‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’ Is a Case Study in How Politics Can Shape Comedy

And how comedy can make up for the media's shortfalls.

Along with the fire-breathing Full Frontal with Samantha BeeLate Night with Seth Meyers has become the Daily Show replacement we knew we’d need since Trevor Noah was announced as Jon Stewart’s successor on the long-running Comedy Central show. (Sorry, Trevor.)

Over at Vulture, Jesse David Fox has a long piece on the transformation of Late Night from a “somewhat generic late-night show” to “essential nightly viewing for political comedy.” As The Wall Street Journal reports, Late Night has enjoyed a 53 percent bump in YouTube subscribers over the past six months, and views are up a whopping 143 percent since May. And as Fox points out, much of that has to do with Meyers’ “A Closer Look” segment, which has become the show’s signature bit. (We’re big fans, too.)

The Vulture piece takes a closer look at, well, “A Closer Look,” which appears on the show about three times a week. In exploring how the segment comes together, the article reveals how political events set the tone for late-night talk shows in the social media era. Easily shareable clips are shaped not just to get the most laughs but to emphasize a particular narrative that Meyers wants to tell. For instance, Meyers edited the piece on Trump’s reaction to Mike Pence going to see Hamilton so that it opened with the Broadway bit first and closed with the news about the Trump University settlement — so that the clip would end on a more serious note.

According to the article, Meyers’ brand of comedy became more political after he was promoted to head writer of SNL in 2005 (a job he held until he left the show in 2014). He honed his political joke-writing skills even more when he anchored SNL‘s Weekend Update between 2008 and 2013. Correctly sensing a void that needed to be filled, he pushed Late Night to become more political after both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert announced they were leaving their respective shows, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. 

Most importantly, at a time when we can no longer rely on the authority of a news anchor and when public trust in the mainstream media is dismally low, Meyers has emerged as someone whose opinion feels worthy of trust. He openly admitted he was wrong to not take Trump’s run seriously. He acknowledged that as a white man, he couldn’t possibly understand what many immigrants, women, people of color, Muslim-Americans, and people in the LGBTQ community were feeling after the election. Late Night writer Sal Gentile describes the “Closer Look” segment as “a daily check-in with reality,” and that feels more essential now than ever.

Because Meyers likes to work on the fly, rather than preparing ahead of time, he says it took the writers about “18 months to figure out what the show was.” The realization couldn’t come soon enough. Humor may feel like a flimsy tool in the face of Trump’s gaslighting. But humor is increasingly used to justify ugly and offensive behavior; what better way to fight against this nihilistic attitude than humor that actually stands for something?