Comedy’s always been rooted in rebellion, and that’s been more evident than ever in world of late night, since the election of Donald Trump. That’s in large part been thanks to a slew of female writers and comedians finally getting their due.
It’s no secret that after-hours talk shows have historically been manned by older white men and, sadly, not much has changed when it comes to the face of late-night. They’re a bit younger, less cranky, more prone to partaking in funny sketches, and aware of the value of viral videos. But the hosts behind the desks are still mostly dudes, they’re still mostly white. And by default, that makes them unable to effectively tackle the entirety of the shitstorm this year threw at us.
Luckily, they have some talented, bitingly funny, incredibly patient women sifting through slurred presidential speeches and misogynistic health care bills to help them out. They’re not always sitting behind the desk or even appearing in front of the camera, but these women are shaping the way we view the world by cracking clever jokes, delivering exhaustingly researched tirades, and giving viewers an outlet for our anger through humor and responsible reporting.
In other words, these are the funny women in late night that Trump really shouldn’t have pissed off.
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
No show on late night has struggled under the unrelenting Trump news cycle quite like The Tonight Show. Just a few years ago it had seemingly found its sweet spot in likable host Jimmy Fallon and his propensity for silly sketches and pre-taped pop culture bits that seldom failed to go viral. Fallon’s good-natured enthusiasm for his celebrity guests felt genuine – hey, we’d all lose our shit over learning Nicole Kidman once carried a torch for us – and his ability to convince said guests to play along on TV, whether via a lip sync battle, a beer pong match, or a water fight — was unparalleled. But when 2017 brought a shift in our political climate it also ushered in a different kind of late-night format – one filled with rage-fueled takedowns, biting commentary, and fully-researched investigative deep dives, none of which Fallon excels at. Instead, the show has been working to find its own winning blend, a mixture of equal parts relevance and silliness in a world where the latter isn’t just in short supply, it’s now frowned upon.
“It’s that weird balance of constantly being worried and enraged and also trying to figure out how to give people the capacity to laugh again,” Tonight Show writer Albertina Rizzo tells us. “Obviously we all wish the world wasn’t this Dumpster fire that we are living in right now, but we do what we can with it.”
Rizzo, who’s been with Fallon since his Late Night days, says the shift in the tone of the show mirrors how the rest of the country is feeling right now.
“I think that a lot of us didn’t see it coming; I just think as a country we didn’t see it coming, and now I think we’re all trying to figure out what this new world is and what it means and just how bad it can get,” Rizzo says. “Also, [we’re] trying to lift people up that need it and tell stories that need to be told and give a voice to those people that are being suppressed by people like Trump.”
That’s why, instead of having Fallon spit out anger-filled monologues, they’ve chosen to occasionally poke fun at their host’s often criticized track record with the president (Fallon starred in a refreshingly self-aware clip this year titled “Trump Haunts Jimmy”), recruit fresh comedic voices to deliver the news, or take it upon themselves to get in front of the camera and talk about the serious issues.
Two of those fresh voices – Julio Torres and Patti Harrison – have been popping up on the show more and more thanks to Trump. Torres had a particularly memorable moment on the show when he appeared as a “correspondent” to discuss Trump’s position on the DREAM Act and how immigrants were supposedly stealing jobs from hard-working Americans.
If you were to ask Torres what he does for a living he’d say he’s a comedian that specializes in queer multimedia, often covers himself in glitter, and tries to find a way to work tiny shapes into his act. Not the kind of job most people covet.
“He was brilliant,” Rizzo says. “It was so funny and nuanced.”
It’s a model the show has adapted when confronting any issue that might not be best-served by Fallon covering it himself. For instance, Harrison’s commentary on Trump’s transgender military ban felt more rich and affecting because she’s a member of the LGTBQ community herself.
“The challenge is also this: we’re all reading the same news and every single late night show is dealing with the same thing,” Rizzo says. “So there’s going to be a million takes on something and our job is to find out what our take is going to be and how original we can be with that take.”
Thus, when the show had Hillary Clinton on nearly a year after the presidential election, the writers’ room decided to hijack Fallon’s “Thank You Notes” segment to spotlight some heartfelt thanks to Clinton, in the process delivering the sort of bit you don’t normally see on male-lead late night shows — one full of emotion, kindness, and sincere appreciation. With seven female writers on their team – the most of any program on late night – Fallon’s show had the rare opportunity to give a voice to women when it spotlighted its female staff and gave them leave to pour their hearts out to the former presidential candidate.
“It was something that Jimmy really encouraged and wanted us to do,” Rizzo said. “There was no other way for us to not make it heartfelt because it was, that’s the reality of it. We could’ve tried to make it a bit, but I think there was just so much weight and emotion in it for all of us.”
For Jo Firestone, another writer on The Tonight Show, the chance to sneak in strange sketches and offbeat bits to break up the unrelenting slog of bad news doesn’t just fit her self-labeled “weird” brand of comedy – before late night she was doing a handful of high-brow routines around New York – it also helps her stave off the depression of living in the Trump era.
“It’s exhausting to be so disappointed and to see such terrible things all the time,” Firestone says. “It does take a critical eye and an awareness of what people can take and how to approach it in a way that’s not just like, ‘Well, he sucks.’”
Firestone took part in the Clinton “Thank You Notes” Segment and her fellow writers Jasmine Pierce and Taryn Engelhart, crafted a Jessica Chastain-starring bit about sexual harassment following the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
“You didn’t see any men in that sketch, which was awesome,” Firestone says. “You only heard Jimmy playing a pervert off-screen and you just get to see the reaction of this poor woman’s face while she’s dealing with this situation and trying to deal with it as gracefully as possible and it’s like every woman I know has been in a situation like that. It’s just cool there’s space on the show for it.”
The show also gives Firestone and Rizzo a national platform to target behaviors and archaic systems they’ve been victims of because of their gender.
“Every female comedian I know works and works and works, and just kind of hustles all the time,” Firestone says. “There is still backlash from audiences, there is still backlash from other comics. In order to be a comedian, you just have to be okay with rejection and as a female comedian, there is even more. Anyone coming from a non-white straight man’s perspective is going to have a difficult road for comedy. It’s going be met with more resistance because people have antiquated ideas of what it means to be a comedian. There’s this ageism and racism and sexism within the scene, and trying to push through that takes a lot of… I don’t know what it takes, but it takes a lot of it.”
If anything, The Tonight Show’s writing team is proving it doesn’t need to rely on white men to deliver the news and make people laugh and it doesn’t have to constantly bombard us with the shitty reality of the world. There’s a balance that can be struck and these women are hell-bent on finding it, if not for their own sanity, then for ours.