Donald Trump loyalists who claim their idol is still the real president are getting support from an unlikely source — the late night TV talk show hosts. No, Hollywood hasn’t gone QAnon. But in the past, a first-year president has usually been the primary target of TV’s comedians. Their material is typically a reliable indicator of who is the Newsmaker in Chief. This year, however, Inauguration Day came and went, and the Trump jokes just kept on coming.
The continuing focus on the former president is evident from the material featured on two popular late-night talk shows, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on NBC and “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” on CBS. During Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, Mr. Colbert and Mr. Fallon together featured more than twice as many jokes about the previous POTUS (349) than they did about his successor (158), according to our analysis.
As usual, the Trump-centric pattern was most obvious in Mr. Colbert’s monologues, which zinged the ex-president nearly four times as often as the incumbent (228 to 60). But even Mr. Fallon, who was once derided by his peers for doing a soft interview in which he tousled Mr. Trump’s hair, told 121 Donald Trump jokes compared to 98 about Joe Biden.
Moreover, the Trump jokes were more derisive, attacking both his policies and personal characteristics; whereas jokes about Mr. Biden lacked the sharp edge that the comedians reserved for Mr. Trump. As Mr. Colbert said of Mr. Trump on Inauguration Day: “Perhaps the most potent symbolism for this inauguration was the guy who had to disinfect the podium after every speaker. His whole gig was wiping away a disease, much like the voters did.”
In contrast, here’s Mr. Fallon talking about Biden on April 4: “President Biden said that he wants states to open up vaccines to all adults by April 19th, nearly two weeks sooner than his initial goal, or as Biden calls it, ‘operation early bird special.’”
Whatever the comedians really think about Mr. Trump, their material rests at least partly on market forces. Mr. Fallon’s less critical treatment has been bad for business, as the show has lost its ratings lead and now consistently lags behind Mr. Colbert’s show, with his harsher treatment of Mr. Trump. The Tonight Show, which dominated late-night for decades, is now struggling to keep pace with “Gutfeld!,” the new Fox News late-night comedy offering.
Of course, for Mr. Trump, things could be worse — and they have been, as we noted in our book, “Late Night with Trump: Political Humor and the American Presidency.” The two comics offered more mockery of Mr. Trump during his own first 100 days as president in 2017 than they did in his first 100 days as a former president, with Mr. Colbert and Mr. Fallon combining for over 20% more jokes — 426 in all — four years ago.
Mr. Trump also faced a pummeling during the 2020 general election, when an astonishing 70% of jokes about the presidential election targeted Mr. Trump, while only 2% were aimed at Mr. Biden. (Nearly all the remaining election-related jokes last fall focused on Mr. Trump’s family or members of his administration).
Mr. Trump is not the first former president to overshadow his successor in late-night comedy monologues. In 2001, former President Bill Clinton received more late-night mockery than did new President George W. Bush. The still newsworthy Clinton-Lewinsky scandal offered more opportunity for barbs than did Mr. Bush’s first year in office, a significant part of which was shaped by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Mr. Biden’s largely policy-focused and gaffe-free start in office has made him a poor comedy target so far, particularly when compared to his aggressive, fact-challenged predecessor. Even if Mr. Biden returns to his history of verbal missteps, Mr. Trump’s apparent interest in retaining the spotlight — and perhaps in returning to the presidency in 2024 — means that reigning king of late-night mockery will not be dethroned anytime soon.
Stephen J. Farnsworth (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. S. Robert Lichter (email@example.com) is professor of communication at George Mason University, where Farah Latif (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) recently completed her Ph.D. in communication. Mr. Farnsworth and Mr. Lichter are co-authors of “Late Night with Trump: Political Humor and the American Presidency” (Routledge, 2020).