There’s a video of Jimmy Fallon ruffling Donald Trump’s hair, and it has more than 9 million views. In it the Tonight Show host approaches Trump as a child would his grandpa, a mock naughty grin on his face. It’s shareable but ultimately empty.
The two-month-old clip became Fallon’s albatross, with critics saying it normalized Trump. (Some people defended him.) In a recent New York Times op-ed, director Ethan Coen “thanks” all the people who helped Trump win, including Fallon:
“How did you manage to shine a nonthreatening light on someone who alarms so many women, frightens so many undocumented families and slurs so many minorities? Can’t have been easy! Thanks! Maybe now you could have the Grand Wizard on your show: He leans his head to you, you slip his hood off and ruffle his hair. Could be a cute bit!”
The late-night landscape of 2016 is divided in tone: the goofy celebrity games of Fallon and James Corden on one side; the passionate, all-caps takedowns of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on the other. The day after Trump was announced president-elect, Fallon joked about how he’ll hang his own portrait in the White House—another cute bit. On Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a rare serious moment that made many of us tear up, but it ultimately felt empty too. SNL (which shares a network with Fallon) still allowed Trump to host last year, and people did not forget.
Since Election Day, late night has functioned as a mirror: Who would convey how we’re feeling? The election divided late night even further, but that’s a good thing.
What do we want from a host? An explanation, perhaps. And John Oliver has refined the craft. He devoted Sunday’s entire show to Trump, and urged viewers to take action: “And it can’t just be sounding off on the internet or sharing thinkpieces or videos like this one that echo around your bubble.” He urged people to donate to Planned Parenthood or the International Refugee Assistance Project, and said a Trump presidency shouldn’t be handled as normal.
Oliver’s role has become more that of activist than other late-night hosts. Previous calls to action have seen his fake church sent real donations and fans troll the FCC’s website. “We need to stay here and fight,” he said on Sunday.
That sentiment is echoed by another Daily Show alum, Samantha Bee. Since debuting in February, Full Frontal (which was just renewed) has quickly found an audience, largely because she’s shining a light on issues the male hosts aren’t. This week, she urged viewers to send the hateful, racist comments they’ve seen in the last week and beyond to Paul Ryan. She doesn’t sit at a desk; she stands, powered by barely contained rage. She kept track of the incredibly misogynist attitudes directed at Clinton and toxic movements like the alt-right. She called out Fallon for his bit and did not mince words.
It seems people are still looking for their Jon Stewart. The Daily Show’s election night special was awkward, mainly because no one knew what to say. But this week, host Trevor Noah was more in his element. On Tuesday night’s show, he compared Trump to South African President Jacob Zuma, and explained why we should be afraid.
Perhaps the most human response on election night was Stephen Colbert’s. His Showtime special found the host at a loss as the results rolled in. He didn’t seem to know how to feel, what joke to make. “How did our politics get so poisonous?” he asked.
“Some people in late night have said one or two critical things about Donald Trump,” Colbert cracked last week. He has struggled to find an identity beyond his Colbert Report character, but in these genuine moments of confusion and fear, being our mirror and not a character has been his greatest asset.
Same goes for Seth Meyers, who seems to be late night’s dark horse. The night after the election, he admitted he’d been wrong about Trump at every turn. He teared up talking about his mother, and stressed empathy for all, Trump supporter or not. Oliver and Bee have found success with YouTube, where their calls to action are easily shared by the angry, confused, and righteous. Meyers is still figuring out the formula, but by forgoing the traditional monologue he’s found a groove that feels more like The Daily Show. And Conan O’Brien, who rarely gets included in the morning-after viral roundups, has found most success by taking his show to other countries.
A year’s worth of late-night satire didn’t stop Trump from being elected. Did it normalize a man who is already entrenched in entertainment, already associated with a reality show and a beauty pageant?
Video editor Vic Berger spent the last year lampooning Trump and other candidates with his remixes and RNC/DNC reports for Super Deluxe. He took a shot at Fallon’s hair-ruffling moment as well, and has apparently had people on Twitter accuse him of helping Trump get elected with his videos, something he’s struggled with post-election.
“I always showed [Trump] as a buffoon,” he told the Daily Dot. “He always was this amped up, vile pig bully. A totally despicable person. How could that have helped him? I worked with many other candidates. None of them made it. I made Ted Cruz even grosser and worked with Jeb Bush constantly. That didn't help them. I don't think my videos or anyone's comedy around the election is going to change minds and influence elections.”
He says late night is a different story, however. It’s reaching more people.
“The thing with those shows is there's millions upon millions of people watching and subconsciously it lets these people who are sitting on their couch in their pajamas think that maybe this guy isn't that bad,” he said. “Maybe those things are just lies or rumors? Look at him laughing about his hair! He's a good guy."
Berger adds that satire will be “absolutely necessary” over the next four years, but finding the humor will be the tough part.
Often, late night became an echo chamber, as hosts made variations of the same joke. But as we see how much fake news shaped the election cycle, late-night shows are going to become even more necessary for sussing out the bullshit—for ruffling feathers, not hair. As Colbert said the day after the election: “Don’t stop speaking up.”