The late-night network hosts, watching what passed for a presidential debate Tuesday night, had to be regretting their decision to go live with their comedy shows afterward.
Debate viewers hoping for campaign enlightenment instead fantasized about creative ways to end the pain. The chaos on stage in Cleveland was so bad that the post-debate network pundits were more likely to make exasperated noises and use words like “disgrace” than provide actual analysis.
So how is a comedian supposed to find something funny in an event so irredeemably, disappointingly, frustratingly sad.
For one thing, you empathize with your audience.
“Sitting through that felt like getting a COVID test in both nostrils at once,” said Jimmy Fallon, on NBC.
“I’d call it a nightmare,” ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel said, “but at least during a nightmare you get some sleep.”
“I never thought I’d say this,” Stephen Colbert of CBS said, “but I am so looking forward to the vice presidential debate.”
Nobody picked up on Trump’s odd and eminently mockable ongoing insistence that poor management of the forest floor is the leading cause of wildfires.
But they did all find another easy target in debate moderator Chris Wallace, who is on Fox News but not entirely of Fox News, and who controlled the rhetorical battle like a dude ranch guest on a runaway horse.
“Chris Wallace felt like a kindergarten teacher running a class on Zoom,” said Fallon.
“Trump treated Chris Wallace like he was Eric asking for more allowance money,” said Kimmel.
Colbert’s main Wallace point was more nuanced. Showing a clip of the moderator saying the next question would be about race but “if you want to answer something else, go ahead,” the “Late Show” host called it “Chris Wallace restating America’s official position on racism.”
All three of the major-network post-local-newscast shows went live to be able to treat this major campaign news event, one of the hot spots in an election that is a primary source of their material, not to mention the thing that will determine, to a greater degree than past Republican-Democrat tussles, what kind of country we live in.
It is, you could argue, their civic and vocational duty to do so, which is why it was surprising that both Seth Meyers on later-night NBC and Trevor Noah on Comedy Central, who’ve both made many live-off-the-news shows in recent years, opted to roll tape this time out.