“Give us your politics, Elvis!’ demanded a voice at an Elvis Costello concert circa 1989. ‘Why, have you none of your own?’ caustically replied the beloved entertainer. This blog isn’t about politics, it’s about entertainment; no political party, in this writer’s view, has a monopoly on common sense.
In the early months of 2016, I was living in Manhattan’s First Avenue, buying scallops in the local supermarket and frying them up while watching the nightly news as the Trump vs Clinton combatants crystallised. It seemed obvious that Trump would win, despite panel after panel of expects denying the notion, or perhaps because of it; speaking without notes, for hours at a time, he projected underdog, fighter spirit that belied his reputation as a reality tv host/real estate entrepreneur and somehow suggested that he, rather than his opponent, was a man of the people.
As president, Trump’s every move is subject to analysis, and there’s a legion of chat-show hosts and commentators to pick apart his every move. Some, like Jimmy Fallon, mix commentary with party host duties, amusing singing and improv games with gags thrown in, But the big two are Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert, the former a graduate of SNL, the latter of The Daily Show, and both reaching an audience of millions with their fragmented YouTube shows alone. Meyers sits at a desk, as he did on Weekend Update, while Colbert has an old-school stand-up technique, complete with a house band led by the jovial Jon Baptiste. Meyers leans into the comedy of repetition that made SNL’s Stefan such a hit; the same intros, plus topical gags, regular furniture of lists, writer contributions and the admirable Closer Look, where he dissects a political topic of the day, sometimes, but not always Trump. Meanwhile Colbert dances and pirouettes around his stage with a veterans timing, whipping up his audience with lengthy, skilfully delivered monologues; both men enjoy high calibre guests, usually with something pressing to promote.
The arrival of the pandemic has sent both men home; sporting previously unimaginable informal outfits, Colbert initially appeared in his own garden, then his barbecue, and now retreats into a spare room where he tussles with his dog on the floor. Meyers, who candidly admitted that he’s now in awe of how well YouTubers record their microphone sound, seemed bedevilled with technical difficulties as he recorded from his own hallway, but seems to have found a regular gig in his library, where his copy of The Thorn Birds seems to be an object of some family pride.
The show, for both men, must go on; with Trump giving nightly state-of-the-nation addresses, there’s a wealth of material to consider, even if the grim times make comedy an uphill struggle. But does their commentary make any difference, or does it only preach to the converted? Both have a weakness for falling back on flubs; here’s Trump mispronouncing a name for the umpteenth time! Look, he’s slurred some words! Look, here’s Trump dropping an umbrella for the hundredth time! Trump exists in the now, his movements and speech are constantly filmed, and such mistakes are just trimmings. Given that Meyers and Colbert’s shows are carefully edited, it seems to miss the point of critique to focus on such crowd-pleasing but meaningless groaners rather than the crucial policy decisions that the nation currently hangs on. Some of these clips need retired.
With the 2020 election set to be held in unprecedented circumstances, Meyers and Colbert will need to sharpen up their game if their goal is going to make a difference in the political world rather than just entertainment. In Britain, the daily virus briefings are populated by unknowns, sombre-minded, discussed and dissected by no-one. There is no mechanism to analyse to discuss the foibles of leaders, and America leads the way in this kind of cultural commentatary. The eyes of the world are on this great nation in peril; this is the time for great men to step up to the plate. Twitter may be obsessed with Andrew Cuomo’s nipples, but we don’t have to be; in 2020, there are lives at stake, and the trivial is yesterday’s news, fish and chip paper as well call in in the UK.