I watch a lot of U.S. late-night television on YouTube. My need to keep up with The Late Show, The Tonight Show, The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher is a legacy of the 14 years I spent in New York, ending in 2015.
The hosts are very slick and extremely funny. Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Trevor Noah are streets ahead of anything we’ve got. Colbert, the pick of the bunch, is a Catholic Sunday School teacher who would almost certainly have given Jesus a roasting, never mind Donald Trump. Under his direction (for which he is paid – BBC talent take note – $15m a year), The Late Show sits at the top of the ratings, closely followed by Fallon’s Tonight Show. Both, along with Noah, are quick-witted and unafraid to offend the Great and Good in Washington, who of late have become their bread and butter, with a recurring dollop of Russian caviar.
Bill Maher, taking time off from his hugely successful stand-up career to host Real Time on Friday nights, is not only scabrous, he is also that rare thing, a dedicated multi-millionaire ready to put his money where his foul mouth is. In 2012, he donated a million dollars to Barack Obama’s re-election fund in spite of the fact that the then President was too scared to come onto his show until his final week in office.
The only Brit fit fit to be mentioned in the same breath as this satirical cabal is John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, on HBO. Revealingly, he was plucked from obscurity in England by the great Jon Stewart, Noah’s predecessor at the Daily Show and genius emeritus of the current genre, which is a world away from the gags-plus-sycophancy format spawned by the late Johnny Carson and taken up by David Letterman and Jay Leno.
Satire has, of course, long been a masculine preserve and few will be surprised to learn that the one woman to have made it up there alongside the boys is paid a mere fraction of their earnings. Samantha Bee is a feisty Canadian, whose midweek show, Full Frontal, draws in more than 2.5 million viewers, most of them under 40. A political radical of long-standing, known for her in-your-face interview technique, Bee finds it difficult to speak a sentence that doesn’t include the f-word. But she is also sharp as a tack, worth every cent of the pittance she is paid.
As I say, I love these guys. They are our guides to what is really happening in a fake news, post-truth world. More importantly, along with the courts, the New York Times and the Washington Post, they are the principal – some would say, only – opposition to Trump as he makes his way like an enema through the punch-drunk body politic that now passes for American democracy.
The audiences for Colbert & Co are huge and growing. It is as if viewers – embarrassed that a charlatan somehow managed to finagle his way into the highest office in the land – have, for the moment, nothing but laughter with which to register a level of disrespect for the White House and Congress that is unique in modern times. Not even Herbert Hoover – Neville Chamberlain to Roosevelt’s Churchill – or Richard Nixon, or George W Bush come close in terms of the contempt in which Trump is held by a growing majority of voters.
And yet and yet … it is America itself that is the primary victim of this rake’s progress. The President of the United States is supposed to be the leader of the Free World. Up the hill from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the U.S. Senate prides itself on being the world’s leading deliberative body. The House of Representatives, operating on a two-year election cycle that means members spend half their time fund-raising, had until recently the ability to get things done. But with the Presidency gone rogue, the Congress has gone missing. That the executive and legislative branches of the government should have become, in effect, a long-running sitcom is a clear indicator that the political system that has run America for the last 230 years has finally run out of steam/collapsed under the weight of its contradictions/been taken over by trolls – whichever definition you feel most appropriate. If the late night hosts have become a raucous Greek chorus, it is only because the drama on the stage in front of them, which was supposed to be high-minded, has turned into an episode of House of Cards or Veep.
The President, meanwhile, has hosted his own, even later-night hit show, Potus Tweets, which, with over 34 million followers, feeds back into Colbert & Co along with video clips of his endless gaffs at home and abroad. And just to show that when sorrows come, they comes not in single spies, but in battalions, nearly 40 per cent of the American people, according to the latest approval ratings, still think their President, even if he is an ignorant oaf, is their ignorant oaf and remains the right man for the job.
It is not a pretty picture. Can the combined forces of late-night tv, the Fantasically Well-Paid Five, save their country, or is American government destined to turn into Carry On Up Capitol HIll, Hollywood style, until term limits or the Supreme Court puts an end to the madness? We can only hope.
Postscript: Celebrity worship has by no means disappeared from the nation’s late-night viewing. Nor American exceptionalism. On The Late Show this week, Stephen Colbert, in talking to Cillian Murphy about his role in the epic film Dunkirk, began by asking Murphy to explain to his viewers, using a Dad’s Army-type map, what had happened in 1940, because the story, he informed us, was little known outside of the UK. Murphy – already peeved at being portrayed as a hard-drinking stage Irishman and consort of leprechauns – reminded his host that World War II had actually been running for a while before the U.S. stepped in. Well, good luck with that. Ed Murrow, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
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