Ask The Hard Questions

Late night's cozy relationship with Democratic leaders has to end this week.

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One small thing that will happen in the coming weeks is that Democratic politicians will appear on late night talk shows. It's going to be a delicate balancing act. They will condemn systemic racism and call for accountability in policing. They will also blame the outbreak of violent protests on radical elements and outside agitators rather than police forces under their control. The goal will be to delegitimize righteous protests against those forces, and to write their own blood-soaked hands out of the history books. Eric Garcetti is already scheduled to begin this process when he speaks with James Corden on Wednesday. I wonder if he’ll get hard questions or easy ones. Just kidding.

The prevailing narrative in late night right now is a struggle between the wise, rational Democratic party and the doltish, racist GOP, as embodied by Donald Trump. This narrative rests on the assumed virtue of Democrats, who get a free pass from the scrutiny late night writers are clearly capable of applying to politicians—they apply it every night to Trump and other Republicans, after all. Democrats get to play the foil, showing up for friendly interviews where they lambast Trump and provide facsimiles of moral guidance. Usually this amounts to meaningless talking points and reliably tone-deaf reminders that they understand the common man: Nancy Pelosi showing off her freezer full of ice cream to Corden. Joe Biden showing off his favorite Gatorade flavor to Desus and Mero. Andrew Cuomo riffing with Jimmy Fallon about quarantining with his teenage daughters. Kamala Harris telling Seth Meyers what she thought of Tiger King. They’re the good guys, don’t you see? They’re our friends. Vote for them to stop the bad guys.

This narrative cannot accommodate the last week of abhorrent police violence in cities with Democratic mayors, governors, and legislatures. Late night writers and hosts cannot give the good guys a pass anymore—not after they responded to protests by punitively shutting down Covid-19 testing centers, suspending meal distribution for schoolchildren, and defending police officers who drove through protestors. A commitment to the statements of solidarity released by NBC, CBS, Showtime, Comedy Central, TBS, and HBO requires harsh criticism of the people who control the “systemic” part of systemic racism, and a cold look inward at the complicity of late night itself. The only alternative to challenging this system is to uphold it.

This is unpleasant but important to admit: late night comedy isn’t just entertainment. It’s also propaganda. Its hosts are propagandists. We can’t expect them to bite the hand that feeds. We have to demand it. 

This week the likes of Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel will say that Black lives matter. They will speak of justice for George Floyd, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. They will condemn violence from all sides. If they mean what they say, they should use their platforms to make very specific calls for accountability. The prosecution of violent officers. The repeal of New York's police secrecy law. The return of campaign donations from police organizations. The resignation of officials whose police forces brutalized protestors. The slashing of police budgets, or, better yet, the defunding of entire departments. They should make these calls to elected officials' faces, and they should not take doublespeak for an answer. The thing with powerful people is they do whatever they think they’ll get away with. They do it until the moment they find out they won’t. This can be that moment.

Colbert and his peers will not ask the hard questions of their own volition. Colbert himself has yet to even tweet about what’s happening—an odd silence from a man who abandoned his irreverent roots for a more statesmanlike role. But there are two groups that can push for a stronger response. One is the writers, support staffs, and crew members without whom no late night host could do their job. This group is smaller than usual in the era of Late Night From Home, but it still has a voice it can use to exert pressure, not to mention labor it can withhold. The other group is fans. They have a voice too. Last week they used it to extract an apology from Fallon for his use of blackface 20 years ago. Some called that effort frivolous and counterproductive. I disagree. There’s nothing counterproductive about asking powerful people to model the values they preach.

Criticism of late night is often met with cries that it’s just late night. No one cares! It’s not important! The real joke is having high expectations of Jimmy Fallon. And, well, yeah. That’s the point. Andrew Cuomo goes to Fallon because nobody expects Fallon to treat him like someone whose decisions cost lives. Chuck Schumer knows Colbert might play devil’s advocate, but only long enough for Schumer to bat away a given controversy. Is it any surprise that Garcetti will give his time to James “Show & Tell” Corden two days after he increases LAPD salaries? Of course not. The fact that politicians use late night to launder their policies into entertainment is precisely what makes it important. In a world where comedians routinely insist they’re on the front lines of free speech, these shows get away with neoliberal agitprop because no one expects any better.

This provides an opening. Soon Democratic leaders will turn to late night for help whitewashing their role in authoritarian crackdowns. They’ll be expecting easy questions, the kind that let them maintain progressive credentials even as they continue overseeing state violence. If Colbert and Kimmel and Fallon and Corden and Meyers and Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah and Desus and Mero wish to support this movement instead of stifling it, they cannot play a part in this ruse. They have to ask the hard questions.

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