The Comedy Gift That Keeps on Giving: Late Night Hosts Respond to the Trump Tapes

The comedy gods bestowed on late night television the Trump tapes; all stepped up and answered the challenge.

A little of the glory of, well time slips away / And leaves you with nothing mister but / Boring stories of glory days.

— Bruce Springsteen, “Glory Days”, Born in the USA

On Friday, 7 October 2016, The Washington Post published a 2005 Access Hollywood video clip of current Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump making lewd, vulgar, and misogynistic remarks to then-host Billy Bush. John Oliver, on his HBO series Last Week Tonight, summed up perfectly how the tape has affected American political discourse: “Let me just remind you that last Sunday, I told you if you looked above the clouds, you would see rock bottom, but, but but if you look up there now, way way up there! All the way up high. Right up in the distance. You will see where we were last week.”

While many will or have addressed the surreal absurdity of the tape, my main concern is how the late night media took advantage of this event. One could argue that there’s never before been a media moment so clearly tailor-made for late-night comics. It was as if the gods of comedy decided to test all of their champions with a 60-karat uncut Hope diamond of comic potential, just to see who could cut it the best.

Clearly, no event in the internet age has been so ripe for comic deconstruction. The Monica Lewinsky scandal comes close, but the seriousness of impeachment undermined the comic effects. The Trump tape scandal combines the best, or worst, depending on one’s perspective, of many recent scandals; a complex but sublime recipe. Start off with a base of the pure puerile idiocy of New York congressman Anthony Weiner sexting pictures of his genitals in 2011, add the salaciousness of the Clinton impeachment, spice with surreal absurdity of vice-president Dick Cheney’s February 2006 accidental shooting of lawyer Harry Whittington (in the face, no less!). Then mix in a soupcon of white guys acting stupid — see Mel Gipson’s 2006 anti-Semitic rant — garnish with a dash of a political dream imploding (Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remark, and watch the comedic soufflé rise.

The best few minutes of comedy were delivered by the first late night broadcast show to hit the air: Saturday Night Live. Saturday Night Live opened on what started out as a mock encore presentation of the vice-presidential debate, with Melissa Villasenor delivering a great line: “Good evening, from Longwood University, and welcome to the first and only vice presidential debate. I’m the new Hispanic cast member, and tonight I’ll be playing Asian moderator Elaine Quijano, because… baby steps.” What followed was a mock debate, featuring Mikey Day as Tim Kaine, and Beck Bennett as Mike Pence.

The sketch is interrupted by a breaking news segment, with Cicily Strong playing CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin, interviewing Alec Baldwin offering a spot-on Donald Trump impersination. (It would seem impossible for anyone to exceed Tina Fey’s brilliant turn as Sarah Palin, but Baldwin comes close.) In the series’ tradition of lambasting both sides, Kate McKinnon’s turn as Hillary Clinton was equally cutting. While funny, the segment was predictable.

It was “Weekend Update”, with Colin Jost and Michael Che, where SNL’s comedic analysis of the event really took off. The segment has been one of the hallmarks of the show since its inception in 1975 with original “anchor” Chevy Chase. Jost and Che open the segment with a series of hilarious one-liners, and an overall tone of almost joyously celebrating the insanity of the moment. One of the funniest was when Che observed:

I somehow thought Donald Trump had peaked on the wackadoo meter, turns out he has another gear. How is that even possible? You started your campaign complaining about Mexicans being rapists, now you’re on tape explaining how you sexually assault women. The only way it would be more hypocritical is if you said it in Spanish.

They also tied in references to Penn State and Bill Cosby to illustrate their points.

Saturday Night Live was hampered by being aired so closely to the event. The next few days offered a vast array of comic brilliance, diamonds that didn’t need to be honed or cut, including Tic Tac’s corporate tweet disavowing Trump, which made its way into Monday’s final segment of The Daily Show. New steward Trevor Noah has had the unfortunate task of replacing the beloved Jon Stewart, and everything he does gets measured not by how good Stewart was — which was exceptional — but how good people remember him to be (an infallible god of political humor). While most of the segment was more of a polemic that than a comedy bit, there were enough funny one-liners to keep the audience connected.

Noah also had the advantage of time, and used it to unearth the most on-point clip: a 2011 episode of Celebrity Apprentice, which showed Trump firing WWE diva and contestant Maria Kanellis-Bennett for “locker room talk”, implying that the measure Trump uses to disqualify a contestant on a reality show doesn’t apply to a man running for President of the United States. Noah preceded the clip with a funnier rant on the difference between sex talk and assault talk, which underlines the calculus every commentator has to face.

Most of the time, however, pure outrage isn’t funny, and for all the late-night hosts, their job is to be funny. Like any rule, however, there’s an exception. The incident perfectly fit the persona of The Daily Show alumni Samantha Bee, who hosts TBS’s Full Frontal, has built. As the name suggests, Samantha Bee puts a feminist spin on many issues. She seems to merge the political sensibilities of Gloria Steinem with the shock jock comedic stylings of Andrew “Dice” Clay. Her one-minute rant, in which she names all of the slang terms for pussy, is near genius. This comic gem was clearly inspired by Republican strategist Ana Navarro’s explosive tirade on CNN, when a Trump apologist asked her not to use the word pussy. For Bee, just an introduction and then outrage plus obliviousness equals comic greatness.

Another The Daily Show alum, John Oliver, hosts HBO’s Last Week Tonight. Since leaving, Oliver’s cast himself as the comic equivalent of Rachel Maddow: smart, earnest almost to the point of parody, and distinguished by an exceptional research staff. This is played out in his previous segments on Trump. Ironically, research ended up being unnecessary; the presence of so much low hanging fruit negated the need to unearth an obscure factoid. Still, Oliver’s ability to righteously rant and curse from a point of admitted powerlessness — like the love child of Louise Black and Woody Allen — was well-employed, and made for strong television comedy.

One of the strongest segments was offered up by Saturday Night Live alum Seth Meyers in his “A Closer Look” segment on Late Night with Seth Meyers.. His staff found a Twitter spat between Trump supporter David Bussone and CNN personality Kristen Powers, which ended with a Powers tweeting, “I know where my vagina is”. Aside from its necessary vulgarity, Power’s response perfectly encapsulates the level of absurdity and sexism to which the American political discourse has sunk.

Noah started his segment pretending he didn’t know what the issue of the day was, only to end up shouting “God damn! Whoooooooooooo!” after a few clips of the Trump tapes. Noah’s response aptly sums up the Trump tape scandal for comics. This is it; a perfect comedic storm. In essence, the weekend of 7 October was the “Thrilla in Manila” — the third and last championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier — of comedy. While there were a few heavyweight bouts later on that were pretty major events, none came close to matching the hype and interest in the third Ali/Frazier bout.

It’s entirely possible that more emails and tapes will be discovered. They’ll be politician ready and willing to make fools of themselves in the future, but this comedic bout will never happen again. Jost, Che, Noah, Oliver, Bee, and Myers will tell funny topical jokes in the future, but it’s unimaginable that they’ll ever be given this gift again.