Stephen Colbert vs. Jimmy Fallon: What's the role of satire in the Trump era?

Colbert's late-night viewership surpassed Fallon's for the second week in a row, which analysts attribute to greater interest in politicized comedy under the Trump administration. 

Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/Reuters/File
Now-President Trump appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Sept. 15, 2016 .

Ratings for "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" have surpassed those of "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon" for the second week in a row, marking Mr. Colbert's second stretch on top since first taking the job in 2015. 

While it's not unheard-of for ratings to fluctuate, analysts attribute the surge in Mr. Colbert's viewership to a greater demand for politicized comedy in the weeks since President Trump took office. Current interest in Colbert and similar entertainers, experts say, follows a long tradition of satirists thriving in times of political unrest. 

But as more and more Americans turn to comedians for comfort in a fraught political climate, some observers question whether increasingly partisan late-night television shows are helping or hurting national discourse. Defenders of left-leaning personalities like Colbert or TBS's Samantha Bee say it's important for high-profile figures to take a political stance against what they perceive as offensive or discriminatory policies and rhetoric, no matter what the cost.

But critics warn that ubiquitous anti-Trump sentiment among late-night hosts could alienate Americans who voted for the president, exacerbating already record-high partisan polarization. 

"Late-night talk shows have about as good a chance as anything of bringing Trump supporters and non-supporters together. There is something about the premise of these shows – to get you to laugh – that can be disarming to supporters and non-supporters alike," says Michael Parkin, an associate professor of politics at Oberlin College in Ohio, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. "It's harder to yell at your TV when you're laughing." 

However, he adds, "I think this only works ... as long as viewers see the hosts as engaging in comedy, rather than partisan hackery."

Under a president who has declared traditional media the "opposition party" and repeatedly denounced mainstream news sources as "fake," historians say political satire from comedians such as Colbert, Ms. Bee, and Trevor Noah could play an increasingly important role in political discourse in the next four years, as Story Hinckley reported for The Christian Science Monitor in December: 

Political satire will undoubtedly become more colorful during the Trump administration, but it may also prove more valuable. Satire has reaffirmed freedom of speech in US history before and it may do so again, given Trump’s tendency to flout traditional media norms. He threatened to “open up” libel laws during his campaign, criticized leading publications for publishing content he disagrees with, and before Wednesday's surprise Q&A with reporters, hadn't held a press conference since July.

“Historically, satire is always at its most valuable when freedom of press is constrained.... Satire is a way of challenging power when the legitimate ways of challenging power are closed off,” says Geoffrey Baym, chairman of Temple University’s media and communications department, noting that satirists thrived in czarist Russia, for example. “Great moments of satire come in opposition to some sense of totalizing control.”

But, political observers note, hyper-partisan satire – particularly at the expense of an already-polarizing figure like Mr. Trump – can come at a cost, as comedians seen as pushing a liberal political agenda run the risk of alienating the significant chunk of Americans who voted for him. 

In a September opinion piece for The New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat argues that this "rapid colonization of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism" has created an "echo chamber from which the imagination struggles to escape." 

"Outside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion — which may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government," writes Mr. Douthat. "This spirit of political-cultural rebellion is obviously crucial to Trump’s act." 

Jody Baumgartner, a professor of political science at East Carolina University and co-author of the book "Politics is a Joke!: How TV Comedians are Remaking Political Life," agrees that partisan late-night comedy is unlikely to bring Americans of differing political stripes together – and, by deepening the political divide, may inadvertently achieve the opposite of its intended effect. 

"What this continual lambasting by the late-night comics could do is serve to sort of harden [viewers'] positions," Professor Baumgartner tells the Monitor in a phone interview.

"If people really don't like Trump, I would think that they would want to start to be worried, because the constant barrage of anti-Trump media and late-night joking is probably serving to bolster his support among his supporters." 

"If you really want to bring the guy down," he adds, "maybe you should leave him alone for a while." 

Still, speaking out against what they see as an immoral president is worth the risk of losing viewers who voted for him, say some defenders of Colbert and other political comedians. What's important, they argue, is that high-profile figures take a stand against Trump's incendiary rhetoric and controversial policies. If those figures happen to lose a few fans along the way, so be it. 

"What Douthat considers an 'embrace [of] the race-gender-sexual identity agenda,' could be more accurately described as, say, finally recognizing the contributions of previously marginalized groups that have spent decades fighting to make their voices heard in a mainstream culture that has generally considered them worthy of nothing more than opprobrium and mockery," writes Gary Legum for Salon in response to Douthat's Times column.

"It is not 'left-wing political correctness' to respect these voices. It is called 'civility,' the same civility that Douthat is demanding liberals show to conservative viewpoints." 

At a time when some Trump opponents have argued that silence is equivalent to complicity, it may be fair to question whether it's truly possible for a late-night television host – or any celebrity, for that matter – to avoid taking a political stance. Last September, Mr. Fallon came under fire for conducting a jovial interview with the now-president on "The Tonight Show" – a move that critics said "normalized" Trump and his political movement. 

Despite this, Professor Parkin still sees a place for non-partisan comedians, such as Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel, in the late-night television landscape. And, he notes, they could serve a valuable purpose in bringing a divided country together, if just for an hour each night, by reminding Americans that "even though these are incredibly serious issues, we are still united by the sense that certain things will make us all chuckle." 

Late-night comedy "can give us the space we need to think outside our partisan inclinations for a moment," Parkin says. "While I certainly do not think that late-night hosts will magically unite the nation, they can replace some of our partisan anger with brief moments of levity, which may help to put things into a more unifying context." 

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