing masks again.
I’d like to think that the reins of some of these shows will be passed to comics who want to be comics rather than preachers.
I’m not optimistic.
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PJ Media Senior Columnist and Associate Editor Stephen Kruiser is the author of “Don’t Let the Hippies Shower” and “Straight Outta Feelings: Political Zen in the Age of Outrage,” both of which address serious subjects in a humorous way. Monday through Friday he edits PJ Media’s “Morning Briefing.” His columns appear twice a week.