Updated Mar 10, 2018 - Politics & Policy

The late-night feast on Trump

A microphone on stage in front of a curtain in the shape of a large red tie

Illustration: Sarah Grillo / Axios

The morning after the Oscars, President Trump tweeted about the broadcast’s low ratings and lack of star power. Hours later, the event's host, Jimmy Kimmel, hit back and his burn picked up 200,000 retweets, capping Trump's second war of words with a comedian in four days.

Why it matters: Trump has cultivated an extraordinarily adversarial relationship with comedians and the late-night TV circuit. Millions tune in to watch normally apolitical broadcast TV networks bury the president on a nightly basis. Late-night hosts have traditionally been equal-opportunity provocateurs, digging in when there's an opening. But under Trump, the incoming has been bitter and unrelenting.

Trump sucks up all the oxygen

Kimmel, whose national profile soared after he delivered personal anecdotes attacking the Republican health care plan in his opening monologues, explained on the Bill Simmons Podcast why it's all Trump, all the time:

"What we always did from the beginning is we talked about what was in the news of the day. And this is what’s in the news of the day every single day. And if in a few years we get a boring president, then it will revert back the other way."

From Sal Iacono, a writer for Kimmel's show:

"When Bush was in office, a lot of people didn’t like him, they didn’t like the way he was handling the country. But we didn’t pound him every day. We’d wait until he ran into a door at the end of the week or something, and we’d make a big deal out of it. This guy is 5 tweets in before we wake up. We have to address it."

He doesn't laugh at himself and he takes the bait

Trump's self-seriousness and incapacity to see humor in his flaws catalyzes a cycle of ridicule. He doesn't seize the opportunity to disarm his comic predators, and the performers know they can land a shot at a vulnerable target at every turn.

Trump has proven an attentive audience. He's tweeted about Alec Baldwin three times over the SNL impression. He's sent four other tweets attacking the show since his campaign launched. Before taking office, he'd gone after Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Seth Meyers. In October, he criticized the late-night circuit as a whole.

The comedians are lefties

The hosts make no secret about their liberal leanings. Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah and James Corden have all had viral moments for their anti-Trump riffs — over both behavior and ideology.

Even Jimmy Fallon, who has been scorned by the left for playing nice with Trump, unleashed a biting critique of the president in a recent Bob Dylan cover song.

Spurning the criticism that comedians should leave politics to the serious people, comedians have dug in their heels and become de-facto members of #TheResistance, and the networks don't appear to have a problem with it. Seth Meyers said on Pod Save America that “NBC was really supportive of the move to more politics. Never heard a word from them about anything when we’ve talked about politics on the show.”

It's been an abnormal presidency

This is no time, the comedians argue, to abandon principle in order to accommodate both sides. Said Samantha Bee in an interview with The Guardian:

"For me it feels very necessary to do this show right now. This isn’t the world I thought we’d be living in when I got the opportunity to do a show. We just happen to be watching a very fraught history unfold – there’s no predictability now.
"In no way did I think that he would just defy our norms at this level, at this speed with such abandon."
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