The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump was supposed to be a gift to late-night TV, but comedians aren’t laughing

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Donald Trump should be a late-night comedian's dream — a bombastic reality TV star running for president with a distinctive vernacular ("yuge," "loser") and physical features (hair swoop, suspicious tan) that practically write their own jokes.

That's how Comedy Central's Larry Wilmore saw things in June, when the real estate tycoon declared his candidacy.

"How did you know, comedy gods?" Wilmore asked on "The Nightly Show." "I've got a show, and Trump's running for president. Good news for me."

Yet as Trump stomps forward to the general election as the improbable, presumptive Republican nominee, television's twilight funnymen aren't laughing. Okay, they're laughing a little, but they are increasingly replacing lighthearted wisecracks about Trump's appearance and braggadocio with alarmist, often biting commentary on his rhetoric and policies.

In the past month, Wilmore — speaking at the White House correspondents' dinner — has described himself as "very scared" of a Trump presidency, TBS's Conan O'Brien has predicted that the businessman's first term would be "one year of stupidity followed by three years of war with Mexico," and Comedy Central's Trevor Noah has compared the GOP standard-bearer to "the weirdest, most conspiratorial nut job" on an online message board.

It's perhaps not so surprising to see such views on Comedy Central, where the comedy certainly leans left. But on CBS's "Late Show" this month, a reflective Stephen Colbert described the shift in thinking.

It turns out that whole hilarious Donald-Trump-is-running-for-president thing — he meant it. ... For me, this is a real mixed blessing. You see — and this is true — when Trump announced he was running back in June, it was a few months before this show started, and we were so convinced that it wouldn't last that we rushed to make a video to put on the Internet so we wouldn't miss a chance to make jokes about him. It turns out we had nothing to worry about — except for all the things we have to worry about.

Indeed, genuine worry about the prospect of Trump in the White House now permeates late-night monologues that previously dismissed the idea as, well, laughable and went for a more neutral tone. A few weeks ago, on the day after Trump effectively clinched the GOP nomination by winning the Indiana primary, Seth Meyers took time out of his comedy routine on NBC's "Late Night" to deliver a sober message:

This should be a serious moment of introspection for Republicans. How did they get to a point where they're handing their nomination to a race-baiting, xenophobic serial liar who peddles conspiracy theories and thinks the National Enquirer is a real newspaper? The answer: This is no accident. It is not a fluke. The Republican Party is the party of Donald Trump and has been for years.

This is not MSNBC. This is broadcast television.

For Robert Thompson, a late-night junkie who directs the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, the change in tone has been unmistakable.

"There has definitely been a shift, but I think that was absolutely necessary," Thompson said. "First, when he announced, it was all the obvious jokes — you know, the Donald Trump jokes you make. He was treated almost like a clown. And then two things happened that, I think, responsible comics had to respond to. The first thing was Donald Trump started saying some pretty horrible things. The second thing, of course, was he kept winning primaries."

In many ways, late night's altered approach to Trump mirrors that of the news media, which generally did not treat the "Apprentice" host like a credible candidate at the outset and is now aggressively vetting him.

But why should comedians be tasked with providing substantive criticism? Not all of them seem to accept this mission. NBC's Jimmy Fallon and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel have mostly stuck to surface-level gags, though Kimmel did tell Trump to his face this week that he had been "full of [it]" for praising likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton years ago and then saying he did it only for political reasons. Trump, who rips Clinton these days, laughed along. "A little bit," he conceded.

As Donald Trump amps up his attacks against Hillary Clinton, here's what late-night comedians Seth Meyers, Conan O'Brien and others have to say about the rivals. (Video: The Washington Post)

Those who have sharpened their satirical knives are emulating — if only occasionally — the kind of political roasting popularized by Jon Stewart, whose retirement from "The Daily Show" last year left a void no single comedian has managed to fill.

"I think there's a shift in entertainment programming, especially late-night entertainment, as it becomes a way to critique leaders," said Kathryn Brownell, a history professor at Purdue University who studies the relationship between show business and politics. "I think that business model has really expanded over the last decade. ... Even though they are comedians — and many of them would say they are comedians first, and that is their principal role — people are turning to them for information."

Getting tough on Trump can be risky, however, and there is no indication that he — or the harsher tone the hosts have taken toward him — has been a boon to ratings. Late-night viewership has generally been trending down since the beginning of October, when Noah took over from Stewart and completed the current roster of late-night stars.

The declines have not been steep, and the shows' wide-ranging contents extend far beyond politics, making it hard to argue that any one factor could fully explain the changes.

Indeed, it's possible that ratings levels are still finding their new normal in the post-Letterman-Leno-Stewart era. There are macro trends to consider, too, such as cord-cutting. And, of course, Nielsen ratings don't account for people who watch clips online the next day.

In short, it's probably too easy to say that mocking a candidate for whom 46 percent of the country plans to vote is causing viewership numbers to sag. "But there certainly hasn't been the Trump bump you might have expected," Thompson said.

Russel Peterson, an American studies professor at the University of Iowa who has written a book about politics in late-night comedy, said hosts who have previously characterized Trump — and politics, in general — as farcical can't simply pivot to hot takes and command instant respect. If this is the new direction, Peterson is all for it; he considers most late-night political comedy pretty shallow.

But he suggested it might take a while for viewers to buy in.

"If you've just been saying, 'Well, this is stupid, we can't take this seriously, this is a clown show,' then you don't have a leg to stand on when something like [Trump] gains traction," Peterson said. "You're not approaching it from a critical standpoint; you're approaching it from a dismissive one.

"Because we don't have an established person who is able to approach it from a critical standpoint, I think we're missing that voice and that response right now."

What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at Trump Doral golf course in Miami, Florida, U.S. July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)