Lately, I tune in to CBS's The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to take democracy's pulse.
If Colbert is still there, skewering President Trump and his administration, then all may not be right in the world. But it's still a world I recognize, one where comedians can take pokes at the powerful without losing their livelihoods or their freedom.
I feel the same about NBC's Saturday Night Live, TBS's Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. And while I'm not alone in watching — SNL, Colbert, and Bee have all been enjoying ratings surges — I know not everyone is laughing when Colbert, for instance, counters the president's assertion at last week's news conference that he "inherited a mess," with, "No, you inherited a fortune. We elected a mess."
I hope, though, we can all agree about his right to say it.
"Our elections have some flaws, but they are not rigged. Our human rights record is far from perfect, but it does not compare to [Vladimir] Putin's Russia. Our press is at least currently free enough that I can routinely do this," Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight before launching into a clip reel of some of his past insults of the man who's now president, beginning with "Donald Trump, America's wealthiest hemorrhoid."
But when I'm not being cheered by signs that the First Amendment remains intact, I worry a little about a news-comedy cycle that continues to be overwhelmed by All Things Trump, because I've seen how effective a show like Oliver's has been in bringing attention to under-covered stories. And though Oliver said, only this month, that he didn't want to be totally Trump-centric, his first two shows since returning Feb. 12 have featured main pieces about where the new president gets his news and things he (and we) might not know about Putin. And while these stories are important, so were last season's explorations of the debt-buying industry (in which he paid off about 9,000 people's medical bills) and the Wells Fargo scandal in which customers had new accounts opened in their names without their consent.
When Bee, a former Daily Show correspondent, began Full Frontal a year ago, I was more jazzed about having a woman doing investigative comedy than I was about having a female presence in late-ish night (Bee's weekly show is on at 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays).
"What we want to do is take stories that we don't think receive enough attention and stab them with the hot poker of comedy," Bee told reporters last year, showing a clip from a field piece about the Veterans Administration's apparent unreadiness to deal with women injured in combat — or with women, period. It included an interview with a woman whose prosthetic foot was a shaved-down version of a man's. The clip has had nearly 1.3 million views on YouTube, but the full story didn't make it to the show.
“I loved that story. I think we’re going to try to revive" it, Full Frontal executive producer Jo Miller told me last month when I asked about it. The story was, among other things, a "casualty of the election, where there seemed to be things that were more urgent."
Breaking news changed the show almost from the start, she said, starting with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia a few days after Full Frontal premiered, and they had to throw out a piece they'd prepared.
Fans quickly began to look forward, too, to Bee's rapid-fire opening-monologue rants, "and I do feel a responsibility to provide that," Miller said. But she's also envious of what her former Daily Show colleagues, Oliver and Full Frontal showrunner Tim Carvell, are able to do with their longer pieces.
"We have to do things in seven-minute segments" because of commercial breaks. "So we have evolved just an unconscious way of selecting stories that can be told in seven minutes. As long as Sam talks fast. And as long as we cut out every other word."
No one expected news to stop, but "we really were looking forward to doing more evergreen [stories] after the election of Hillary Clinton. That would have been nice," Miller said.
Not that Clinton, she said, would have gotten a pass: "We had a whole list of things to go after her for."