“Wait till you hear what happened to me!” David Letterman said to begin his monologue on February 21st, 2000. “You are not going to believe it. I’ve been away for a while. While I was gone, I had quintuple bypass surgery on my heart. Plus, I got a haircut. Ladies and gentleman, after what I have been through, I am just happy to be wearing clothing that opens on the front.”
It was Letterman’s triumphant return after five weeks away, but an emotional Dave devoted much of the episode to the doctors and nurses who saved his life, though he didn’t miss an opportunity to make a joke. “Bypass,” he said, “is what happened to me at The Tonight Show.” A minute later, Jerry Seinfeld came out, ostensibly to host the night’s show. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “I thought you were dead.”
At the time, there were only two late-night hosts on network television at 11:30 p.m., and it’s hard to describe what it felt like to have Letterman on our screens again after five weeks away following so much uncertainty about his health. It’s obviously not anything like the situation we now face in 2020, but Letterman’s return felt like what I imagine it will feel like for us when Major League Baseball returns, or when we all return to a bar for the first time. When Letterman came back, it felt like things were alright in the world again. He gave us the sense of normalcy that so many of us are so desperately craving right now.
Letterman would provide that comfort, perspective, and sense of normalcy several more times in the years to come, but so would many of the other late-night hosts, from Jimmy Fallon to Samantha Bee to Trevor Noah. They have broken format, shared personal stories, imparted wisdom, or just decided to be there for us during moments of great upheaval. They have illustrated through several Presidential administrations that no matter who is in the White House, late-night television will always be there for us.
Here are nine other examples:
David Letterman, The Late Show with David Letterman, September 2001 — One week after the single biggest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, David Letterman returned to television, but he did not come as an entertainer or as a comedian. David Letterman returned to provide comfort to a nation in sore need of it, and no one was better suited to do so than New York City’s long-running late-night host. That night, David Letterman’s hands shook, he cried during the monologue, and he stopped an interview with Dan Rather twice because Rather was so emotional. It was a painful and somber monologue, which Dave gave from his desk. “I just need to hear myself talk for a few minutes,” Dave said through tears, “so that’s what I’m going to do.”
It’s an unusual monologue in retrospect because Letterman spends much of it praising Rudy Giuliani, but he also praises the firefighters and police officers of New York City. He blamed the attacks on religious fervor, and asked, “If you live to be a 1,000 years old, will that make any goddamn sense?” And then he told a story about a tiny town in Montana that had been going through some hard times of its own, but it held a rally to raise money for New York City. “If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the spirit of the United States, I don’t know what to tell you.”
The monologue that Dave gave that night not only provided comfort (and a smattering of laughs), it has since served as a model to other late-night hosts, who have been called upon occasionally in the 19 years since to address their own audiences about difficult days in our nation’s history. In fact, Jimmy Fallon cited this very monologue as the reason why he returned as host of The Tonight Show during our current crisis, specifically one specific line that might serve us all well to take to heart: “There is only one requirement of any of us, and that is to be courageous, because courage — as you might know — defines all other human behavior. I believe, because I’ve done a little of this myself, pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing.”
Jimmy Fallon, Late Night, October 2012 — Eleven years after the 9/11 attacks, NYC faced a weather disaster, this time in the form of Hurricane Sandy, the second-costliest hurricane on record in the United States and the largest Atlantic hurricane ever. That night, both David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon recorded their shows as planned, though neither had audiences, as those audiences were hunkered down in their homes. Fallon began the taping out in the streets of the city, which were mostly abandoned as the hurricane approached. That night, he also had his eventual successor, Seth Meyers, on as a guest.
It was an eerie taping, but Fallon illustrated again that night that, even when the world outside is literally being destroyed by mother nature, late-night hosts could bring viewers some normalcy and a few laughs for those who were otherwise afraid of what was banging outside their doors.
David Letterman, The Late Show, December 2012 — I watched Letterman for years and years, and I never thought of him as a particularly political person, and when I did, I assumed that he was probably a moderate Republican, given his conservative Indiana upbringing. During his last few years as host of The Late Show, however, his political leanings began to seep out, mostly in confrontations with people like Bill O’Reilly. Even still, Letterman was never what anyone would call an extreme political person, and when he talked about politics — as he did after the Sandy Hook shooting — he did so not through a political lens, but through the lens of common sense. The Sandy Hook shooting left 28 dead and two injured, mostly kids, and Letterman took seven minutes during his monologue to address the massacre.
Letterman has always been smart about positioning himself as a stooge, or a dimwit who doesn’t know what he’s talking about; he uses self-deprecation to gain our empathy, and on that night, he called for action. Not a particular action, mind you, and certainly not a conservative or a liberal one. But he called upon us to do something to ensure that mass shootings like that don’t happen again. It was for mainstream late-night television an unusual call-to-action, but given the loss of children’s lives that week, it was a necessary and, in some ways, a comforting and inspiring one, because in it’s own small way, it gave us a sense of purpose.
Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 2015 — Sadly, Letterman’s plea for action didn’t work. Three years later, Jon Stewart spoke off-the-cuff to open The Daily Show after the Charleston, S.C. shooting. Sometimes, we respond the most to heartfelt anger, frustration, and sadness. Heartfelt, anger, frustration, and sadness were Jon Stewart’s strengths. Stewart cut through the politics, and he framed the issue as one of racism and domestic terrorism. The remarks were hugely instrumental in a conversation this country very much needed to have about Confederate flags, and it helped pave the way for removal of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina statehouse. As importantly, Stewart voiced our own anger that night, and framed that racist iconography in ways that some had never considered.
“In South Carolina,” he said, “the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to be able to keep black people from freely driving on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. We can’t allow that.”
John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, February 2016 — John Oliver was adamant about not discussing the 2016 American political election at length until late February of of 2016, reasoning that he wouldn’t talk about a political election until we were at least in the same year as the election. When he finally did, however, he unloaded 21 minutes of pent-up, hilarious rage on Donald Trump at a time when it still felt like Donald Trump’s candidacy wasn’t a serious one. The assault didn’t slow Trump down, but it did validate the feelings of millions of voters opposed to the GOP nominee. It also became the most popular viral video of all time not only for Last Week Tonight, but for HBO. For millions of people watching the political campaign unfold, it was the rant that they so desperately needed to hear, if only to make themselves feel like they weren’t taking crazy pills.
Seth Meyers, Late Night, November 2016 — Nine months later, the night after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, there were a lot of people in America who turned to late-night television to provide not only comfort but perspective. That night, Seth Meyers managed to voice the pain that so many on the left felt not just because Donald Trump had won the election, but because the first female nominee of a major political party had lost. It was a ten-minute monologue that was at times funny, and at other times, emotional. It was mostly jokes until the 3:30 mark, when Meyers got teary thinking about how excited and then disappointed his mother was about not being able to witness the first female president. Credit to Meyers, too, because at the time, he made an effort to sound hopeful and to try and understand the anger, sadness, and fear that drove others to vote for Donald Trump. “I would like to say to those Trump voters, ‘Congratulations. I sincerely hope that he addresses those concerns you had, and I sincerely hope that if you felt forgotten, he won’t forget you now.”
Samantha Bee, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, January 2017 — Soon after the inauguration of Donald Trump, millions of women around America channeled their energy and anger into holding what was essentially the biggest nationwide protest this country has known since Vietnam. Samantha Bee, better than anyone, captured that energy not only in the show after the Women’s March, but in basically in every episode since. In fact, Samantha Bee at the moment remains the only major late-night hosts who can speak to so many issues that affect specifically women, and she has done so with razor-sharp with and a healthy sense of anger, tackling everything from the Access Hollywood tape, to Weinstein and Me Too, to abortion rights. There is comfort in Bee’s comedy, but there is also inspiration in her passion.
Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Kimmel Live, May 2017 — Jimmy Kimmel was once the host of a program called The Man Show that featured a Juggy Dance Squad, which is exactly what it sounds like. But the long-running late night host of ABC’s late-night show has evolved considerably over the years. Marriage and then kids will do that. But in May 2017, several days after Jimmy’s wife Molly McNearney gave birth to a baby boy with a heart defect, Jimmy spoke through tears to the nation about the most harrowing event of his life. As David Letterman did after his heart surgery, however, Jimmy used his emotional journey as an opportunity to the highlight the true heroes — the nurses and doctors who perform miracles every day as a matter of course. In the end, Kimmel also used his story to lobby for healthcare for all, regardless of pre-existing conditions or ability to pay. It was one of the most emotional late-night episodes ever, and it has helped to redefine who Jimmy Kimmel is as a person and as as a late-night host.
Stephen Colbert, The Late Show, and Trevor Noah, The Daily Show, March 2020 — During our current nationwide lockdown, in which most of us — including late-night hosts — are stuck in our homes, it was the current King of Late Night, Stephen Colbert, who was the first to return to the air. On March 17th, Colbert filmed what was basically a The Late Show monologue while wearing a suit inside of his bathtub. By March 30th, he’d brought the entire show back.
Colbert’s monologue that first night back in and of itself did not provide any fatherly comfort, nor did it give any of us a sense of normalcy. The fact that he conducted the monologue from inside a bubble bath in his own home announced to the audience at home loud and clear: This is not normal. What Stephen Colbert did do on that first night back, however, was to say that yes, this is scary, and yes, this could last a long while, but he assured us that he would be on this harrowing journey with us. There is comfort in familiarity, and that is what Stephen Colbert has provided us in these last few weeks, not to mention the fact that all the other late-night hosts have since followed Colbert’s lead.
Trevor Noah, on the other hand, has rebranded his program as The Daily Social Distancing Show, and he has actually done a remarkable job in these last few weeks of turning his show into not just a place for jokes, but an honest source of information that his audience can trust. While the other late-night hosts have had each other on, or their other friends on, or even cast members from Friends, Trevor Noah has had experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci come onto his show and speak about the pandemic and social distancing. He’s also had Bill Gates on to talk about potential solutions, and he’s had Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmir and California Governor Gavin Newsome onto the show to talk about the situations they are confronting in their own states. Oh, and he’s also had the sexiest real doctor in American on his show.
In some ways, Trevor Noah has used this opportunity to separate himself from the other late-night hosts. He still has on celebrities — Jennifer Garner recently came on to their #SaveWithStories initiative — but he’s also been able to provide something that not even cable news has reliably given us, which is an honest source of trustworthy information. There have been surveys that have long suggested that the younger generation gets most of its news from late-night programs. In the case of Trevor Noah, that’s a great thing right now. Noah may not be the comforting parental figure that some look for in a late-night host, but he has definitely become the sage Professor of late-night television.