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 CBS and “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” on NBC. During Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, Colbert and 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 Colbert’s monologues, which zinged the ex-president nearly four times as often as the incumbent (228 to 60). But even Fallon, who was once derided by his peers for doing a soft interview in which he tousled Trump’s hair, told 121 Trump jokes compared with 98 about Biden.
Moreover, the Trump jokes were more derisive, attacking both his policies and personal characteristics, whereas jokes about Biden lacked the sharp edge that the comedians reserved for Trump. As Colbert said of 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 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 Trump, their material rests at least partly on market forces. Fallon’s less critical treatment has been bad for business, as the show has lost its ratings lead and now consistently lags behind Colbert’s show, with his harsher treatment of 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 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 Trump during his own first 100 days as president in 2017 than they did in his first 100 days as a former president, with Colbert and Fallon combining for over 20 percent more jokes — 426 in all — four years ago.
Trump also faced a pummeling during the 2020 general election, when an astonishing 70 percent of jokes about the presidential election targeted Trump, while only 2 percent were aimed at Biden. (Nearly all the remaining election-related jokes last fall focused on Trump’s family or members of his administration).
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 Biden returns to his history of verbal missteps, 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 is professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. S. Robert Lichter is professor of communication at George Mason University, where Farah Latif recently completed her Ph.D. in communication. Farnsworth and Lichter are co-authors of “Late Night with Trump: Political Humor and the American Presidency” (Routledge, 2020).