The Politics of Comedy: Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers
Politics is a dirty, nasty business. Maybe that is why comedians find it so funny.
Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers have carved out a cultural niche with sharp insight, obtuse comedy and nuanced satire.
If it were easy, anyone could do it.
This past April, Jimmy Fallon—the host of NBC’s Late Night and one of the most dexterous impressionists on TV—took his cameras from New York to Chapel Hill to rendezvous with a top-secret collaborator. The show would be filmed onstage at the University of North Carolina, before a live local audience: a boon for Fallon, who counts college students heavily among his viewership. And the news that week—stories about Metta World Peace, a Minnesota artist trying to sell a nude painting of Mitt Romney, and a Florida hunter who mistook his girlfriend for a feral hog—was as much as a comedian could hope for. The nerve-racking part was the guest. For days, Fallon and his staff had been preparing for a figure so influential he could not be directly identified. “Our code name around the office,” Fallon told me recently, “was Bieber.”
On April 24, “Bieber” went live. Fallon ran his monologue on the UNC stage, folding in a couple of site-specific lines (“Duke sucks!”). The crowd, packed and eager, leaped to every punch line. Then the big moment came. “You might have seen this in the news, but President Obama has asked Congress to stop the interest rates on Stafford student loans from going up this summer,” Fallon said. “I want to slow-jam the news—and I’m not the only one.” The rear curtains of the stage swept open, and President Obama strode out, one hand waving high to greet the college audience.
In “slow-jamming the news,” an occasional feature on Fallon’s show, a guest expounds news items to a sultry R&B beat, and Fallon chimes in with singy interjections. (“Really as Barry White as you can get,” he explains.) As the show’s band, the Roots, struck up a groove, Obama started in: “On July 1 of this year, the interest rates on Stafford student loans, the same loans that many of you use to help pay for college, are set to double. That means some hardworking students will be paying about a thousand dollars extra just to get their education. So I’ve called on Congress to prevent this from happening.”
“Awwwww, yeah,” Fallon purred into his microphone, making bedroom eyes at the camera. “Things were heatin’ up inside Congress’s chambers, behind all those closed doors. So the president made a few discreet calls across the aisle. He said, ‘Hey. Let’s get together on this one.’ ” The crowd went wild.
In late June, to Fallon’s astonishment, Congress approved the bill to keep Stafford-loan interest rates from rising. “We were shaking at the morning meeting,” Fallon says. “Everyone had their coffees, and we’re like, ‘Dude! Did you see this? It happened! This is crazy—the slow jam worked!’ “