“No one got into comedy to make fun of Donald Trump. You get into comedy so you can dress like a dinosaur and sing a song,” Peacock’s The Amber Ruffin Show host Amber Ruffin told Refinery29 over the phone in late November. But Donald Trump’s administration — a white supremacist black hole that swallowed logic, human rights, and comedy starting with his election in 2016 — banished such frivolity from the late night TV landcape. When he was elected, the comedy community wasn’t quite sure how to deal with a professional reality show buffoon squatting in the White House for four years. But the after-hours genre very quickly became our most reliable daily reality check on Trump & Co.’s punishing, brain-melting activities.
From Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal monologues on TBS to the reliably searing commentary of Daily Show correspondents like Dulcé Sloan, late night was there to break down the day’s horrors into digestible pieces and maybe make you choke out a gallows laugh before bed (or during your morning commute). As Comedy Central’s Sloan told Refinery29, “That seems like what everyone has been doing the whole time: Just like, ‘I know I’m not the only one who saw this!’”
“I am thrilled that we will be able to get back to dressing like dinosaurs and singing songs, and we won’t have to do heartfelt pieces about the hate people feel for us,” Ruffin, who is also a breakout writer/recurring star of NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers, added. ”I mean maybe not as many.”
Comedy can also be real joy about a sandwich you ate. It doesn’t have to be so painful.
Late night likely won’t be tasked with defining reality following the lumbering fascist's departure from the Oval Office. While Biden may be the “plastic straws'' of politicians, as Woody Harrelson said during his 2019 Saturday Night Live impression of the now-president, he has shown a basic interest in humanity in the months leading up to his White House move-in date. Comedy is getting so much of its time — and sanity — back. The genre will be filling that gap with creepy crawlies, sandwiches, and the importance of smaller elections, if you ask its leading ladies — while also probably still battling the dregs of what Donald Trump has wrought.
“I think I’m mostly just excited to wake up and not have to see Donald Trump,” Full Frontal co-head writer Kristen Bartlett chuckled a week prior to Biden and Harris’ Inauguration Day. After all, when Bartlett — who took over the leadership role in February 2020 — was confronted by Trump every single day, Full Frontal’s less politically dire stories could be pushed for months. The “Fat People Have Heads” segment, which Bartlett wrote with Full Frontal writer Ashley Nicole Black, was conceived in October 2019. It finally aired in February 2020.
Other topics took a backseat, too: “We have a show about endangered wildlife,” Bartlett noted. “With Donald Trump the past four years, there hasn’t really been time to talk about that. And then we have a piece coming up soon about environmental racism. Stories that highlight what’s happening in the world that needs to be fixed.”
The key to tackling these serious issues going forward is hyper-specificity. For Full Frontal, that hopefully means exploring endangered animals through the lens of “ugly animals.” “Yes! We know about pandas,” Bartlett explained. “But there are also some very important worms.”
Ruffin, on the other hand, is open to sillier fare: “The main thing that most comedians are thinking now that Trump is gone, is, ‘I can get back to comedy. Comedy can be part social commentary. That’s great. But comedy can also be real joy about a sandwich you ate. It doesn’t have to be so painful. Hopefully, Joe Biden will give us the room to do that.”
Late night’s stars recognize that the fatal insurrection at the capital just over two weeks ago means they won’t be done grappling with Trump’s legacy anytime soon. “We all knew he wasn’t going to go quietly into the night,” The Daily Show’s Sloan, who is prioritizing “evergreen” stories this year, said. “Them raiding the Capitol wasn’t a surprising thing. The surprising thing was them being allowed to leave. That was the thing that was hardest to understand and was kind of insulting, truly — as an American, as a Black person. That was the thing that was hardest to stomach. I’m just like, ‘What do you mean they’re just going home?’”
Late night writers are prepared to monitor Biden’s response to the inevitable troubles to come. While they know a Biden presidency is a step in the right political direction, they don’t expect this new political era to be a cure-all for a nation in peril. More than 400,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, with numbers continuing to rise. Climate change is still a deadly pressing threat. Only two weeks ago, thousands of dangerous Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. It’s unlikely their views changed overnight.
“I’m only going to say nice things about Joe Biden… kidding! That is super not the case. I think we’ll just tell the truth like we do about everything else,” Ruffin joked. “A positive-ish thing about having gone through four years of Trump is people got fed up with garbage. And I think there still will be plenty of garbage. Even if everything Joe Biden did was right, to undo the Trump garage is going to quite a lot of work.”
Sloan echoed Ruffin: “Trump is gone and Biden’s here. But we still have to look at, and find the comedy in, any flaw or any issues that might come up with Biden being president. This can’t be, ‘Ding dong the witch is dead.’”
Despite the garbage ahead, Kristen Bartlett is still hopeful. “No matter what, our show wants to hold people responsible for inciting violence [earlier this month]. I think that’s going to be a very real thing we talk about for the rest of the year,” she began. “But, my God, I hope we get to talk about the worms as well.”