When Comedy’s No Joke
Is Ellen DeGeneres becoming an embittered Rosie O’Donnell? Say it ain’t so, Ellen!
Last week, the famously genial daytime host declared the President of the United States is not welcome on her show. Matt Lauer asked if she would want to interview Donald Trump. She said no. “Because I’m not gonna change his mind,” she said. “He’s against everything that I stand for.”
Listen carefully to what she said. Apparently she doesn’t stand for destroying ISIS. She doesn’t stand for creating jobs or trying to fix health care. She doesn’t stand for renewing the new Middle East peace efforts. His upcoming meeting with the Pope — comedy fodder if ever there was any. Not important. She doesn’t stand for putting people above politics. She doesn’t even stand for making people laugh anymore because an Ellen-Trump interview would be must see TV.
What Ellen clearly stands for is the LBGT agenda. Ellen — for the folks who don’t know — made TV history when she came out as gay and her character on her hit sitcom came out as well. Still, she didn’t let it define her. She wasn’t the “gay comedian.” She was the sweet-natured TV presence that danced her way through daytime, couldn’t say a bad word about anyone during her year on American Idol and hosted the Emmys weeks after 9/11 with such warmth and graciousness she helped ease our national ache. Now she doesn’t want to even bother talking to the leader of the free world. She says she has zero interest in even looking for common ground.
The irony is that Trump has been rather moderate about LGBT issues. He’s declared Obergfell settled law, had no issue with the former Bruce Jenner using the ladies room at Trump Tower (assuming Jenner didn’t leave the seat up). Even his religious liberty order is so watered down that the ACLU isn’t even bothering to sue.
So it’s more a personal thing. She doesn’t want him on her show. Fine. It’s her show.
But here’s the real problem. “Because I won’t change his mind.” Say what? Put aside the obvious fact Trump changes his mind faster than Texas changes its weather. You don’t want someone on your entertainment show who sees things different than you? Those who disagree with you aren’t welcome?
And if they aren’t welcome as guests, isn’t she saying they aren’t welcome as viewers either? Since a majority of the people outside L.A. and N.Y. elected Donald Trump president, isn’t she telling most of the country to buzz off? Hard to believe that’s what she thinks — and after a few pleasant decades in the spotlight she’s earned the benefit of the doubt — but that’s what she’s saying. And it’s unfortunate.
No such benefit of the doubt for Stephen Colbert.
Stephen Colbert: CBS’ Crude, Calculated Assault on the President
Much has been made of Stephen Colbert’s crude assault on President Trump last week. In his Monday night monologue, the CBS late night host went off on Trump with a string of angry, vicious one-liners. He ended with a vile, mean-spirited “joke” involving Trump, Putin and oral sex. We can’t repeat the joke. We don’t need to. All you need to know is this: If any late night comedian made such a remark about President Obama they would have been fired. You can debate whether the sky is blue before you can debate that.
Was Colbert fired? No. Was he suspended? No. Did he even apologize? No. The best he could do was admit two night’s later the language was “cruder than it needed to be.”
Did his bosses even tell him, “Uh, buddy, you went too far”? Very unlikely. First, the show didn’t air live. We’re not talking about a spontaneous outburst on live TV. We’re talking about a joke that someone came up with, was bantered around in the writer’s room, written down, agreed upon and placed in a teleprompter. It was rehearsed, recorded before a live audience and aired hours later. Then — after being tweeted around the world — was repeated for the West Coast.
The higher ups at CBS knew. They neither stopped it nor condemned it. But why would they? (Political bias aside) It’s a way to improve ratings. Colbert was flopping in late night against NBC’s Jimmy Fallon and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel. His fortunes did not begin to turn until he found the magic formula: Insult Trump. The more he attacks Trump, the higher his ratings have become.
In fact, there have been been reports NBC is putting pressure on the good-natured Jimmy Fallon to get dark on the President.
The sad sagas of Ellen and Colbert tell us why this is a horrible idea. But they also provide Fallon a wonderful opportunity.
The Cost, The Opportunity
Ellen’s public persona is built on her cheery, toothy smile. She didn’t become a successful stand-up by diving in the gutter or drawing blood. She drew laughs by connecting in a unique way to our shared humanity. The woman is a howl. So saying she won’t share a couch with Trump is saying no to what made Ellen Ellen. Sure, if Bill Cosby taught us anything it’s that a comic’s public persona can hide a cruel reality. So at the very least Ellen is damaging her hard-built reputation over something as fleeting as politics.
Colbert has an even harder road. He openly discusses being a devout Catholic. Would he kiss the Pope’s ring with that mouth? More seriously, “out of the heart the mouth speaks.” In other words, his crude language the other night isn’t nearly the issue as the anger and hostility behind it. What’s that hostility do to your soul? As someone who wrote comedy professionally for two decades, including freelancing for The Tonight Show, I can testify: Humor built on harshness is easy, but not lasting. And certainly not Godly.
Success built on hostility is no success at all.
Which gets me to Jimmy Fallon. Much like Ellen, likeability has been key to his success. His gift for impersonations, in particular musical impersonations, is phenomenal. His sketches go viral for a reason. Yet you are not named host of The Tonight Show if you are not likeable. Putting that at risk for a brief ratings hike is career suicide.
For that matter, partisan attacks violate the tradition of Steve Allen, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. Do we really know how any of those men felt politically? No, they welcomed us — welcomed us all — through some of the most divisive and stressful times in our nation’s history.
So here lies Fallon’s opportunity: You want to defeat Colbert? You don’t match his anti-Trump tirades with your own anti-Trump-heavy monologues. You counter with love.
You declare that ratings or no ratings, you will welcome into your audience and onto your stage people of all political stripes and faiths. You will serve to entertain, not indoctrinate. You will ask people to leave their anger at the door at 11:35 PM Eastern. There’s enough partisan strife during the day.
The President of the United States is always welcome. Oh, yes. You will make fun of him, probably every night. The material he offers every day is too rich to pass up. And you’ll make fun of Republicans. And Democrats. And whoever or whatever else has caught your eye. But you will do it with a smile. You will do it because that‘s the job. That’s what will help relax folks before they sleep. That‘s what is best for the nation. It’s also guaranteed job security in late night.