This Ross Douthat column has been making the rounds today, as he bashes late-night TV for being too liberal. It’s part and parcel of a standard-issue conservative tirade about how liberals are dominating all areas of culture, but people are viewing it as a response to Samantha Bee attacking her colleague Jimmy Fallon for his kid-gloves approach to Donald Trump the other day, veering as he did away from the politics.
Douthat’s column got more publicity when Bee decided to clapback:
Samantha Bee in conf. call, addresses Douthat NYT column: “It’s so good to know that we’re the problem and not racism.”
— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) September 21, 2016
There’s a lot to unpack from a white comedian falling back on the race card in response to criticism. There’s also the implicit assertion that she’s some kind of holy crusader against racism and not, you know, just another late-night comedy act. “How dare you come after me when, you know, racism is still out there?!” But the biggest issue: this remark’s about as funny as a kitten in a trash compactor.
Her moral preening is diametrically opposed to the whole concept of comedy. Know what else is? Predictability.
Tune into John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, or Samantha Bee, and you know *exactly* what their opinion is on such-and-such ahead of time — partly because that opinion’s interchangeable among the four of them. And not just on Trump, but any topic whatsoever. Take John Oliver and his current show — out of all his weekly cover stories over all these seasons, has he ever, even once, taken any stance that was even slightly out of lockstep with wholly conventional, liberal, social-justice doctrine?
The only comedy from his show is from random, apolitical non-sequiturs and crazy metaphors. “Donald Trump is barreling forward in the polls like Chris Christie barreling towards an all-you-can-eat buffet,” that sort of thing, only he would veto that joke because it violates social-justice rules on fat-shaming, so the final joke would be something like “barreling forward like an angry Wal-Mart shopper elbowing her way towards the last discounted Blu-Ray player on Black Friday” which is funny because the stereotypical Wal-Mart shopper is a low-income, low-education white person and who is therefore hilarious.
Take those gags away, and you may as well be subscribed to a newsletter from mic.com. It is absolutely nothing other than preaching to the choir. Last Week Tonight does not challenge, it does not engage, it serves as nothing but a weekly half-hour bias-confirmation therapy session for his self-selecting audience with one of the most conventionally liberal content providers in the world, HBO. With a few scattered, extraneous gags thrown in to technically maintain its status as a “comedy.”
This is not to say I always disagree with the party line! I’m as anti-Trump as they are, if not more. And Oliver was certainly spot-on with his FIFA bashing. But that’s not the point. It’s that I know what he’s going to say beforehand.
No, this is not always a bad thing in comedy. If a topic comes up that you know is one of the comic’s obsessions, then anticipation of him or her spouting off can be its own reward, even if you know the general outline of the conclusion ahead of time. Which, of course, is precisely why Oliver’s show is worth watching when FIFA makes the news. You know he takes a major interest in this, same as most British people (I was going to say “same as most European people” but, well…) and so it’s fun to see exactly what kind of curse words he’ll invent to describe Sepp Blatter this time around.
But that’s still no excuse to turn your show into a recitation of the hymnals of one political orthodoxy or the other. (Occasional conservative forays into comedy often stumble for the same reason.) When he talks about charter schools, or fracking, or refugees, you can bet his script may as well have been approved ahead of time by the SPLC.
Now, you can be political and still be interesting. Take George Carlin: This was one liberal who was not doctrinaire by any definition, finding plenty of time to bash his “own side” during a typical show just as he did conservative interests. His bits were usually not predictable, and even those hitting on his hobbyhorses (religion, etc) found ways to innovate and hit at odd angles, and besides — audience anticipation for his old favorites played a role, too.
(Yeah, I’m pretty sure Last Week Tonight will never have an episode called “List of people who ought to be killed.” Talk about problematic!)
See, I’m not going after Oliver or his peers like Bee, Colbert, and Noah for being liberal, especially since I agree with them half the time at least. I also know they have past histories as comedic talent. I’m going after them for their currently uninteresting shows.
Notice someone not on my boring list? Bill Maher. Now, this guy can be a real prick, especially when it comes to women. But nobody can ever accuse him of being doctrinaire. His show regularly triggers (heh) angry hot takes at conservative sites, yes, but also on that old warhorse of SJW liberalism, salon.com. For instance, get him talking about Islam, and salon’s entire staff will need to retreat to a safe space for smelling salts and readings from Noam Chomsky. They obsess over politically-incorrect-liberal Patton Oswalt for the same reasons. (Maher’s mostly in their good graces lately, but that’s due to his nonstop Trump-bashing. If Hillary wins, he’ll be back on their problematic list in no time.)
Also, I’m not talking about the apolitical guys like Fallon and Kimmel. I’m not going to be like Douthat and pine for the good ol’ days when Johnny Carson stayed as neutral as possible and quarterbacks for the Niners knew their place. But at the same time, sure, the market for politics-neutral entertainment is much bigger, as evidenced by Colbert’s low ratings compared to his peers.
Colbert and his fellow children-of-Stewart may earn the succor of New York Magazine and Vox editors for their loyal adherence to dogma, complete with “Trevor Noah DESTROYS such-and-such” headlines, but they don’t exactly earn viewers. Political orthodoxy is as unfunny as it gets.