On a day when a late night talk show host, Larry Wilmore, saw his The Nightly Show canceled by Comedy Central, it’s hard to shake the strange state of late night television right now.
I use the word “strange” as a substitute for a better word I can’t think of to describe what’s happening right now. The word isn’t “dismal,” because there are truly good shows and the word isn’t “lackluster,” because there are shows, like The Tonight Show, that get behemoth ratings. It’s just more that this is an election year – I think we can all agree the craziest election year of all our lives – and, for whatever reason, no late night host has made a huge cultural imprint. As in: “I have to know what Johnny says before I go to bed.”
“Johnny” is used there instead of using “[insert host here]” mainly because I think “[insert host here]” looks stupid and Johnny Carson pretty much defined the idea of a comedic voice of reason mocking the things that make us mad about politics. (If we are getting technical, Jack Paar did this, too. But I was not alive when Jack Parr was hosting The Tonight Show and if you are reading Uproxx, you probably weren’t either.)
Even in this age of how we watch television now – online clips and streaming – there’s still something to be said for communal viewing: basically knowing that you’re watching along with everyone else at the same time. This is why live events (sports, awards shows, musicals) have become even more popular. As much as we like to say we don’t need to be around people (I am guilty of this), humans are still social creatures. We like the feeling of watching something unfold along with millions of others at the same time. People did this with Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. People would watch it before going to bed. There has been no replacement. (This is where I point out that Samantha Bee and John Oliver both host shows that are on just once a week. I really wish Samantha Bee’s show would expand to four nights a week. There’s a huge opening for a show like hers right now to be the go-to nightly “water cooler” show.)
I used “water cooler” in that last parenthetical, which I hate using because it’s such an outdated term. But people do like talking about things not work related while they are at work. And, right now, there is no nightly “water cooler” show. Honestly, I think Fallon is very good at what he does, but he hosts a fun variety show. Seth Meyers is very good at what he does, but his show is on later than most people stay up at night. The same goes for James Corden, who leans more toward Fallon’s style, but has become an internet sensation rather than a ratings sensation. Jimmy Kimmel does pretty good interviews (he actually held Trump accountable), but still has trouble breaking through for whatever reason. The Daily Show, let’s face it, has had ratings trouble (though it appears to be rebounding in the wake of Stewart leaving). It can’t be a “water cooler” show with so few people watching. And Colbert’s show still seems to be trying to figure things out – which is why his show is the most frustrating, because it’s all there for the taking, they just aren’t doing it. (I suspect when Colbert’s show returns from the hiatus everyone is on due to the Olympics, we will see a more focused product. At least I hope.)
The other night I was out with some friends and we were discussing late night television and who has had the greatest impact on this election. We went through all the names above and tried to come up with what host has had the greatest impact on this year’s election so far. And then it came on the television at the bar we were at: The 2012 clip of David Letterman owning Donald Trump, in the most passive-aggressive way possible, in relation to where Trump manufactured his shirts and ties. This clip is being replayed constantly in an ad put out by the Hillary Clinton campaign, and it’s being played during highly rated programing, like the Olympics. Going around the table, we all kind of nodded that, yes, David Letterman, a talk show host who retired over a year ago, is having the biggest effect on this election.
Let’s break down that clip a bit and just how genius it is and why Letterman was the master of this sort of thing. First, he gets Trump to take the bait, to get him talking about how Obama is responsible for China becoming a world leader – going as far to say Mitt Romney might be able to turn this around. The whole thing is one big “we aren’t going to be number one anymore and we need to be number one.”
Here’s the beauty: Letterman brings out Trump’s shirts and ties and Trump really does think this is just part of the deal to plug his line of clothing. All is going well! Then Letterman starts asking where these clothes were made. Trump responds, “I don’t know where they were made, but they were made someplace.” Even though Letterman already knows the answer, the way he milks looking at the tag is just perfection before he says, “Bangladesh.” The home run is, again, the way Letterman milks the way he gets the answer from off camera that the ties were made in China. I cannot over-emphasize how good this is. And this, right here, is the face of a person who knows he’s just been humiliated on national television:
The clip we are seeing in heavy rotation doesn’t show what happens right after “Trump defeated face,” Trump defends himself by saying that not all were made in China. Then Letterman demands Trump close the Beijing factory and open one in Queens. It’s a beautiful piece of late night television and I understand 100 percent why Clinton’s campaign jumped on airing it. If I were them, I’d air this and only this until November. It’s one of the best campaign ads I’ve ever seen.
It’s just that much more disappointing that when Trump went on Colbert’s Late Show, Colbert literally apologized to Trump. It’s a stark contrast. I have heard that Trump was soliciting apologies in exchange for appearing on late night talk shows. Some hosts declined to do this, Colbert agreed. You have to do what you have to do, I guess? But as a late night host, I think a big part of their job is to deconstruct our phony politicians, not apologize for past jokes. (I still remain an admirer of Mr. Colbert, but I find this interview with Trump deeply disappointing.)
Which brings me back to Letterman one more time. He, too, once apologized to Trump – Letterman called Trump a “racist” long before that seemed like an obvious thing to say. Trump then pulled his “apologize or I won’t go on your show” stunt on Letterman. This is the result. It, too, is perfection.
David Letterman’s last show aired 15 months ago, but somehow he’s still a major part in this election (and he did recently call Trump “despicable”) and still proving he was the best at what he did: making clowns look like clowns.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.