Jimmy Kimmel deserves credit for frankness, if nothing else. In a recent interview, the ABC late-night host said he doesn’t care about losing Republican viewers.
We’re a long way from Johnny Carson, whose “Tonight Show” was a national institution that enjoyed a broad audience — and was conducted like one. Carson steered clear of politics and kept his views to himself because it would “hurt me as an entertainer, which is what I am.”
Kimmel may be an entertainer, but has no such inhibitions. He uttered what could be the epigraph for our times, saying of viewers who strongly disagree with his political views, “I probably won’t want to have a conversation with them anyway.”
From Carson to Kimmel is the story of the fracturing of media environment that has made niche audiences the coin of the realm. Add an inflamed anti-Trump resistance cheered on by the elite media, and Kimmel kissing off Republicans is probably a good career move.
Stephen Colbert of CBS blazed this particular trail with increasingly over-the-top denunciations of President Donald Trump that vaulted him to the top of the late-night ratings. Jimmy Fallon, the heir to Carson’s “Tonight Show” via Jay Leno, has pointedly declined to make his show the New York Times editorial page with a few jokes attached, and has seen a ratings decline.
It is important to note that these shows are competing for numbers that once would have been considered catastrophic. Carson could pull in 9 million viewers when one of his shows popped; he averaged 19 million viewers a night his final week on air in 1992. Colbert is winning the late-night race with 3 million viewers. This means that all it takes to become a giant of late night is winning over a Rachel Maddow-like audience, exactly Colbert’s strategy.
If this trend is inevitable, it’s not a good thing. It removes yet another neutral zone, free of social and political contention, from American life.
It means that the quality of the comedy on these shows probably goes down (agitprop isn’t funny), while the quality of the political commentary is inevitably poor; Jimmy Kimmel’s wholly ill-informed gun monologue subtracted from the nation’s understanding of the issue, as you’d expect of a comedian who is only paying enough attention to absorb the flimsiest cliches of the gun debate.
As Kimmel’s dismissive comments show, it’s a short step from believing that you don’t need the patronage of the other side to feeling contempt for it. Colbert isn’t trying to convince anyone; he’s scorning and mocking Trump for the benefit of people who already hate him.
It would have been hard to believe that the old, maligned CNN debate program “Crossfire” would appear in retrospect to represent a golden age of a relative commitment to civil, informed political debate, but here we are.
Johnny Carson once said: “I would love to have taken on Billy Graham. But I’m on TV five nights a week; I have nothing to gain by it and everything to lose.” Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, competing for the crown in a much diminished late-night kingdom, beg to differ, and unfortunately, they’re right.
(Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.)
© 2017 by King Features Synd., Inc.