In an era in which traditional television is slowly being replaced by online streaming platforms, the late-night talk show genre has increased astonishingly in viewership, proving itself to be an important staple of American popular culture. The inauguration of President Donald Trump in 2016 caused late-night television to branch away from its usual hilarity to get serious about the news by producing harsher, cruder jokes about the current administration.
The political climate of the nation grew to the point of polarization with the Trump administration’s conservative shift that it became virtually impossible for late-night hosts to gloss over his impact. Speaking truth to power using comedy isn’t new, but late-night comedy has not always been so overtly political. Back in the late 1980s and 1990s, hosts such as David Letterman and Jay Leno may have made the odd joke at the news’ expense, but it wasn’t their main focus. As a result, the beloved structure of daily news segments, guest interviews, comedy sketches and musical performances gained a steady flow of satirical material with its newest obsession: politics.
A popular example of a late-night host using his platform to impose political rhetoric on his target audience is Jimmy Kimmel — via ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”— since he provides some of the most notable late-night political commentaries, consistently making jokes with an apparent aim to keep the Trump administration in check. In comparison to other late-night TV hosts, he was previously seen as an apolitical comedian and often received mediocre reviews from mediated press coverage.
In other words, Kimmel used to play it safe on his late-night show by sticking to joking about Matt Damon feuds and viral prank videos. It wasn’t until politics affected his personal life that he felt the pressing need to voice his opinion on his mediated platform. To say that the Trump administration has had an impact on Kimmel’s punch lines would be an understatement — his increase in ratings could be credited to some extent to his poking fun at Trump’s unorthodox speeches and frequent use of Twitter.
Almost every day of the week, Kimmel digests recent commentary from the Trump administration and frames his interpretation with an amusing comedic effect that Trump himself — a devoted TV watcher — consumes. Kimmel has devoted multiple segments, such as the “Lie2k” satirical mockumentary made on Jan. 10, 2018, to discuss the policies of the Trump administration and its relationship with the media. Kimmel joked about Trump telling “2,000 lies” since taking office, alleging at the end of his monologue that “he’s averaging 5.6 false claims a day, which is impressive, considering the fact he’s only working about 2.6 hours a day.”
The inclusion of in-depth political segments in Kimmel’s late-night TV show has made his material significantly better, as Kimmel manages to present himself as a political activist. Having a platform as significant as his can have profound effects on political discourse and policy, as emphasized by Kimmel’s May 1, 2017 opening monologue in which he tearfully shared a personal anecdote about his newborn son Billy having a heart defect and undergoing emergency surgery. Kimmel ended this late-night emotional segment with a heartfelt plea to the government to keep the Affordable Care Act in place for people who have preexisting conditions and those with little access to financial stability.
It was refreshing for viewers to witness such a raw and grateful monologue in “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” because he turned from his own story to the current debate over who gets access to care. He further elaborated on the importance of affordable health care in the United States by stating, “If your baby is going to die and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make.” Kimmel’s voice took greater notice in the health care debate precisely because he hadn’t presented himself as someone who was always so active in politics.
On Sept. 19, 2017, Kimmel made headlines again when the Republican party made another attempt to repeal the ACA through the Graham-Cassidy health care bill. He called out U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, saying the Louisiana senator “just lied to my face” in reference to when the politician had recently appeared on his late-night show to discuss health care issues. In an unprecedented move, especially for a late-night talk show host, Kimmel encouraged his viewers to call their representatives on Capitol Hill to vote the bill down. A media firestorm ensued, with politicians such as Bill Cassidy and CNN political advisors reacting to Kimmel’s takedown of Cassidy and commentary on the health care debate.
“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” has also done a fair job of covering Trump’s reaction to the unfolding impeachment scandal. In his Oct. 8, 2019 opening monologue, Kimmel jokes that Trump is handling impeachment “about as well as you’d expect, which is pretty badly.” It’s important for comedians like Kimmel to weigh in on the proceedings and provide commentary and relief in the face of political tensions and a fast-paced news cycle.
Kimmel said in his recap of the impeachment hearings that the Trump administration seems to be losing public support. Viewers anxiously await the continuation of the hearings, since the expectation of another round of reactions and defense from President Trump is quite possible, which will undoubtedly lead to “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” mocking the president and his administration in another round of late-night monologues.
In a nutshell, Kimmel’s humor in the Trump era can be described as a sort of “laugh resistance” that cracks jokes at the expense of the current administration. Crafting the art of humorous political commentary may be a daunting task, but this isn’t the case for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” — as long as Kimmel continues to blur the fine line between news and satire in a successful manner.