US late night television is a cultural institution that keeps night owls up with comedy, political commentary, and satire, with some programmes like Saturday Night Live stretching back decades. Often at least partially pre-taped, with carefully planned scripts and segments, late night often finds itself faced with the necessity of responding quickly to breaking news that disrupts its regular programming — woe betide the show that fails to adjust its script to accommodate a tragedy in the West, as it will be cast as politically insensitive and behind the times.
It’s one thing to make a comment to address the fact that late-night shows develop scripts and schedules carefully and can’t actually adjust in real time — as when Trevor Noah cracked a joke on The Daily Show about being so blown away by the Republican debates that he would need a day to process them, in a wry recognition of the fact that the show didn’t have time to mine them for laughs when they’d ended just minutes earlier. It’s another, though, when events take on a more unexpected and serious tone, and even if news breaks just hours or minutes before taping or live broadcast, hosts will have to adapt on the fly. It’s perhaps a true test of late show hosts, many of whom have experience in live comedy — can they still demonstrate their improve skills while simultaneously recognizing that some times aren’t the right moments for levity?
Programming over the weekend and into this week was a classic example, with hosts on late night struggling to adjust their scripts to fit in responses to the terrorist attacks in Paris that occurred on Friday night, even as the news was still breaking. Responding to unfolding news events is especially challenging, as hosts don’t want to perpetuate misinformation, and while they’re not news journalists, but their commentary on the news is sometimes taken very seriously.
Jon Oliver took advantage of the considerable latitude offered by his move to cable on Last Week Tonight with a two-minute segment that contained an admirable amount of profanity — so much so that it was unprintable for most of print media. ‘France is going to endure,’ he informed viewers and members of Daesh, drawing upon no less than the ‘fucking croquembouche’ to illustrate that France is a nation of deep cultural depths, astounding resiliency, and an insouciant populace that may be outraged and infuriated by terrorism, but also defiant in its face, as illustrated in a Buzzfeed segment in which photographers ventured into the streets to document the French response and found people calmly sitting outdoors drinking beer and smoking Galouises the night after the attacks. Only in France would someone say: ‘It’s bizarre, but drinking a beer is almost an act of political defiance now.’
There’s something oddly fitting about namechecking a tower of balls covered in spun sugar as a response to a terrorist organization determined to assert itself as a worldwide caliphate.
Stephen Colbert found himself in an awkward position on The Late Show, where news broke towards the end of the show’s taping. Rather than complete the show as planned, he opted to inform members of the audience during a commercial break, shifting programming to perform a brief monologue noting that almost nothing was known about the attacks, but that viewers should keep Paris in their thoughts. On The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon made no mention of the attacks — perhaps unsurprisingly, as it along with many programmes, like The Daily Show, doesn’t actually air new segments on Friday nights. The show did open with a brief notice indicating that it had been filmed before the attacks.
On Real Time With Bill Maher, the infamously anti-religious host managed to completely juggle his programming on Friday’s taping. He wisely opened the show with the first line of the Marseillaise in recognition of the attacks — and then pressed Muslim guest Asra Nomani on what he considers a liberal reluctance to condemn radical Islam out of political fear. He also managed to scramble a panel of commentators for a ‘Why do they hate us?’ segment to continue hammering home his political views, despite the fact that almost nothing was known about the events in Paris and they hadn’t been definitively linked to Daesh or any other extremist group claiming to act in the name of Islam. Maher, unlike more moderate hosts, evidently felt free disseminating potentially erroneous and harmful information to viewers, but given predisposed influences on the part of his fans, perhaps it didn’t matter, as many no doubt were already in agreement with him.
Saturday Night Live, with its own carefully orchestrated scripting, didn’t have time to draft an entirely new episode, and didn’t want to scrap itself entirely. Instead, it opted for a brief statement of solidarity during its cold open, acting with the benefit of more than 24 hours of news to back its commentary, unlike Friday night’s entertainers, who had to pull many of their statements out of the hate and on the fly. Cecily Strong’s statement was also given in French, in a nice touch.
Western television’s response to mass tragedy is often a struggle. In the US, the degree of seriousness taken depends on how close to home it strikes, with some networks opting to reschedule, cancel, delay, or swap episodes out of political sensitivity — after Newtown, for example, a number of violent episodes were shifted off the schedule and at least one movie premiere was moved. Networks made similar moves after Sandy Hook. In September 2001, some shows actually delayed their season openers by several weeks, or, in the case of The West Wing, filmed 11 September-specific episodes to acknowledge the attacks.
Much has been made in recent days of the disproportionality of responses when it comes to mass tragedies and Western media, which is an unescapable and clear fact. Westerners seeking information about mass violence and terrorism that occurs outside the United States and doesn’t involve Westerners must actively search for it, often seeking non-US media to do so, and this reflects the fact that news media tend to focus on stories it thinks will interest its consumers, with awareness that non-Western news isn’t of much interest. Even as Daesh keeps the Middle East in a continual state of terror — the same state driving refugees across the Mediterranean in desperation — most attacks in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Lebanon merit little coverage in Western media, and the same holds true for Daesh-driven attacks in Africa, terrorism across Indonesia and India, and similar events. Covering these events would create context for the refugee crisis, but few media organizations do this, and it inevitably shapes the way people respond to calls for help.
Every loss of life is a tragedy, and every life holds equal value. The delicate abacus performed by late night television reflects Eurocentrism, but it also reflects the demands of viewers who wouldn’t sit still for similar statements on bombings in Beiruts or beheadings in Baghdad. The only way to shift this narrative is through hosts like John Stewart — and hopefully his successor Trevor Noah — and Jon Oliver, who aren’t afraid to discuss horrors, condemn violence, and force non-Western issues on their audiences. Sadly, many already skew liberal and politically aware, and they’re not the audiences who need this information.
Someday, perhaps, Westerners will fully understand how devastating Daesh is not just for France, but the world. Oddly enough, comedy may be one of the vehicles that drives that awareness, for comedians before all entertainers have the unique ability to embed sharp political commentary in bits designed to provoke a laugh.