What Late Night Television Says About Media Today

I love this clip. I don’t watch late night television because I don’t find any of them funny. I was excited when Michael Ian Black was competing to take over for Craig Kilborn on CBS but lost interest when Craig Ferguson beat him out. I have however been unusually interested this whole late night fiasco. I think it’s the same reason I’m interested in the effect that comedy shows have had on politics. As I’m sure people have noticed, politicians are far more likely to be taken less seriously. We see this with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but it has been far more apparent in Canadian comedy.

What’s the joke here? Harper is often accused of being cold and antagonistic towards the media (as well as his own cabinet) and in the above video he acts the opposite to this, with an accompanied laugh track so we all know it’s a joke. Nudge nudge wink wink. Oh that Harper! Rick Mercer also took Prime Minister Paul Martin out to Canadian Tire to help him fix his windows and took Jean Chretien out for burgers. What are we to make of this? Isn’t it just another way for politicians to show us that deep down they’re people too and they can goof off and be silly? Isn’t it the equivalent of when Zizek (in the documentary Zizek!) says that he is a monster who plays that he is human? The whole “deep down I’m just like you, I love kittens and chocolate cake” is the utmost of ideology today, the idea that deep down even political monsters (not that Harper is the equivalent of a Hitler or whoever) have these soft sensitive centers. The criticism is appropriated, it’s a joke now. If a politician wants a scandal to go away, they shouldn’t argue against the claims or deny it, they should make a joke in public. Poof! I suppose the joke then is really on us, the joke being that we elected him in the first place.

So what does this have to do with the late night shenanigans of late? All of the late night programs (with the exception of Jimmy Fallon as far as I can tell; he’s just happy to have a job) have been making jokes about the whole thing. What is the consequent of this? A tremendous increase in ratings. These are the highest ratings they’ve seen in a long time! What’s fascinating is that all it took was self-referentiality. Television talking about television. The substance has become identical to the form, with all of the jokes being about television. So the ratings go up. People start “supporting” Conan by watching his show and posting on Twitter that they love him (though clearly not enough to have been watching his show for the past several months). Who wins in this? NBC. NBC wins the day: they have a public feud between Leno and Conan so millions tune in to watch the feud, increasing the ratings of both shows. Yet, the people “supporting” Conan are anti-NBC and are angered by their decision. The whole situation is amazing to me.

What does this self-referentiality ultimately mean for media? For one thing we can expect no change from the establishment. NBC will not claim fault for this whole thing. Why would they? They’ve appropriated the antagonism of the situation and profited from it. Job well done, they’ll say. Leno will go back to his old time slot having once again survived a public battle for late night. In the clip below we can see the end result: jokes will be made, people will laugh, all will be forgotten.

[EDIT: I realize that some background might be helpful. Here is the original announcement about moving the whole NBC lineup and here is Conan’s public letter about the whole thing.]

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