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Late night comedy's war on Trump escalates as ratings rise

'Late Show' host Colbert says no regrets over Trump insults (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

In the last week, late night talk show hosts have envisioned President Donald Trump engaging in sexual acts with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his own daughter, taking the hostility shown toward the president by mainstream comedians to new heights and raising fresh concerns for conservatives who already felt alienated by the growing liberal streak in late night content.

In his monologue Monday, Stephen Colbert of CBS’ “Late Show” took Trump to task for insulting and disrespecting “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson. He unleashed a series of taunts and insults depicting the president as overweight and stupid.

The litany crescendoed with a reference to Trump performing oral sex on Putin. The graphic language was bleeped for those watching at home as the studio audience applauded wildly.

Colbert’s rhetoric and imagery were shocking and offensive to many, and homophobic in the eyes of even some anti-Trump liberals. The tirade escalated a hostility toward Trump that the host has worn on his sleeve for months, and it sparked the viral hashtag #FireColbert.

On Wednesday, Colbert said he regretted being cruder than necessary, and he took a moment to praise people for expressing their love in their own way, but he did not apologize for insulting or disrespecting the president.

“I don’t regret that,” he said. “I believe he can take care of himself. I have jokes, he has the launch codes. So it’s a fair fight.”

Days later, Bill Maher faced a smaller social media backlash for a joke and hand gesture he made on his HBO show “Real Time” that suggested an incestuous sexual relationship between Trump and his daughter Ivanka. Much of the criticism came from right wing news and culture sites, but Marlow Stern of the Daily Beast also accused Maher of sexism and hypocrisy, given that his comment came during a discussion of misogyny by the president and Fox News personalities.

Experts are skeptical either comedian will face legal or professional consequences for their jokes.

“I’m guessing that a lot of this will kind of go away,” said Amy Bree Becker, an assistant professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland who studies political entertainment and comedy.

After receiving complaints about Colbert, the Federal Communications Commission is conducting an investigation, but that is just standard procedure. To fine CBS for obscenity, it would have to conclude that his comments appealed to an average person's prurient interest, described sexual conduct in a “patently offensive” way, and lacked literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

As far as audiences penalizing Colbert with their remote controls, the late night TV landscape is already politically segregated and it is likely not a coincidence that Colbert’s ratings have risen as he has taken a more aggressive stance against Trump. Though he was initially less blatantly political in his role at CBS, the man’s career was built on mocking conservative politics and punditry at Comedy Central.

“Stephen Colbert probably wouldn’t have gotten so much attention for this comment when he was on cable television,” Becker said.

Maher crossing a line of taste and decency is less jarring, and potentially less problematic, for a number of reasons.

His previous talk show was titled “Politically Incorrect” and it was canceled because he offended viewers with comments about the 9/11 hijackers. HBO and its audience knew what they were getting.

“Bill Maher had this show for a long time now,” Becker said. “For me, this is not surprising.”

The Daily Beast notes that the crude joke was not a new one for Maher, having made nearly the same comment during a standup performance streamed live online before the election.

Maher’s defenders have also observed that Ivanka incest jokes, though often less explicit, are somewhat common and are rooted in Trump’s own unusual comments about his daughter’s attractiveness.

The venue is fundamentally different from Colbert’s as well. Maher’s show airs on a premium cable network with a TV-MA rating. It is also an overtly political debate program where offensive and rude jokes are made at the expense of Trump and Republicans several times an hour.

Both incidents reflect the unprecedented rate of jokes being made about this president and his administration on late night television.

A study conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University found that Trump has far outpaced the previous three presidents as a target for humor by late night comedians in his first 100 days.

Researchers found 1,060 Trump jokes, compared to 936 about Obama, 546 about Bush, and 440 about Clinton during the entire first year of their first terms. At this rate, Trump could face more jokes in his first year in office than Clinton was during the year of his impeachment.

“People want to hear jokes about the politicians they don’t like,” Robert Lichter, the professor who directed the study, told the Associated Press.

Experts say late night comedy has grown more political in recent years as the schedule has gotten more crowded.

“There are more outlets and options than there were in the last election cycle,” Becker said.

Many of those new options, such as Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” and “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver, are focused on politics by design. Other hosts, like Seth Meyers on NBC’s “Late Night,” began tackling more political material as the 2016 presidential campaign dominated the national conversation, and they saw increased viewership and engagement as a result.

Since Trump took office, Colbert’s ratings have surged, beating NBC’s “Tonight Show” for 13 weeks straight. Initial viewership data indicated no loss of audience in the wake of his crude comment about Trump last week.

Not all recent late night controversy is about the comedy. Jimmy Kimmel devoted much of a monologue last week to the emotional story of his newborn son’s life-saving heart surgery. He closed by crediting Obamacare for ensuring that babies with preexisting medication conditions cannot be denied insurance.

"If your baby is going to die and it doesn't have to, it shouldn't matter how much money you make," he said. "I think that's something that whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right?"

Kimmel also applauded Congress for increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health, which Trump has proposed cutting.

Conservative commentators and social media users blasted the host for milking his son’s tragedy for partisan gain. Liberals praised him for putting a human face on the issue. By the end of the week, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., was demanding that the Senate health care bill can pass “the Jimmy Kimmel test” and ensure adequate coverage for a child with congenital heart disease.

Cassidy will be appearing on Kimmel’s show on Monday night.

While these politicized segments could theoretically make conservative viewers uncomfortable, Alison Dagnes, author of “A Conservative Walks into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor,” said hosts have little reason to worry about that at this point.

“[Conservatives] aren’t watching them anyway,” she said.

In a polarized media environment, audiences are already siloing themselves from content they disagree with in both the news and late night entertainment.

“If those on the left have already decided that making fun of Trump is important to do, they’re not going to be enraged,” said Dagnes, an associate professor of political science at Shippensburg University. Meanwhile, Trump supporters will be bothered by anything that besmirches their president.

“It almost doesn’t even matter if the jokes are a) funny or b) offensive,” she said.

In a recent feature for the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan argued that the increasingly partisan and condescending tone of late night television helped fuel Trump’s rise and conditioned conservatives to trust him over the networks that air their shows.

“No wonder so many of Trump’s followers are inclined to believe only the things that he or his spokespeople tell them directly—everyone else on the tube thinks they’re a bunch of trailer-park, Oxy-snorting half-wits who divide their time between retweeting Alex Jones fantasies and ironing their Klan hoods,” she wrote.

There is, however, a case to be made that Trump, with his bombastic tweets, constant hyperbole, and exaggerated mannerisms, is asking for it.

Dagnes interviewed many comedians during the Obama years, including liberals and conservatives. There was a bipartisan consensus that Obama was difficult to mock because he was so muted.

“He held his cards so close to the vest, it was really hard to find something that stuck,” she said.

Trump, on the other hand, is a huge target—and not just because he is nominally a Republican.

“It’s because of the fact that he is a media guy, he is a creature of TV,” Dagnes said. “Therefore he is going for as much media attention as humanly possible and he’s getting it.”

Late night comedy and “Saturday Night Live” sketches have helped define candidates like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin in the public’s minds, to the point where the caricature and reality blurred. Trump’s aides have also been defined in part by the jokes made at their expense.

Trump himself, however, was a known quantity and a larger-than-life figure before declaring his candidacy. He spent 30 years in the media cultivating an image, and then during his campaign he actively courted controversy and unapologetically said things the general public found offensive.

“I think that just gave a lot of material and a sharper edge to it, because his posture was, I don’t care what you think about me,” Dagnes said. “And there’s nothing more dangerous you can say to a comedian than I don’t care what you think about me.”

Unlike other political figures who have attempted to show they are able to take a joke, Trump has made clear that any slight rankles him deeply.

“Trump’s the first candidate or president to really fire back at ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Becker said. His supporters find that combativeness authentic and appealing; comedians find it empowering.

Given that Trump’s attitude toward comedians is unlikely to change and now even broadcast late night hosts have taken the gloves off, that dynamic may only get worse over the next three-and-a-half years.

Dagnes expects the audiences still watching Colbert and Maher at this point will be fine with that. People do not like to see comedians punching down, but as Colbert made clear in his response to last week’s firestorm, it is not possible to punch further up than the president of the United States.

“It’s not making fun of the little guy,” Dagnes said. “It’s making fun of the most powerful person in the world.”

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