How Late-Night Talk Shows Avoid Political Burnout

Mekeisha Madden Toby

It may feel like late-night talk shows often overwhelmingly consist of a barrage of recounts of the most recent, or most polarizing, political headlines or tweets. It’s a subject matter that can’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, be avoided, given the changing state of local laws when it comes to health care, that families are literally being ripped apart at the border, ICE raids, unemployment rates, climate-change deniers, new tariffs, and so much more. It may be a scramble for such late-night shows to keep up at all, let alone consistently come up with clever commentary to offer around the hard truths. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that some such programs are talking less about politics while others are forced to find new coping mechanisms to avoid political burnout.

“One of the great joys of ‘The Daily Show’ is that we’ve learned how to expand the show beyond just the frantic news cycle of politics,” says Trevor Noah, who took over as host of the mock newscast from Jon Stewart in 2015. “Luckily, we work with the news, and the news has something new every day. On any given show, we now engage in a variety of stories ranging from Silicon Valley and NFL rule changes, all the way to the royal baby.”

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While Noah also covers the president, his policies, speeches and social media on his Comedy Central show, he notes that “if you expand your filter internationally, there’s always new ground to break and more jokes to make.”

Taking things a bit further, “Desus & Mero” duo Desus Nice and the Kid Mero have dedicated whole episodes to not mentioning Donald Trump’s name. And when they do talk about him, Desus points out, “we always take an overarching view and try to find a weird thing. If Trump does something, we don’t cover it just because he did it. It has to be weird enough for it to be on the table.”

It’s also cultural. “We’re New Yorkers; we’re from the Bronx,” Mero adds. “We’re the guys in the barbershop or at the Bodega. So, our first instinct when somebody does something asinine is like, ‘Yo! Roast ’em.’ He is the most roast-able president. Easily the most roast-able president. Like microwavable. But we do it sparingly so when we do talk about him, it’s funnier.”

Spreading out such segments can become necessary because the news is depressing at times. But having a dedicated team can also help with that, says Melinda Taub, executive producer and head writer of “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.”

“When I’m at my most burned out, usually some of the other writers are at their peak incandescent rage, so we can kind of take the burden off each other,” Taub says. “People need catharsis. They’re absorbing these toxic news alerts all day. I think they want a way to release that tension through laughter.”

Additionally, and specifically for “Full Frontal,” Taub says it can be “especially satisfying” in “an era with so much horrifying sexism to watch Sam tackle it from a woman’s perspective with zero f—s.

“This show is written by people who don’t answer to any men and I hope it shows.”

But there is also a level of responsibility happening on most of the late-night shows that stops them from stripping news stories out of episodes completely.

When everyday people can’t stomach the actual news programs, they can still stay informed by watching such series as “The Daily Show,” “Full Frontal,” “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” All of them set out to educate with a more humorous take on the news that makes it palatable.

“Politics and social issues are what’s on the national conscience,” says Rob Crabbe, executive producer of “The Late Late Show.” “It is what everyone is talking about every day. Late-night shows are a reflection of what’s happening in the country. If that’s what you’re going to be reading about, if that’s what is going to be populating your Twitter feed all day, every day, then we need to be responding to it as well.”

If it’s a controversial topic, “Desus & Mero” will attack it head on because its hosts want to talk to the people who look like them and think like them, but are underserved in this genre, Desus says. “We have such a different viewpoint on everything. We’ll run towards fires. Stuff that other people won’t touch, we will.”

The key to his and Mero’s approach, Desus continues, is to “go with our guts.”

“With the Mueller report. We were like, ‘This shot flopped.’ Everybody was like, ‘Mueller is about to kill it.’ And I was like, ‘Nah. He got a couple of swipes but if this came on Hot 97, people would be like, ‘Yo, turn that s— off. Put that Michael Jackson back on.’”

And while Taub admits that the “Full Frontal” staff does “sometimes get tired of writing yet again about the Mueller report, or having to explain to legislators in Alabama how the female body works for the umpteenth time,” they lean into those feelings because “if we’re feeling that way, chances are our audience is, too.”

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