There is no question about it: Donald Trump is the No. 1 target of the late night TV talk shows. And in the past few months, the jokes have veered vitriolic as late-night writers and their on-air talent judged Trump’s policies as despicable and worthy of ridicule.
“It’s a joke that’s becoming more serious. He gets treated harsher than other candidates, but I think that’s just a reflection of how he does stuff that’s just a lot more bananas than the other candidates,” said a writer on a current late night show who has worked in the industry for years on various shows. “When he’s calling upon people to be barred from the country because they’re Muslim, that’s more outlandish than other candidates, so it should be treated harsher because it’s an egregious comment.”
Take “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon. Many of his jokes about Jeb Bush center on his low polling numbers. Jokes about Hillary Clinton tend to turn on her perceived lack of authenticity. Ben Carson jokes are about his questionable personal history and “sleepy” demeanor.
But Fallon’s Trump jokes lampoon the Republican’s policy positions. In an early December “Pro and Con” segment, Fallon said that in a “Pro” for “Elf on a Shelf” there’s a “Mensch on the Bench” for Jews, but the con is that there’s “an anti-immigrant version called Trump on the Stump.”
It’s not just Fallon. From Sept. 1 to Oct. 31, Trump was the target of 308 monologues on the late shows from “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” and “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” according to Samuel Lichter of George Mason University, who studies the politics of late night TV.
Clinton came in second as the target of 107 jokes and Bush was third with 76 jokes.
“I think Trump’s policies go a step farther than most candidates and as a result the jokes about him go a step farther as well,” said Lichter, who is also the author of the 2014 book “Politics Is a Joke! How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life.”
“A lot of people have accused Trump as a demagogue so a demagogue makes for a good target. If a guy telling the joke thinks he’s a demagogue too jokes will be harsher,” Lichter said.
Trump, with hyperbolic rhetoric, over-the-top lifestyle and that hair is the perfect target and a ratings machine. His appearances with Colbert and Fallon all brought in ratings records for both shows, as Trump himself is sure to remind you.
“The late night talk show hosts love Trump as a target but don’t like him as a person. He does wonders for their show. He’s outrageous, unpredictable, larger than life and always newsworthy, you can’t buy that type of target and once you got it you home in on it,” Lichter said.
Colbert, for example, has called Trump an “egomaniacal billionaire” though in a recent interview with CBS’s John Dickerson, he said he admires Trump’s ability to buck conventions.
“I may disagree with anything that he’s saying and think that his proposals are a little … well, more than a little shocking. But there is something really hopeful about the fact that, well, 36 percent of the likely voters want him so the people in the machine don’t get to say otherwise,” Colbert said, referencing a recent CBS/New York Times poll. “That’s the one saving grace, I think, of his candidacy.”
In his years of following the politics of late night television, Lichter said the only other time he had seen such harsh jokes about a politician was when Bill Clinton was at the height of his scandal with Monica Lewinsky.
“When a politician is caught in a scandal, it legitimatizes nasty jokes and areas where normally you don’t go,” Lichter said. “Trump seems to have jumped in there without doing the scandalous things that usually brings such an outpouring.”
For years there’s been a feeling among conservatives that late night television, which is exclusively based in New York and Los Angeles, is a bastion of liberalism. Former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno was often considered one of the few places a conservative Republican could get a fair shake. But Lichter says that while it’s likely there’s a more liberal tilt from late-night-show writers, Trump’s targeting goes beyond personal politics.
If comedy writers’ goals were to take down Republicans, Lichter said, ”you would see a lot of stuff on Ted Cruz, who may be the most conservative candidate.”
“It’s not a case of targeting,” the late night show writer insisted. “Trump has more jokes because it’s just that he’s offering up more lunacy. Comedy writers will go wherever the nonsense is and Trump is the one providing it.”
Trump, for his part, hasn’t reacted to being targeted. A look into Trump’s favored method of communication, Twitter, finds that since launching his presidential bid only John Oliver has come under fire, and not for his jokes.
“John Oliver had his people call to ask me to be on his very boring and low rated show. I said “NO THANKS” Waste of time & energy!” Trump tweeted on Oct. 31.
That’s not to say he hasn’t gone after other hosts in the past. Take Seth Meyers, host of “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” who has been forthright in his opinions on Trump, calling his claims “racist.”
“That Seth Meyers is hosting the Emmy Awards is a total joke. He is very awkward with almost no talent. Marbles in his mouth!” Trump tweeted in August 2014.
Trump’s distaste for Meyers seems to stem from Meyers’ performance at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner where the former “Saturday Night Live” star mocked Trump’s hair and his plans to run for president — while Trump was in the audience.
When Jon Stewart departed “The Daily Show,” Trump sent out a string of tweets on May 30 about how the former host “is the most overrated joke on television. A wiseguy with no talent. Not smart, but convinces dopes he is! Fading out fast.”
Perhaps Trump abides by the saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The late night shows routinely pull in big ratings — often thanks to Trump. Sometimes, Trump even embraces the jokes. Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel offered Trump a gift last week — a Dr. Seuss knockoff called “Winners Aren’t Losers.”
“Now, here are some frogs I do not like at all. We must kick these frogs out and then build a wall,” Kimmel recited, slyly ridiculing the GOP poll-leader’s immigration position.
But rather than attack the ABC comedian as unfair or dishonest, a bemused Trump took the teasing in stride. He even tweeted a photo of himself reading the book to his granddaughter.
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