Donald Trump Inspires a New Golden Age of Late-Night ComedyBy and
‘Daily Show,’ Colbert rebound by clobbering president, cabinet
‘SNL,’ Bill Maher are attracting biggest audiences in years
After struggling through much of his first year as host of “The Daily Show,” Trevor Noah is scoring his best ratings since taking over for Jon Stewart in late 2015. Thank you, Mr. President.
Donald Trump’s election has been a boon for comedians ready and willing to mock an administration disdainful of the media and the liberals who populate the country’s media capitals. From “Saturday Night Live” to HBO’s Bill Maher, comedy shows are attracting viewers in numbers not seen in years. Noah has been one of the biggest beneficiaries, with ratings for his Comedy Central show up 9 percent from a year ago as young viewers tune in for his nightly takedowns of the president and his cabinet.
“When politics is at its worst, it’s the best condition for comedy in general and late night hosts in particular,’’ Kent Alterman, president of Viacom Inc.’s Comedy Central, said in an interview. “Good comedy is always reacting to and reflecting the world we live in. When things become more extreme, as they have in our country, there is something therapeutic about comedy.’’
Like Noah, Stephen Colbert struggled in his 2015 transition to “The Late Show” on CBS from Comedy Central. But he has garnered acclaim -- along with new viewers -- with his recent political commentary and has surpassed “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” as the most-watched late-night program three weeks in a row, thanks to a 6 percent ratings jump this year and a 17 percent drop for his rival on Comcast Corp.’s NBC network.
Former “Daily Show” correspondent Samantha Bee has more than doubled her audience in a second season of “Full Frontal” on Time Warner Inc.’s TBS. HBO’s Maher has thrived as well, garnering 5.5 million viewers per episode -- the biggest audience since 2003, his first year on HBO.
Trump v. SNL
No show has irked Trump as much as NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which recruited Alec Baldwin to impersonate the nation’s chief executive and Melissa McCarthy to play press secretary Sean Spicer. McCarthy’s Feb. 11 impersonation of “Spicey” has been viewed more than 13 million times on YouTube. That night’s episode of “SNL” delivered its biggest audience in eight years, contributing to the show’s best season in more than 20 years.
“Audiences are craving more political content, but they also are craving more progressive content,” said David Craig, assistant professor of communications management at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School. “It’s like color commentary on this reality show called Washington.”
That was evident at the Oscars Sunday night, where emcee Jimmy Kimmel, the host of ABC’s late night show, made the president a regular punching bag.
“Thank you, President Trump,” Kimmel said in his opening monologue. “Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist? That’s gone, thanks to him.”
Comedy isn’t the only beneficiary of Trump’s win. Conservatives gave Fox News a big ratings boost during the campaign, and the network continues to thrive. Audiences have also embraced escapist fare like the cheery reality programming on HGTV and the idealism of movies like “La La Land” and “Hidden Figures.” And like any oft-told joke, it’s possible that the current spate of political humor could start to wear thin.
Noah’s rise began when he ventured outside his New York studio to tape from the presidential conventions. It was at the Republican convention in Cleveland where the possibility of a Trump presidency began to dawn on much of the country, including Noah, a South African who moved to the U.S. during the Obama administration.
“The Daily Show” host has grown more comfortable and confident since that trip, according to Alterman and executive producer Steve Bodow. Noah began taking control of the process of putting together the show and showing up every day with ideas for what to talk about.
“I’ve seen Trevor transition from observing politics mostly from the outside to being someone who is much more inside it without yielding or sacrificing his outsider’s perspective,” Bodow said. “He’s been through this experience with all of us now through the crazy primaries and conventions.”
One great test of whether a late-night host is resonating in the modern era is whether clips get shared online. News websites posted clips of Stewart every day, while Fallon and James Corden, host of CBS’s “The Late Late Show,” design sketches primarily so they get passed around on social media.
Noah, whose audience is younger than Stewart’s, is making progress. The show’s accounts on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram posted their fastest growth ever in January, adding more than 500,000 followers across those three platforms.
“He started finding his voice and his point of view.’’ Alterman said. “We all felt it internally, and then we started to find evidence of it with our audience. We started seeing momentum, especially on digital platforms.’’