Late Night TV Shows Take Aim At Trump, Score Well In Ratings

Feb 22, 2017
Originally published on February 22, 2017 6:58 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The last time I was talking with our TV critic Eric Deggans about late night television and the trouble with satirizing Donald Trump, he said it was a struggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: In the same way that he can suck all the political oxygen out of a room, he can also suck all the comedic oxygen out of the situation. And he's such an extreme character it's really hard to figure out how to exaggerate the parody enough to really make it funny.

CORNISH: That was a year ago. And a lot has changed since then.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ALEC BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Guy who's going to pay for the wall says what?

(LAUGHTER)

ALEX MOFFAT: (As Enrique Pena Nieto) Que?

(LAUGHTER)

BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) No, no. You pay, loser. You're a bad hombre. Here come our tanks. Prepare to go to war.

CORNISH: So Eric Deggans is back to talk with us now when the late night landscape is essentially Trump central, right? I mean, just, like, monologues, jokes - what's happened here?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, I think it's worth remembering that a lot of people didn't think Trump was actually going to win. (Laughter) And now that he's president and he's making changes, people are really focused in on Washington. And we've seen these late night shows step up their criticism of him. And they've found a groove creatively. And they've also had an increase in ratings. So let's think about somebody like Stephen Colbert on "The Late Show" on CBS. He's competitive in late night ratings with Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight Show" on NBC for the first time since he first took over "The Late Show" in 2015. Colbert got more total viewers than Fallon in the first two weeks in February, about 3 million viewers. And he is expected to win this week, too.

CORNISH: And you mentioned "Saturday Night Live." We heard them in the introduction. Obviously they've gained with this, right?

DEGGANS: Yeah. I mean, NBC's told me that SNL is averaging 11 million viewers an episode, and that's including people who watch up to a week after the original broadcast airs on their DVRs. And that's, like, their best ratings in 24 years. We've seen some bumps in viewing for "The Daily Show" and "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee." And the thing I've noticed with these shows is that the shows with the rising viewership are regularly expressing an anger and kind of a dismay over this news that's coming out of Washington. And they've been very critical of Donald Trump. We've got a sample of what Bee and Colbert have been saying. Let's check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Trump went after the media with a bold accusation. The fake news media - failing New York Times, NBC News - is not my enemy. It is the enemy of the American people. Sorry, ISIS, if you want to get on the list, you've got to publish photos of Trump's inauguration crowd. Then he'll be really, really angry at you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FULL FRONTAL WITH SAMANTHA BEE")

SAMANTHA BEE: Our democracy just hoicked (ph) up a marmalade hairball with the whole world watching.

CORNISH: You know, Eric, one thing I've noticed is this has gone beyond Donald Trump himself. I mean, this humor - they've been attacking his Cabinet as well, right?

DEGGANS: Well, it's interesting. Without a lot of polling, I mean, you can't really say why viewership is changing. I did spend some time today talking with "The Daily Show" executive producer Steve Bodow. And he says he thinks that his host - Trevor Noah, for example - is channeling a lot of the anger and frustration that his viewers are feeling, and it's making the show sharper. And that's something that he's also noticed with Colbert.

And that goes beyond Trump. That talks about the people who surround him and the situation in general. And you look at SNL, they took a lot of criticism for having Donald Trump guest host the show when he was running for the GOP nomination. And since then they got Alec Baldwin to come in and do this really devastating parody of him. And they also have impressions of the people around him, like Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon. And the skits have gotten sharper. So it's not just about Trump.

CORNISH: All right, Eric, we've been hearing about these shows that have done well in this environment. Are there any late night shows that are struggling?

DEGGANS: Well, I mentioned Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight Show" earlier, and he seems to be losing viewers. One theory for his problems is that he's known as a nice guy who plays games with his guests and doesn't really do trenchant political comedy. And that may not fit the moment right now.

CORNISH: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks so much.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.