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When Americans watch late-night comedy, the joke’s on Donald Trump

- November 8, 2018

Donald Trump is the most laughed-about politician in any single year in the history of late-night comedy. That’s what we found in our new study of 6,337 jokes during late-night monologues by four leading humorists during Trump’s first year in office: Nearly half (3,128 or 49 percent) took aim at the president.

Here’s how we did our research

The study, which we conducted through the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, examined late-night political jokes aired between Jan. 23, 2017, the Monday after Trump’s inauguration, through Dec. 31, 2017. We examined “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” and “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.”  We tracked the traditional joke formats, also known as “one-liners,” and the longer monologues commonly employed on Comedy Central’s “Daily Show.” (Our next step is to examine the once-a-week comedy programs, including “Saturday Night Live,” “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” and “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver).

Late-night comedians laughed at Trump himself more than at his policies

Many of the jokes that focused on the president referred to policy, but the main target was the president and the administration, not policy itself. Just over half of those first-year jokes mentioned policy, with the greatest number of barbs targeting U.S.-Russia relations, health-care policy and Trump’s on-again off-again bromance with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

More than 90 percent of the jokes about Trump referred to personal matters, such as the president’s physical appearance, his celebrity status, his bluster, his rhetorical inconsistency and his chaos-filled administration.

Colbert, who rose in the ratings as his attacks on Trump intensified, told the most jokes about Trump during 2017, with 1,151 one-liners, making up 46 percent of his political jokes. Fallon did not tell as many jokes about Trump in total, his 690 Trump jokes accounted for 55 percent of his political jokes, tied for first place with Kimmel as the humorist most focused on Trump during the president’s first year.

Trump had already been a comic target as a candidate. Those four hosts told 1,817 jokes about  Trump between Jan. 1 and Nov. 11, 2016, which included both the nomination and the general election campaigns. The 2016 total was the most jokes ever told about a presidential candidate during an election year going back to 1992. Apparently, the only person who can beat candidate Trump — in the late-night humor standings, at least — is President Trump.

To be sure, Trump’s political rise took place during an era of white-hot political comedy. Not so long ago, the late-night comics offered relatively little political fare in their opening monologues. Now, the political zingers are blistering and come rapid-fire from these four prominent hosts.

In 2009, five late-night comedy program hosts — on “The Tonight Show,” “The Late Show,” “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and “Late Night” on NBC — told 936 jokes about President Obama. That’s far fewer jokes about Obama than just one of them — Stephen Colbert — told about Trump in 2017.

Similarly, the total number of first-year presidential jokes told about George W. Bush in 2001 and Bill Clinton in 1993 were fewer still. But then, late night humor was much tamer in those eras.

Late-night humor is becoming more politically prominent

Unfortunately for modern presidents, what happens on late night is not forgotten by the next morning. Major newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post report on the highest-profile jokes and routines, and Americans regularly watch the most popular bits on their computers over the next day or so. Scholarly studies show that late-night political humor is becoming an evermore prominent part of political discourse, and these shows increase political interest among their viewers.

The former star of “The Apprentice” appreciates television’s importance, and he tosses the insults right back at his late-night tormentors via Twitter. His feuds with the hosts, his political troubles and his own larger-than-life appetites make him perfect comic fodder — and so he is likely to dominate the late-night discourse as long as he serves. Being the biggest late-night comedy target ever may not be the brass ring Trump most wanted to grab. But he just doesn’t know how to let go.

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Stephen J. Farnsworth is professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington and is author of “Presidential Communication and Character: White House News Management from Clinton and Cable to Twitter and Trump” (Routledge, 2018).

Robert Lichter is professor of communication at George Mason University, where he directs the Center for Media and Public Affairs, and co-author of “Politics is a Joke! How TV Comedians are Remaking Political Life” (Routledge, 2014).