© 2024 New Hampshire Public Radio

Persons with disabilities who need assistance accessing NHPR's FCC public files, please contact us at publicfile@nhpr.org.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Less than 3 hours remain till we pick the next prize winner of $2,000 in gas or electric vehicle charging. Purchase your tickets now!

As Presidential Primaries Begin, Late Night TV Boosts Political Satire


Comedian Larry David has emerged this political season as a highlight of "Saturday Night Live" for his impersonation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.


LARRY DAVID: (As Bernie Sanders) I'm the only candidate up here who's not a billionaire. I don't have a superPAC. I don't even have a backpack.


DAVID: (As Bernie Sanders) So who do you want as president - one of these Washington insiders, or a guy who has one pair of clean underwear that he dries on a radiator?


CORNISH: Tomorrow night, Larry David will host "SNL," and there's talk of the real Sanders making a cameo. With primary season officially underway, NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans says we can expect to see late-night comedy shows focus a lot more on the presidential race. He joins me now in the studio to discuss the quality of satire we're already seeing and offer a peek of what's to come.

Hey there, Eric.


CORNISH: Now, aside from one or two sketches, right, Larry David, like we mentioned on "SNL" and a handful of, like, Trump impressions, Hillary Clinton on "SNL" as well, I haven't really seen any satire or bits that not just landed but, like, defined these candidates (laughter), right, in the way we're used to. Is that in my head?

DEGGANS: No, I really don't think it's in your head. I mean, when we talk about a definitive piece of satire, we're talking about an impersonation of a candidate or some kind of comedy bit that really changes how you see that politician or how you see that race. I'm thinking back to the 2000 election when Al Gore really struggled to debate George W. Bush, and Darrell Hammond from "SNL" just really nailed it. Let's listen to that.


DARRELL HAMMOND: (As Al Gore) Rather than squander the surplus on a risky tax cut for the wealthy, I would put it in what I call a lock box.

CORNISH: (Laughter). I don't know why I still find it funny.

DEGGANS: I think I walked around saying lock box for, like, weeks after that.

CORNISH: Yes, you and everyone else.

DEGGANS: (Laughter). So this bit just basically showed how stiff and awkward Gore could be when he was debating. And The New York Times reported that his staff actually sat him down and made him watch that skit so he could understand how badly he was coming across on television. And, you know, you think about Tina Fey and her impersonation of Sarah Palin and how she captured all the things that were sort of absurd and compelling and hilarious about her, and it doesn't feel like we've had that kind of moment yet in this election.

CORNISH: But it's not just about "SNL," right? I mean, there are a lot of news satire shows out there. You've also got "The Daily Show" and Stephen Colbert's "Late Show" on CBS.

DEGGANS: Yeah, yeah, and - well, it seems like a lot of those shows are really in transition right now. I mean, Jon Stewart left "The Daily Show" to Trevor Noah, a new host who's really still trying to find his voice, you know? I don't think they really figured out how to channel his persona as a standup - which is very compelling - into this new format into this show. He did have a great bit comparing Donald Trump to an African dictator, which I liked. And you look at Stephen Colbert. He left Comedy Central to take over David Letterman's "Late Show," and I think he's struggling to find his voice, too. He did have one recent bit that was good where he strung together clips of Donald Trump and he turned it into a debate where Trump kind of contradicted himself. He called it "Trump Versus Trump."


STEPHEN COLBERT: How do you feel about the people of Iowa and your chances with them?


DONALD TRUMP: I love Iowa. We've done really well here.

COLBERT: All right. Fair, fair - very fairly stated. Mr. Trump, your thoughts?


TRUMP: How stupid are the people of Iowa?


DEGGANS: Now, the only problem I have with this bit is that "The Daily Show" kind of did it first - back in 2003 and 2007 with George W. Bush.

CORNISH: Here's the thing. I mean, I think that clip gets at it. how do you outdo Trump, right? Like, is this really the comedian's fault?

DEGGANS: Right. You know, I did a little bit of calling around and I talked to a few writers who work in this industry. They didn't really want their names used, but they did say that that's a valid point. I mean, when the election itself is so crazy and wacky and absurd, it's hard to figure out how to make that funny. I mean, you look at Donald Trump. 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. So let's first listen to Trump actually speaking about his loss in Iowa.


TRUMP: There were 17 people when we started. Now you have 11. I come in second. I'm not humiliated.

DEGGANS: Now here's Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show" doing an impersonation of Donald Trump reacting to his loss in Iowa.


JIMMY FALLON: (As Donald Trump) It's me, Donald J. Trump. I'm here tonight because the people of Iowa have wisely named me the winner and champion of second-place.


CORNISH: Yeah - womp, womp.

DEGGANS: Yeah, not really that different.


CORNISH: OK, please tell me there's still hope, right? There's going to be new material coming from "The Daily Show" alumna John Oliver and Samantha Bee. I'm stoked about this.

DEGGANS: Oh, yeah. So John Oliver's show, "Last Week Tonight," is going to come back on Valentine's Day, and he says he's going to stop ignoring Donald Trump like he has been before in the show. So we're going to see hopefully some great stuff there. Samantha Bee has a new show called "Full Frontal" that's coming to TBS on Monday. And, you know, that promises lots of great opportunity for satire. And it's still a little early in the campaigns. I get the sense that once we're nailed down to a Democratic nominee and a Republican nominee for president, the comics will be able to focus on those two people, and we'll get a better chance that we'll see some really classic satire.

CORNISH: All right, Eric. We'll be watching. Thanks so much.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure.

CORNISH: NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.