Hello: below is a post about late night, Bernie Sanders, and some other things. Now our sacred bargain is fulfilled.
Did you know that Bernie Sanders is an old man? No? Well, you’re in luck. Television’s famed comedy gentlemen are here to tell you that Bernie Sanders is an old man.
Jimmy Fallon is here to tell you that Bernie Sanders is an old man:
The big winner in New Hampshire was Bernie Sanders. You can tell Bernie's fired up. Last night he was mixing Metamucil into a shot of Jager… Bernie hasn’t been this excited since movies got sound.
Since Valentine’s Day is this week, some of the Democratic candidates decided to take a break from negative campaigning in order to write some Valentine's Day poems from the campaign trail… Bernie Sanders’ poem goes: “Medicare For All, College should be free. Every night at 4am, I wake up to pee.”
Jimmy Kimmel is here to tell you that Bernie Sanders is an old man:
Last night in New Hampshire, Senator Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg got exciting news. They finished number one and number two with a very tight margin between them. And that is turning out to be some matchup: an old Jewish guy versus a young gay guy. It's like an uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner.
James Corden is here to tell you that Bernie Sanders is an old man:
It appears Bernie Sanders is going to win. And if he does, Bernie plans to splurge on a big pigeon-feeding trip to the nearest park bench.
One of the biggest surprises was how Joe Biden performed. Not only did he finish in fifth place, he left New Hampshire before his own prescheduled victory party… Meanwhile Bernie Sanders' victory party raged all night into the wee hours of 9:30pm.
Stephen Colbert is here to tell you that Bernie Sanders is an old man:
Pete did actually admire Bernie in high school. He even wrote an essay about him that won the ‘Profile in Courage’ essay contest. Profiles in Courage, of course, was written by JFK, who also wrote a high school essay about looking up to Bernie Sanders.
Trevor Noah is here to tell you that Bernie Sanders is an old man:
Last night may have been the best night for Bernie Sanders since he won that free cruise on Noah's ark.
Samantha Bee is here to tell you that—hold up—this can’t be right—Bernie Sanders is apparently not only an old man, but also a person with political beliefs:
Last night was the New Hampshire primary. It was a win for strong progressive policies, Westworld robots, and… Amy Klobuchar?
Seth Meyers, too, has clocked that perhaps there’s more to this Sanders chap:
Bernie Sanders is now the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, promising to fundamentally transform the corrupt system that created Trump and from which Trump benefits.
Lately whenever I consume late night I think back to this MEL Magazine article and the discourse surrounding it, in which a bunch of late night writers argued that the form is bad and hacky by design, and that it is simply impossible to write good political comedy. What strikes me during weeks like these—when one host after another jokes about politician’s looks rather than what they want to do (or have done) with power—is how much political comedy isn’t actually political. It’s just comedy adjacent to politics. It doesn’t know or believe anything other than what is immediately visible, i.e. agreeable: the man is old. He’s old! Do you see how he’s old? He’s definitely old, that much we can say for sure, and nothing else.
One could argue this is still by design—the more people you have to please, the less freedom you have to adopt a singular point of view—but Full Frontal and Late Night make clear that it’s actually pretty easy to begin one’s analysis from some baseline acknowledgement of what is really happening in the world. (I think The Daily Show sometimes manages this, but other times it seems to exist on a whole other planet.) In that light I suppose the politics-adjacent jokes may be political after all, because the choice to ignore reality is a political one. At this point I will note that Colbert did allude to Sanders’ policy positions in that clip, early on, during a riff on Sanders’ victory speech:
I want to thank the unpaid volunteers who—oh my god! What have I become? I'm a capitalist swine who benefits off the toil of the 99%! I've become that which I most abhorred! I am now the man! Let's stick it to me!
You will never catch me saying that good joke-writing requires good politics. But I do think bad joke-writing frequently exposes the bad politics of people who think they have good politics. Many jokes rely on the establishment of equivalencies and the identification of hypocrisies. You learn a lot about people from what they think is equivalent to what else, and what they think constitutes hypocrisy. In this instance Colbert is asking you to consider that a massive, multiracial and cross-generational political movement may resemble labor exploitation; or, perhaps, that the moral purity associated with progressive politics is ludicrous and impracticable. Both options veer close to conservative talking points about socialist leaders who operate within capitalism (Bernie’s a millionaire, don’t you know). They’re also just lazy, uninformed jokes. If you go looking for something absurd about Sanders or the circumstances that led to his rise, you will find plenty to choose from. It takes a very specific point of view to settle on “lots of people put in lots of free labor to elect this guy who wants them to live better lives.”
To me what is so exhilarating about figures like Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar—other than their policies—is that they state plainly what our entire political discourse is structured to deny. Billionaires should not exist. The Democratic Party is conservative. The pro-Israel lobby wields undue influence over our politics. The state of Israel is engaged in a horrific ongoing crime in which every American is complicit. Healthcare is a human right. Housing is a human right. No coups, no wars, no medical debt, no college debt. I have spent my entire life internalizing the notion that moderation and compromise are the mature responses to the moral questions of our day, and that those questions are never black and white. What these figures lay bare is that many questions are black and white, and more, how destructive it has been to approach them as anything but. What I am about to say is corny as shit but it is true: hearing these things gives me the same visceral rush—of pleasure, awareness, clarity—as hearing a great joke or reading a great poem. It’s the feeling of being oriented to a truth that was always there but went for whatever reason unseen. Once you’ve seen it you lose all patience for anything that attempts, wittingly or not, to orient you away. Only the real thing will do.
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Art may not be life, but it helps us discover how to live. Comedians may not be politicians, but they have an obligation to the truth—as they’ll be the first to tell you. Which is why I find it disheartening, maddening, baffling, and most importantly boring to see so many of our highest profile commentators respond to such intense social upheaval with such willful naiveté. (And so refreshing to watch the few who don’t.) You would not know from most of these segments that Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary for reasons, let alone why those reasons matter. You would simply know that people voted and the sleepy old man came in first. I may be something of a radical but I think this is probably not the funniest available approach. I can see the man is old. Tell me what I cannot see.
There was a whole terrible Twitter discourse the other day about whether South Park poisoned the culture by creating a generation of nihilist reactionaries. I have never seen much evidence that pop culture has that sort of influence on reality—at least compared to material conditions that shape people’s politics coincident to whatever culture they consume—and I hope you will yell at me if I ever start suggesting that it does. What I am concerned with is pop culture’s influence on the ways people talk about reality, specifically the politics part of reality. (Also other parts, e.g. I wonder if Louis CK would have returned to work so easily had more famous people said loudly that it’s bad to do what he did.) It seems evident from all of media that the dominant mode is a focus on personality over policy; on politicians as characters in a drama (or… a comedy) rather than instruments of the public will; and on differences within that public as well-meaning disagreements resolvable through civil debate rather than a struggle between right and wrong—compassion and cruelty, civilization and barbarism—that can be settled only by the uncompromising exercise of power.
Style, in short, over substance.
Trump lies to the people who love and trust him. Why wouldn’t they believe him? Like 1930s and 40s Germany- it’s too insane to believe this world leader is lying to us. But he is. And it’s dividing a nation who, truly, mostly agrees on what is right and wrong. These people areFebruary 8, 2020
"This restaurant serves food or shit. Which would you like?"
"I only want my FAVORITE food. Otherwise, shit."
- America 2020February 14, 2020
This mode may be conducive to monologue jokes, but it is not all that conducive to an honest accounting of what is wrong with the world and why. Which is both sorely needed and a key function of comedy: we can have our cake and joke about it too. As Seth Meyers alone pointed out this week, the question of this primary is whether to cosmetically retouch the system that gave us Trump, or to tear it down and build a better one. The reason so many liberal pundits and writers and intellectuals and TV personalities are constantly desperately insisting everyone be nice about every candidate, everyone remember we all want the same thing—getting rid of Trump—is that no one has told them this is the real question. Perhaps it would be useful if they heard it every night, on broadcast TV and cable, and then again the next morning on social and digital channels.
Or maybe I’m wrong: maybe the problem with Trump is not his policies or his party but that he is a foul little man who’s friends with Putin, and they like to kiss, and they’re probably kissing right now, because they love it so much, smooch smooch smooch.
Ah! Who can say.