Second Take: Late-night hosts differ in treatment of political, sensitive issues

Friday the 13th proved to be an unfortunate day for James Corden.

The host of “The Late Late Show” came under fire for jokes he made about Harvey Weinstein during a charity gala speech on Oct. 13. Corden began by talking about how beautiful the night was, “so beautiful, that (Weinstein) has already asked tonight up to his hotel to give him a massage.”

It only went downhill from there, with Corden joking about Weinstein’s tendency to ask women to watch him shower and the Hollywood mogul’s penchant for ejaculating into potted plants. Many, such as Weinstein’s sexual assault victim Asia Argento, deemed the joke shameful and criticized it for belittling and normalizing rape culture.

Corden’s ill-received comments are indicative of a trend challenging television hosts – the increasing politicization of the late-night landscape. From Seth Meyers’s razor-sharp “A Closer Look” segments on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in which he analyzes a topic for about ten minutes with searing detail, to Jimmy Kimmel’s impassioned monologues about the Affordable Care Act on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” more late-night hosts are incorporating current events into their shows in a nuanced way that keeps the shows relevant.

But other hosts, like Corden and Jimmy Fallon, choose to keep their shows lighter rather than tackling more compelling and relevant subject matter in an appropriate way. When they do address political issues, they typically do so through soft jokes without any serious discussion.

This isn’t Corden’s first brush with online outrage. After Sean Spicer’s Emmys cameo, Corden was photographed kissing the former White House press secretary on the cheek, a move that drew ire from viewers who felt Corden was giving a free pass to a divisive and damaging figure in politics.

The move also drew comparisons to Jimmy Fallon’s infamous interview with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump nearly a year ago, in which Fallon ruffled Trump’s hair and peppered him with softball questions about things like Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin. The public was swift to critique Fallon for not holding Trump accountable when he had the chance, and Fallon’s ratings suffered in the weeks following the interview.

Fallon remains the king of late-night with consistently high ratings – his brand of banal comedy is universal and unifying. However, it’s clear there are consequences to making light of political coverage, an important reason why hosts need to consider the messages they are putting out.

After Corden’s comments at the gala, he folded the Weinstein controversy into a monologue about events of the week, highlighting Senator Bob Corker’s criticism of Trump as well as Weinstein’s firing from his production company. The jokes were neither wildly offensive nor particularly funny and for the rest of the show, Corden left Weinstein and his transgressions alone. Perhaps the softer jokes work better within the context of Corden’s format, but in light of his comments, it didn’t feel like he adequately took Weinstein to task.

Meyers, on the other hand, dedicated a fair portion of time to Weinstein throughout the week’s episodes. In one episode, Meyers brought out a trio of the show’s female writers to discuss the allegations. The discussion wove together seriousness with moments of levity, like a sketch that showed female writers spitting out their drinks as they read Weinstein’s attempted apology.

Meyers wasn’t finished with Weinstein, though. A few days later, the host dedicated one of his topical 10-minute “A Closer Look” segments to examining systematic sexism, as exemplified by Weinstein and Trump.

The segment was sprinkled with jokes, but Meyers ended with an impassioned plea to recognize the pervasive systematic difficulties women face. The segment featured Meyers in his element – offering sharp-witted barbs delivered with a genuine anger, something that has always helped his segments land so well. Meyers’s approach felt comprehensive and appropriate, and elevated his show’s relevance.

It’s worth noting that Meyers and Corden’s shows air at the same time, and thus compete for the same viewers. This week, Meyers came out on top, while Corden’s ratings took a hit – perhaps Meyers’s hard-hitting approach to political issues resonated more than Corden’s jokes about the same topic.

The schism in late-night television is apparent and has been widening as shows and hosts struggle to navigate the divide. Meyers has emerged as a clear leader in how late-night hosts approach political topics, with hosts like Kimmel and Stephen Colbert following closely behind. Corden and Fallon make up the other side of decidedly middle-of-the-road hosts that refrain from taking a hard stance while discussing political issues on their shows.

But in light of the constant turmoil surrounding us, it is hosts like Meyers who resonate with viewers by capturing the stunned disbelief and righteous fury many feel in such charged times.