Can a New Political Talk Show Be Relevant Anymore?
In an early snippet from comedian Sarah Silverman’s new topical series, I Love You, America, her father unwittingly gives the show the perfect logline. “Who gives a shit when the universe came,” he says during a riff on Jews, parenting, and the banality of creationism, “it’s here! What a stupid fucking question.” Silverman herself has described the show, which premieres today on Hulu, as “aggressively dumb.” In contrast to Jon Stewart-era The Daily Show or HBO’s Last Week Tonight, I Love You, America aims to expose our national curiosities by turning issues like mass incarceration and global warming into discussions, not dissertations. “I want people’s defenses to go down so that we can connect,” Silverman told Vulture. “Any political discussion is stuffed in a very bready sandwich of the aggressively silly.”
Through a mix of field pieces and in-studio interviews, Silverman wants to connect “un-like-minded people” and demonstrate just how similar we are by not taking sides, a tough gamble given the current constellation of late night political talk shows happily trafficking in partisan agendas. Speaking about the series, producer Adam McKay said he wants to see the country “get back to a grounded place where we’re not looking at right versus left, but corruption versus honesty.” But will it work?
The polarizing effects of the Trump administration have only heightened the stakes for political talk shows, many of which find themselves at a crossroads. It’s a genre of television that’s no longer as revelatory as it once was. Under the president, the only consistency is the vagary of truth—up is down, and down is, well, a matter of perspective. And while a single-mindedly slanted talk show can run the risk of feeling dogmatic and intellectually deficient, one without a perspective or clear thesis is just as hazardous.
Similar to I Love You, America, Comedy Central’s latest entry in the category, The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, is also trying to navigate that bind, albeit with a decidedly different approach. The show emerges from the shadow of The Colbert Report and operates as a parody of conservative cable news programs; Klepper’s contrarian persona “Jordan Klepper” is a farcical but less combustible version of Alex Jones, the blustering conservative Infowars host and conspiracy theorist.
For years Stephen Colbert was the model avatar for this brand of characterized pundit speak: cantankerous, illogically hilarious, exceedingly confident, and never quick to back down—it was like watching a wittier, more high-brow Bill O’Reilly pick apart the people-first evangelism of liberal DC.
During The Colbert Report’s run, from 2005 to 2014, the hypocrisies that fermented out of Fox News and homogenous conservative media were obvious and embarrassing. President Obama and his dare-to-dream progressivism was an easy target. “Fake news” had yet to become a political buzzword used to discredit even the most reputable media organizations. Facts still held value and the truth was not so easily warped to dangerous ends.
With Trump’s election, the evils have become much more indistinct—and Klepper wields these incongruities to his advantage. “May you only hear from others what you’ve already been telling yourself,” he trumpeted to his studio audience during the premiere episode. “Jordan Klepper,” like “Stephen Colbert,” is a persona strictly quarantined to television; his views, though, live beyond the medium’s boundaries. They exist in the real world—with real, pernicious ramifications.
Trump has been a great bullhorn in this regard: His presence has fueled a nationalist movement that provides platforms to people like Klepper’s TV counterpart, people who subscribe to culturally monolithic ideologies. But how funny does racism or the partitioning of women’s rights need to be? Must one be reminded of these horrors, night after night? At some point, a joke is no longer worth its consequence.
In one early episode, the matter of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria became a contentious talking point. “When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a good news story,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said in a news clip. Providing his own commentary, Klepper then suggested Cruz view the wreckage through the eyes of “someone who has a little bit of distance” from the situation, cuing up a series of tweets from Trump. One referenced local Puerto Rican officials and spewed with his signature flippancy: “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” With an air of clownish seriousness, Klepper piled on. “Yes, you want everything to be done for you, like some privileged real estate developer’s son,” he prodded. “The president is doing the best he can.”
‘Jordan Klepper,’ like ‘Stephen Colbert,’ is a persona strictly quarantined to television; his views, though, live beyond the medium’s boundaries. They exist in the real world—with real, pernicious ramifications.
The punchline, of course, was that Trump, progeny of a NYC real estate magnate, had not only done little to aide Puerto Rico’s stabilization, but had dismissed Maria’s aftermath next to that of Katrina, which he called “a real catastrophe.” The show’s point was unmissable: it meant to enflame the ironies of untruth, to mock the huckster president and the circus of conservative news that heralds his non-accomplishments. There was just one problem with the segment—none of it was terribly humorous or more imaginatively profound than the penetrating analysis Colbert had perfected years prior.
A talk show is often the victim of its own limits, be it Last Week Tonight’s single-topic framework that drags viewers down a rabbit hole of information or The Daily Show’s “diluted point of view” under Trevor Noah. This is especially true of late-night talk programs like Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Late Night with Seth Meyers, which have veered deeply political in recent months. There’s typically a hit-or-miss opening monologue, condensed guest interviews devoid of real substance, and a closing musical act. It seems less surprising then that in stepping outside of their conventional hosting schtick, both Kimmel and Colbert, this time as himself on CBS’s The Late Show, have struck a chord with Americans, emerging as genuine political firebrands with their raw, humorless commentary on healthcare and gun control.
Public discourse surrounding such thorny issues routinely ends with little policy reform, yet Kimmel has been able to center these discussions with lucidity and compassion. “I just want to, you know, laugh about things every night,” the host said in the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting, which claimed 58 lives and left nearly 500 people injured. “But that, it seems to be becoming increasingly difficult lately. It feels like someone has opened a window into Hell.” There was no intended punchline, nor need for an exaggerated carnival act. Kimmel and the undecorated truth was more than enough.
Perhaps, then, this is what Silverman hopes to reveal with I Love You, America—that plain-spoken sincerity from people across our colorful and complicated country can resonate beyond the humor, a kind of antidote for uneasy times.