It's no secret that modern day politics has been a boon to late-night comedy writers. From Saturday Night Live to Stephen Colbert to Samantha Bee, there has literally not been a day that's gone by since Jan. 20 without someone lampooning President Donald Trump, his children, his spokespeople or anyone else affiliated with him. And it's also been well-reported that since Trump's win, late-night comics (and even South Park) have struggled with how to make the news funny since, no matter what side of the aisle you belong to, you have to admit that events of the day are wild enough on their own.
What's been less talked about though, is how the minds shaping politi-com work hard to not just ridicule the president — even if a good half of the country believes that's all these coastal elites do. When writers from today's most influential comedy-news shows gathered Saturday to talk about their tough jobs as part of the Television Critics Association summer press tour, they unanimously said they work hard to be fair, something that may come as a surprise to many.
The writers — Emmy-winning Hallie Haglund of The Daily Show; Jason Reich of The Jim Jefferies Show; Ashley Nicole Black of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and Christine Nangle of Comedy Central's The President Show — all said their work involves the discipline not to mock Trump supporters and a responsibility to dig for deeper truths. After all, none of them saw Trump's win coming and they're smart enough to know there's a lot they don't know.
"You don't want to say to Trump voters, 'You're stupid," says Nangle. It's no longer about low-hanging fruit — mocking Trump's hair or the way he talks — but less obvious, more important stories. For example, Ashley Nicole Black noted how outlets pounced on Anthony Scaramucci's outrageous, profanity-laced interview (lampooned by Mario Cantone on the The President Show), but didn't devote as much time to the health care vote taking place at the same time.
"As a show, yes, there's some easy jokes here," she says, "but also, people need to know what's happening with their health care and someone has to tell them." In that sense, that makes late-night programs actually function like balanced news organizations as much as comedy shows.
Part of that responsibility comes from the fact that these shows are a major source of news and analysis for young people. The Daily Show was groundbreaking in this regard during the Jon Stewart era, but its audience is even younger now with Trevor Noah as host. The shows' writers know that since many younger viewers don't have historical knowledge of politics, it is imperative that they explain what's going on.
"We start with a question. Like, 'Does anyone know what this is, exactly?'" says Hallie Haglund. "That wasn't a question we asked a ton with Jon [Stewart's] audience. It's our job to continue to challenge even people we agree with."
The Daily Show has a built-in gatekeeper to check writers' assumptions and beliefs: Noah doesn't carry U.S. partisan baggage since he grew up in South Africa — under apartheid no less. "There is a real effort for him to not pile on just for the sake of piling on, but to look at what's actually happening," Haglund says.
She cites the example of Trump's meeting with Putin at the G20 summit in July. "It took us halfway though the day to figure out what exactly happened. The way you saw the headlines and the teases, it made it sound like 'Who knows how they plotted to destroy the world.'" The team considered that the meeting might've been spontaneous and benign.
In these writers' minds, they're fighting a good fight — not necessarily by being the faces of "The Resistance," as some on the right might think, but by doing honest, fair and responsible assessments while checking their own b.s. It's not easy; there's much more to it than making some jokes from headlines. While it's true that they've got tons more material, the work is also exhausting. As The President Show's Nangle said to knowing laughs from her fellow writers, "I don't want this job."