Letter to Late Night Comics
Stop talking about politics. There is plenty of other stuff to make fun of.
If you’re a Democrat like me, you may have exhaled for the first time in over four years the day Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as the 46th president and veep. The gaslighting universe where doublespeak ruled public discourse is gone – for the moment.
Stephen Colbert, the Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel, Trevor Noah, and the odd dose of Bill Maher or Seth Meyers helped me survive the Trump presidency – just as Jon Stewart helped lighten the deceptions of the Bush years. And guys, don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for your service. Being able to laugh as the Reality Show president threatened to upend reality – it was a true gift you bestowed upon a shaken public.
But listen, guys, we need to talk.
The playbook that you’ve been running needs an update. It’s time to broaden the lens of your comedy.
Here’s why. Your jokes and righteous anger are part of the business of division that as a nation, our media has invested in and profited from, and if we are going to solve the litany of challenges we face, we’re going to need your help.
Biden has laid out an ambitious agenda to meet the problems we face. A raging pandemic that isn’t abating no matter how much we want to go out to dinner with friends. A tattered economy where increasing numbers of kids go hungry each day, and families face eviction. Racial injustice that is engineered into our society. Dismantling that will take some work. Plus there’s an environmental crisis, of which climate change and COVID-19 are two dramatic symptoms of a larger set of issues.
Yet media companies discovered that they could narrow the focus to presidential politics, saving money in the process. They would no longer need expensive foreign bureaus in far off countries that Americans couldn’t find on a map. At the same time, the rhetoric of division helped them grow their viewership.
So guys, it’s time to change how you use your platform. You have an incredible position to say what you want about whatever you want, and as long as you mix in some laughs, we’ll listen. You have helped us hold onto a shred of truth when the world went full metal Orwell on us these last five years. Your anger and indignant rants provided catharsis, when you said what many of us were feeling.
Aristotle said that tragedy shows humanity as better than it really is, and comedy points out how we’re worse than we really are. And while politics is like shooting fish in a barrel, in terms of finding lowest common denominators, believe me, it does not have an exclusive license on this franchise.
Make us laugh at giant corporations that greenwash their wasteful practices until they’re forced to change. Help us get inside the system of systemic racism – there’s plenty of absurdity in those laws and regulations to reveal the worst parts of human nature, as Jason Klepper’s segments on Trump rallies demonstrated. Illuminate the lives of the broken middle class and the struggles of the working poor, not by making fun of them, but by shining a light on the hypocrisy and doublespeak of the policies that put them in those dire straights.
You guys have the talent, the reach, and the privilege to do this. But please don’t run the old division playbook. We need to let the politicians do some work, without the oxygen of your attention. You can help us see the larger world now, expose its foibles, lift up its heroes, and inspire us to meet the moment we’re in.
Or you can just do what you’ve been doing, and watch as your audience drifts away.
It’s your move.
And PS: Please hire more women on your writing staffs. The jokes about adultery and porn are really wearing thin, too.
Jean Shields Fleming is the founder and editor of Certain Age. Contrary to popular opinion, she is not a humorless harpie.