“I don’t want to talk about Donald Trump every night. None of us do. But he gives us no choice.”
That was Jimmy Kimmel. In March. It’s safe to say he talked about President Trump nearly every night since.
Kimmel’s lament was emblematic of the fact that, in late-night comedy, 2019 was yet another year dominated by Trump’s tweets, gaffes, comments, decisions, hirings, firings and foibles. The Trump Administration so totally dominated late-night monologues and bits, it’s more useful to break up the year into mini-eras of Trump: The Mueller Report era, the whistle-blower era, the ongoing impeachment era.
And even when Trump wasn’t Topic A, politics still was, as more than 20 Democratic hopefuls entered the race to run against him in 2020.
Kimmel’s March complaint was actually prompted by a tweet from Trump agreeing with a former host, Jay Leno, who said in an interview that he found current late-night shows to be “one-sided.”
If Trump “sat in the White House all day quietly working on things, I would almost never mention him, because it’s not interesting,” Kimmel countered in his monologue. “But today — not even today, before 10 a.m. today, before 10 o’clock this morning, his former campaign chairman was sentenced to prison for the second time in a week, he called himself the most successful president in history and he tweeted to let people know his wife hasn’t been replaced with a body double.
“I’m not supposed to mention that?”
Mueller Fails to Excite
The long-awaited Mueller Report was finally released to the public in April, in the form of a heavily redacted 448-page document.
“Political analysts are going to try to read through these redactions like teenage boys trying to watch scrambled porn on cable in 1985.” — JIMMY KIMMEL
Mueller’s report was followed by his highly anticipated testimony in July, which Stephen Colbert called “the Super Bowl of things on C-Span at 8:30 in the morning.” But Mueller’s performance, full of references to “inconclusive” findings and subjects that were “outside my purview,” did not satisfy Trump’s opponents.
“What were you expecting? Did you think Mueller was going to smash through the wall in a monster truck called the DeTrumpulator?” — SETH MEYERS
Mueller was so widely described as boring on the stand, on “The Late Show,” Colbert joked that “he only got 35 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.” But Colbert also said he wasn’t interested in a government who cared about ratings, “because we already have that with Donald Trump.”
And while the president claimed he wouldn’t be watching any part of the hearings, Kimmel pointed out that Trump spent his entire day tweeting about them.
“He tweeted more than 20 times today, capping the tweetstorm off with this: ‘Truth is a force of nature!’ And we all know how much respect he has for nature, so.” — JIMMY KIMMEL
Any Way the Whistle Blows
While interest in the Mueller Report quickly faded, it was soon followed by a whistle-blower complaint with allegations that Trump required a quid pro quo from the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.
In April, late night made one of its earliest mentions of Zelensky, now somewhat of a household name. Conan O’Brien pointed out that the incoming president was a fellow stand-up comedian who’d spent some time on television.
“I looked up their Constitution: The order of succession in Ukraine goes comedian, juggler, magician, then secretary of defense. That’s how it works. After hearing about it, Elizabeth Warren signed up for improv classes.” — CONAN O’BRIEN
“Who would believe Volodymyr Zelensky would be his Monica Lewinsky?” Kimmel later joked of Trump in September, as details of the president’s July call emerged. In his statement, the whistle-blower said several U.S. officials confirmed Trump was hoping Zelensky would “play ball,” and Colbert couldn’t pass up a chance to poke fun.
“[Imitating Trump] ‘O.K., Ukraine. You gotta play ball, O.K.? And I mean let me get to second base, O.K.? Over the bra, under the Constitution.” — STEPHEN COLBERT
With the current impeachment hearings continuing, Trump is sure to be a focus throughout the holiday season, as late-night hosts wait for an opportunity to talk about something and someone else.
The President Would Like a Retraction
In October, Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, demanded Kimmel issue a retraction for suggesting the president was golfing during the Delta Force raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On air, Kimmel admitted he’d been wrong.
“Trump was at one of his golf courses for the 238th time since taking office,” Kimmel said. “But he finished the round, and was back at the White House by 5 o’clock. Whether or not they were waiting for him to finish the round — I imagine Delta Force sitting there in the choppers, locked and loaded going, ‘What hole is he on now?’”
Kimmel then called for Trump to retract “the weird detailed lie” the president shared at a 2018 rally in South Carolina. (Trump claimed Kimmel fawned over him when he appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”)
“And while you’re working on factual accuracy, your boss has now lied in public approximately 14,000 times since he took office,” Kimmel continued, in response to Murtaugh. “He should probably start the retracting and correcting soon because he’s 73.”
The only 2019 rivals to Trump’s screen time were the numerous democratic hopefuls for 2020. Some clear front-runners have emerged, with Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg consistently polling highest, though not necessarily in that order. These politicians prove a little more difficult to imitate than Trump, but it doesn’t mean Jimmy Fallon hasn’t tried on “The Tonight Show.”
“Nowadays, most of you recognize me from the rallying cries of hope and unity that I’ve stirred across the nation. But the rest of you know me from my hit series, ‘The Boy Who Became Mayor,’ only on Disney Channel.” — JIMMY FALLON, impersonating Buttigieg
As the candidates made their rounds on late night, no interviews were more entertaining than Desus and Mero’s. The Showtime co-hosts played basketball with Cory Booker, grilled Senator Sanders on his favorite rappers and challenged Senator Warren, who has a plan for everything, to help them complete an escape room.
Biden offered plenty of fodder for mockery, with his inappropriate touching, frequent gaffes and new campaign slogan: “No malarkey.” The former vice president was also ridiculed for his frequent name-dropping of President Obama.
“[Biden] spent eight years as America’s vice president and surprise masseuse, but before that, he had a whole career that you might not know about. You know, kind of like how some people only know Billy Ray Cyrus from Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ remix. And like Billy Ray, Biden was doing his own thing for decades before he was made cool by a young black man.” — TREVOR NOAH
Late-night shows weren’t entirely focused on presidential politics. For example, in June, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, a pivotal moment in the gay rights movement, inspired plenty of tribute, remote bits and satire. Much of it mocked the commercialization of Pride Month, “the time of the year where we all celebrate the L.G.B.T.Q. community and corporate America celebrates them by selling us, Rainbow Goodyear tires,” Colbert joked. “Yasss, traction!”
Both “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” sent correspondents on the road. In honor of the Stonewall anniversary, Jaboukie Young-White took “The Daily Show” to Pittsburgh’s Pride Parade, looking to find out if companies like Walmart are gay and if “queer capitalism is totally chill.”
In New York, the transgender comic Patti Harrison went to the Stonewall Inn for “Full Frontal,” exploring the history of gay liberation and Pride celebrations, which she joked was started by United Airlines, Citigroup, Postmates, Tesla, YouTube, Android and the Trump campaign.
In 2018, Harrison and the comic Julio Torres satirically pitched the idea of Straight Pride on “The Tonight Show,” and this year, someone actually followed through. A Boston-based group called Super Happy Fun America launched its own Straight Pride Parade this summer. “It’s so troll-y!” Trevor Noah said. “Especially a straight parade in Boston. The city has had six Super Bowl parades. What do you think that is?”
“If you’re wondering the difference between the Gay Pride Parade and the Straight Pride Parade, the Gay Pride Parade will have women at it.” — STEPHEN COLBERT
When Hosts Attack … Each Other
The mockery got intramural in September, when “The Late Late Show” host James Corden, best known for his star-studded “Carpool Karaoke” and “Crosswalk the Musical” segments, criticized Bill Maher for his comments about fat shaming on “Real Time with Bill Maher.” (Maher insinuated that overweight people should be shamed into losing weight.)
“So I sat at home, and I’m watching this and all I could think as I was watching was, ‘Oh man, somebody needs to say something about this,’” Corden said. “‘If only there was someone with a platform who knew what it was actually like to be overweight’ … and then I realized, ‘Aah, that will be me.’”
Corden, who follows Colbert on CBS, acknowledged that he and Maher, who shares HBO with John Oliver, have a lot in common — “We both host the second most popular talk shows on our network” — and that Maher has always been kind to him in person. But as for Maher’s comments about how overweight men cannot see their own nether regions, Corden responded: “Believe me, I can see a [expletive].”
“Bill, please hear me when I say this,” Corden said in conclusion. “While you’re encouraging people to think about what goes into their mouths, just think a little harder about what comes out of yours.”
The Best of the Rest
Some of the most memorable sketches of 2019 had nothing to do with Trump, particularly a few built around celebrity stunts. Exhibit A: the enviable “Day Drinking with Rihanna” on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
Brad Pitt and Fallon just couldn’t stop showing each other their gratitude in “Courtesy of the Gentleman at the Bar.”
Finally, a fictional political era — one that seemed comparatively less outlandish by the week — came to an end this year when HBO’s “Veep” wrapped up its seven-season run in May. Colbert offered a fitting send-off, hosting a very special crossover episode on “The Late Show.”
The bit featured some of beloved stars of “Veep,” including, of course President Selina Meyer, who laughed off Colbert’s suggestion that their actions had real-world consequences.
“Foul-mouthed president who tweets like a child. Blaming everything on the Chinese. Election interference. A completely moronic press secretary,” Colbert says. “Anti-daylight savings time laws, 700 measles cases and rising. You are killing my world!”
Meyer’s rather Trump-like response hit below the belt: “Another 85 pounds of generic white male mediocrity that shops at the lesbian warehouse.”
“Seriously,” she added, “you look like Letterman took the least funny dump of his life into a child suit.”