In times of national crisis, many Americans turn to late-night television to help understand and process what’s going on.
Late-night has a history of summing up the mood of the nation, from Harry Belafonte interviewing Martin Luther King during the riots of 1968 when he guest-hosted The Tonight Show, through to Arsenio Hall’s interview with LA Mayor Tom Bradley after the LA Riots in 1992 and David Letterman’s emotional monologue after 9/11.
That has never been clearer than this week as this generation of late-night talent including Stephen Colbert, James Corden, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, Conan O’Brien and Amber Ruffin stepped up and delivered emotional words, empathy and illuminating guests amid nationwide protests against police brutality following George Floyd’s death as the worst global pandemic in over 100 years raged on.
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CNN media analyst Bill Carter, who has written books including The Late Shift and The War For Late Night, praised the way these hosts have performed this week. “These guys are sincere. I don’t have any doubt when they say how moved they are or how upset they are, they mean it. It’s not something they’re doing for any advantage,” he added.
Carter said that the events of the last week have “lit a dormant tinderbox”. “It’s reached a point where there’s just no patience for this [in the country] and there’s no patience in it for the late-night guys either.”
One of the most touching moments of the week was The Late Late Show with James Corden on Monday, when the Brit offered a message of support for those fighting for justice before bandleader Reggie Watts broke down sharing his experience growing up Black in America. Executive producer Ben Winston called it the most emotional show they had ever done.
“I’ve been struggling all weekend wondering what to say to you,” Corden said. “Because who needs my opinion? Why is my voice relevant? There is not one person in the world who woke up this morning and thought – I need to know what James Corden thinks about all of this. Surely this is a time for me to listen not talk. And then I realized that that’s part of the problem. People like me have to speak up. To be clear, I’m not talking about late-night hosts or people who are fortunate, like I am, to have a platform. I’m talking about white people. White people cannot just say anymore – ‘yeah I am not racist’ and think that that’s enough, because it’s not. It’s not enough. Because make no mistake this is our problem to solve. How can the Black community dismantle a problem that they didn’t create?”
Corden’s guest that night was Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, author of Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. Dyson said the “cycle of pain seems to be unending” and that it is “astonishingly bad that we live in a nation where Black people’s bodies are not given the warrant that they deserve.” “Isn’t it ironic that we’re facing already a pandemic, whose signal symptom is the inability to breathe, and so the pandemic of the COVID-19 meets the pandemic of COVID-1619,” he added.
Late Night with Seth Meyers featured stories from SNL co-head writer Michael Che and alumna Leslie Jones.
Che talked about how his bit on Black Lives Matter from an old Netflix stand-up special kept resurfacing. “It’s bittersweet that it’s still relevant. I’m happy that people like the clip but it’s kind of a bummer that it’s still relevant. I wish it wasn’t. I feel like the guy who wrote “Amazing Grace,” – you’re happy but every time you hear it, you’re like ‘Oh, no, what happened?’ because no one plays it for a good occasion.”
Che revealed that even though two of his brothers have worked in the NYPD, he hasn’t dialed 911 in his life because “I have a feeling that they’re not for me, and it’s a really sad, unfortunate thing that you don’t realize until you come across people who don’t feel that way.”
Jones shared her experiences about the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. She said that she didn’t think this week’s protests would change anything. “We have a President that’s standing up there calling us thugs and sending out National Guard — he’s not listening to anything that anyone’s going to say. I think the only thing he’s going to listen to is votes, and this is why I was telling everybody if you’re going to change something, you have to fight the same fight that they’re fighting,” she said.
There have been a number of parallels drawn with the 1992 riots, which were triggered after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers for violently beating Rodney King.
Just read Jay Leno, in his opening monologue when he took over The Tonight Show: “Police chief Daryl Gates knows whose fault it is, he says it’s the fault of the Japanese, he said ‘If they hadn’t invented that stupid camcorder, none of this would have happened’,” Leno joked.
Leno, much like his predecessor Johnny Carson, and to a certain extent David Letterman during his earlier years, was much less politically pointed than the current cadre of talk-show hosts. CNN’s Carter said, “It has changed over time. Johnny Carson was very good at poking fun at whoever was in office, sometimes in a pointed way, but not in a point of view sort of way. Jay was in the Johnny tradition, he didn’t want to show his point of view ever and I think he stuck to that more or less. Letterman started that way and then moved to revealing his point of view.”
Evidence of Leno’s intention of finding the gag rather than making a statement came in that first show where he joked about Madonna’s bra being stolen from Fredericks of Hollywood and Bob Hope visiting the troops in LA during the riots.
In 1992, Arsenio Hall, hosting his hit syndicated talk show, featured the most extensive coverage, including an interview with L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, where he pleaded with the city’s residents for calm.
Hall had broken through into the late-night scene in 1989, bringing in a much younger and more African American audience than The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. “Arsenio’s impact in the black community was enormous, he was almost obligated to have spoken about this and he would have wanted to. He was looked to in the black community as someone they wanted to hear from,” said Carter.
The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah, one of very few Black comedy hosts today, has emerged as arguably late-night’s strongest voice on the issues of race and social justice. In a powerful video posted on social media last weekend, he discussed how the death of Floyd, the confrontation in Central Park and the shooting of jogger Ahmaud Arbery were falling dominoes of a broken system.
“I don’t know what made [Floyd’s death] more painful, the fact that that man was having his life taken in front of our eyes, the fact that we were watching someone being murdered by someone whose job is to protect and serve, or the fact that he seemed so calm doing it,” Noah said. “Black American people watch time and time again how the contract they have signed with society is not being honored by the society.”
Late Night With Seth Meyers writer Amber Ruffin, who became the first Black woman to write for a late-night network talk-show, has been another prominent voice. She opened Meyers’ NBC show a number of times this week with personal stories about how the police had intimated and threatened her. “We used to open the show with fun jokes but for the last three days we’ve opened the show with stories about me getting mistreated by the cops and if you are tired of hearing these stories, do something,” she said. “Black people leave the house every day knowing that at any time, we could get murdered by the police. It’s a lot. Sometimes when you see news footage like we have seen in the past week and you hear people chalking it up to a few bad apples instead of how corrupt an entire system is, it becomes too much.”
On Thursday night, Ruffin, read out a list of people who had been killed including David McAtee, Dave Patrick Underwood, Chris Beaty, Dorian Murrell, Italia Kelly, Calvin L. Horton Jr, James Scurlock, Javar Harrell, Victor Cazares, Sean Monterrosa and David Dorn. But Ruffin, who is set to host her own talk-show on streaming service Peacock, ended on a slightly more positive note.
“People all over the world took to the streets because they believed that black people deserve better treatment than we have been getting. I’m not like ‘everything’s over, everything’s fixed, but I am shocked so many people showed up for black people,” she said. “Don’t let people get away with racist crap, not any more, it’s a new day.”
Many late-night hosts have spent the week listening and learning from their guests with phrases like ‘white privilege’ becoming part of the broader discussion of issues around racial and social justice.
Kimmel addressed that topic on his ABC talk show. He admitted he was initially defensive when he heard the phrase white privilege because, as he says, he didn’t grow up like Donald Trump with a silver spoon in his mouth. “So, I rejected it because I didn’t understand what white privilege meant. But I think I do now. I think I at least understand some of it and here’s what I think it is. People who are white – we don’t have to deal with negative assumptions being made about us – based on the color of our skin. It rarely happens. If ever. Whereas Black people experience that every day,” he added.
O’Brien used his TBS show to listen to guests such as Van Jones, CNN political commentator and CEO of Reform Alliance, rather than talk. “Today feels very different,” O’Brien said. “We’re rightfully sickened by the needless killing of a Black man named George Floyd. But it doesn’t feel right to talk about my feelings of sadness and anger. To do that today feels inadequate and even somehow wrong. I’d like to use my very small part of television today not to speak but to listen … to someone who knows what it’s like to be Black in America in 2020.”
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon had NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson on the show Monday.
“The last 70 days are perhaps the worst in our history, in my opinion, since the Civil War,” Johnson said. He also highlighted the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on African Americans, the police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Amy Cooper’s threat against birdwatcher Christian Cooper in Central Park. “We have had a rough 70 days and we must stand up to what’s currently taking place,” he said.
Fallon, himself, kicked off that episode, the first after a hiatus, with an emotional speech, saying he didn’t want to stay silent after a 2000 Saturday Night Live skit of him doing an impression of Chris Rock in blackface recently re-emerged. “I realized that I can’t not say I’m horrified and I’m sorry and I’m embarrassed,” he said. “I realized that the silence is the biggest crime that white guys like me and the rest of us are doing, staying silent. We need to say something. We need to keep saying something. We need to stop saying ‘that’s not OK’ more than just one day on Twitter.”
The Late Show’s Colbert also came back from hiatus this week. “I never imagined that, after 10 days, a global pandemic would not be the lead story. Remember when we were all afraid of our groceries? I miss those days,” he joked before bringing on guests including rapper-activist Killer Mike and radio host Charlamagne Tha God during the week.
Rapper Killer Mike, who fronted Netflix docuseries Trigger Warning which explored the issues facing the Black community in the U.S., opened up about his emotional speech in Atlanta and how he hoped the protests over Floyd’s death can be a galvanizing moment for long-term activism. “I didn’t want us to lose hope and destroy what we have because hope exists here,” he said.
Similarly, Charlamagne Tha God addressed the anti-police brutality protests on the CBS show. Pointing out that he didn’t bait former Vice President Joe Biden into recent comments on this show – “he volunteered that fish. I didn’t throw no bait out there for that fish whatsoever” – he added, “I think America has been past its breaking point, and I’m actually shocked this is just happening now.”