Last night, the major late-night hosts – Seth Meyers, Conan O’Brien, James Corden, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and Jimmy Kimmel – all opened their shows with statements memorializing the victims of the shooting, and urging Republican lawmakers to pass sensible gun control legislation. (Fallon chose to open his show with Miley Cyrus and Adam Sandler singing Dido’s “No Freedom,” which can be viewed here.) Their reactions are, when viewed collectively, a powerful reminder of what leadership in the wake of a crisis is supposed to look like.
It’s hard to imagine the great late-night hosts of the past, like Johnny Carson, ever doing this kind of thing on their shows. One could attribute the rise in mixing politics with comedy to the impact of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show; the more cynically-minded might dismiss it as virtue signaling. I would attribute it more to the fact that because they have a platform which can reach millions of Americans outside the coasts, they’ve learned to articulate the issues in a plain, direct way, which many politicians cannot.
Conan O’Brien expounded on this conundrum of having to wear both hats simultaneously, something he never thought would be a part of his job when he got into this game in the 1990s. When he came into work that day, he described his staff giving him a file containing his statements after previous mass shootings. “When did this become a ritual?” he asked, “And what does it say about us that it has.” As an apolitical comedian, he spoke with the common sense that is needed from our politicians today, saying, “I don’t think it should be so easy for one demented person to kill so many people so quickly.”
James Corden, one of only two non-Americans to host a daily late-night show, is no stranger to these kinds of statements. Last year, he hosted the Tony Awards the night after the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history until yesterday’s, and before his opening number, consoled the show’s viewers. No doubt he had that experience on his mind as he addressed his audience last night, expressing his point of view as an outsider whose country has much stricter gun laws than ours. “It’s hard for me to fathom,” he said, “But it should be hard for everyone to fathom. Gun violence should not be a staple of American life.”
“Every shooting is the worst for someone,” Trevor Noah began his ten-minute opening segment last night on The Daily Show. He’s right: calling all these incidents “worst ever” almost makes it seem like they’re in some competition. Noah spoke out against the subconscious need we have to make mass shootings just another part of American life, lest we should avoid the hard conversations we need to have in order to get sensible gun control reform passed. “I feel like people are being accustomed to this type of news,” he continued. “If you say that after a mass shooting is never the time [to talk about it], then you can never have the conversation in America because there’s a mass shooting almost every single day. So when is the time?”
Seth Meyers, whose training on SNL’s Weekend Update prepared him to engage in politically-minded humor, delivered a speech last night filled with the righteous indignation we should demand of every American politician, regardless of party. As sick of the “thoughts and prayers” and “we just can’t talk about it” bromides that have become de rigeur for Republicans, an exasperated Meyers asked, “Is this just how it is and how it’s going to continue to be? Because when you say…now is not the time to talk about it…what you really mean is there is never a time to talk about it. And it would be so much more honest if you would just admit that your plan is to never talk about it and never take any action.”
Stephen Colbert’s address was unique in its bipartisanship. He urged Congress to either re-enforce Democratic plans, like the assault weapons ban, and Obama’s executive orders to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill (which Trump revoked), or just come up with a better plan entirely. Colbert even genuinely urged Donald Trump to pass a gun control law – any gun control law. While he admitted the bar is low when it comes to expectations for our Commander-in-Chief (more on that later), he made his case to the President well: if he really wants us to unify, to borrow a word he used repeatedly in his speech yesterday, he would come up with a plan that might find approval from both Democratic and Republican citizens who want gun control reform – according to this article from The Washington Post, a majority in both parties want universal background checks. If the President and Congress acted together to pass that, they would do so with a broad base of support from Americans in both parties.
But the most powerful of all last night was, once again, Jimmy Kimmel, who over the past few weeks has emerged as late night’s conscience against the Republican tide of indifference. While he, like Conan, is not known for mixing politics with his comedy, his words, combined with his sincere emotions, have a power that few politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, possess today. In fact, I hope that Democrats are learning from Kimmel as well as Republicans – they should be able to address gun control and healthcare to a mass audience with the same galvanizing rhetoric that he deploys.
Kimmel, a Las Vegas native, was the most shaken of all the hosts. He began his speech by paying tribute to the victims, the majority of whom were there to enjoy the concert on the strip that the shooter open fired at. He went on to address the hypocrisy of Congress’s inability to act in situations like this: “When someone with a beard attacks us,” he said, “we take every possible precaution to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But when an American buys a gun and kills other Americans, then there’s nothing we can do about that.”
Kimmel stood in front of a photo collage of all the politicians who voted against the last background check bill, encouraging everyone watching to hold them accountable. He also used his words to praise those who responded to the massacre, and included video footage of those who lined up to donate blood to the victims. “I hate talking about stuff like this,” he said, “but…what I’m talking about tonight isn’t gun control. It’s common sense.” Removing the veneer of politics to speak “common sense” is something great leaders can do, and it’s something that Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and the 2020 hopefuls in the Democratic Party must learn to do as well.
Kimmel’s performance, as well as that of all the other late-night hosts, were all more sincere than the one the President gave yesterday. Trump managed to read off the teleprompter like a regular human being, and for that, the media gave him a free pass. Normalizer-in-chief Maggie Haberman of The New York Times called his speech addressing the massacre yesterday “rigorously disciplined.” CNN was on hand to fawn over it, with John King calling it “pitch-perfect.” But just as he did after his speech addressing Charlottesville, Trump went right back to his impulsive ways, calling what happened in Vegas “a miracle,” another extremely poor choice of words reflecting his insistence on categorizing everything that happens into superlatives.
Donald Trump became a national celebrity by hosting a TV show. It’s ironic that, since he’s entered politics, he’s being shown up at his job by TV hosts. A popular meme says that we used to listen to politicians and laugh at comedians, but now we do the reverse. If we want to move through this troubled period in our nation’s history, we must listen to them more to re-enforce our anger, our fears, and most importantly, our hopes.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.