When we look back at these last four years – which, depressingly, and maybe predictably, culminated (at least so far) on Wednesday with the U.S. Capitol being stormed by supporters of Donald Trump, reportedly leaving four people dead – the lasting time capsule to historians who, someday, might want to try and figure all this out, will be Late Night With Seth Meyers‘s “A Closer Look” segment. If you go back and just pick one at random from, say, two years ago, I promise you will most likely be stunned at how much you don’t remember. But, night after night, it’s like a complete set of whatever dumb thing happened that day; that just kept building up until we reached this moment.
On Wednesday night there was no “A Closer Look.” Late Night was live and it was just a somber Seth Meyers doing his best to make heads or tails of what happened earlier in the day. Since the pandemic started, and I think Meyers would be the first to admit, it’s pretty obvious he hasn’t felt totally comfortable delivering the opening monologue without an audience. (Which makes a lot of sense. Imagine just staring into your computer, in a room by yourself, trying to be funny, as Meyers had to do for a few months.) You can tell he feels awkward by how often he just starts laughing mid joke (which, as a viewer, I always get a kick out of seeing.)
When Meyers signed up to host Late Night, he’s been pretty clear this is not how he envisioned the show. His goal was a comedy show, not, as I said earlier, a time capsule of one of the most tumultuous stretches in recent U.S. history. I suspect the last thing Meyers ever wanted to do was give a solemn speech, live, on network television, that had to both give faith to people that there’s decency left and to hold those in power who orchestrated this accountable. It’s telling that the actual president didn’t address the American people live and try to calm down an enraged nation. No, instead, it was Seth Meyers.
Meyers’ address to the nation is truly remarkable because, for most of it at least, you can really make the case these are the words that would usually come from the president. (President-elect Biden made a fine speech yesterday, but his themes of “unity” are starting to look pretty unrealistic.) For all intents and purposes we have no functioning president at this given moment, so others like Meyers, have to fill that gap. And the part that really hit home was that, yes, again, people need to be held accountable.
“Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and the rest of the sedition caucus in the House and Senate goaded this on. They are responsible for this. They should wear this shame and disgrace for the rest of their lives. No one who aided and abetted today’s action should ever be allowed to serve in a democracy they so surly detest,” said Meyers. And the reality is that’s probably not going to happen. But it made me feel better having a reasonable voice say something like that. Watching Wednesday’s events, they were so surreal and so unprecedented that it makes a person question their own opinions and sanity. After it was over, there were members of Congress like Ben Sasse who gave folksy, ah shucks speeches about how great America is, just a few feet away from where a woman was shot and killed just a few hours before.
Even worse, people like Missouri Senator Josh Hawley (from my home state, which is especially heartbreaking) continued down the road of questioning the legitimacy of the election, apparently just choosing to decide that the events earlier in the day just didn’t happen. So, yes, it even led me to start questioning what I had seen with my own eyes. Why is everyone acting normal? Am I the crazy person?
And that’s why watching something like Meyers deliver his remarks, live, was so important. It was comforting. At least here’s a sane voice summing up what we all saw, and putting into context at least what should happen. Another part really stood out for me, early on, when Meyers said, “I think it’s important, as the first draft of history is being written, and as we are all processing what we are witnessing today, to be as plainspoken and clear-eyed as possible. What we saw today was a violent insurgency in an attempt to overthrow the legitimately elected government of the United States. And it was incited, directed, and encouraged by the president, Donald Trump.”
What he means is, as we are seeing, the far right-wing is already trying to rewrite what happened. A year from now, what happened Wednesday will probably cause arguments as to how it even happened. (Though, the MAGA people who stormed the Capitol seemed awfully proud of what they did. I’m not so sure they are going to be happy to hear now that Antifa is getting the “credit.”) What Meyers is doing is trying to set a historical reminder of what actually happened. It’s important he did that.
And, frankly, over the coming years it’s going to become more and more apparent just how important a lot of these late night shows actually were. They are going to be one of the best sources of what actually happened. I often see people ask late night hosts some version of, “With Trump gone will that hurt comedy?” What on Earth? What Meyers and other late night hosts have been doing the last four years hasn’t been “comedy.” It’s been therapy. It’s been an honest attempt to try to hold things together. I’m not sure it worked, but I am appreciative they tried.
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