This was by far the most unstable year for late night television with the absence of The Colbert Report, Jon Stewart’s retirement, the end of Key & Peele, Colbert’s move to CBS, Larry Wilmore’s new show, and Trevor Noah’s new take on an established favorite. But despite the wistful longing many late night fans certainly felt at the loss of their most reliable sources of satire, hosts like Seth Meyers and John Oliver arose to fill the void, Larry Wilmore brought race relations to the forefront of late night, and Amy Schumer’s sketch show challenged stereotypes left and right. As a result, 2015 turned out to be a pretty good year, after all, for political and social satire. I’ve chosen one segment from each of the ten major satirical shows to represent the best this year had to offer.
10. The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore â€“ “Goodnight Slavery”
No one in late night has tackled the subject of race relations more often and more extensively than Larry Wilmore, so it is no surprise that he is at his best when discussing the problems of race in America. In November, Larry Wilmore scorned the Texas Board of Education for legislation that whitewashes American history books to downplay slavery and segregation. The laws, which were passed in 2010, have just gone into effect and alter the history books to downplay things like the KKK, Jim Crow laws, and the slave trade, which will now be referred to as the “Atlantic Triangular Trade.” Larry remembers the triangular trade. “That’s when America trapped a surplus of triangles, and the triangles helped build this nation, and in turn, received separate but equilateral treatment.” Texas further passed laws that would not let academics fact check books. So, Larry took things into his own hands, and read a book to a group of elementary students about the reality of the slave trade and the plot to cover it up, called “Goodnight Slavery.”
9. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah â€“ “Donald Trump: America’s African President”
In perhaps his best and most creative Daily Show segment so far, Trevor Noah used a quality many looked forward to seeing from him after it was announced he would take over the show: his international perspective. Trevor put it on full display in this episode as he made a convincing argument that Donald Trump was, in fact, an African president. Noah led the comparison by using that great satirical device, analogy, while simply letting, as usual, the video clips make the point for him. Trevor played clip after clip of Trump saying something asinine or exerting his braggadocio over a rapt populace, then paired that clip with a clip of an African dictator like Idi Amin or Moammar Gadhafi saying almost the exact same thing, often in eerily similar terms. The power of this comparison is not in the recurring self-parody of Donald Trump, but in the implications it bears for those who blindly support everything he does.
8. Saturday Night Live â€“ “Meet Your Second Wife!”
The satirical highlight of Saturday Night Live this year was not a presidential parody. It was a game show, hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, called “Meet Your Second Wife!” in which three men are presented with the girl that will one day be their second wife, as their current wife watches in horror from the audience. Satirizing men who leave their old wives to date younger, hotter women, Tina and Amy presented each man with a girl who was perpetually younger, pushing the idea to the extreme in order to expose the absurdity of the trophy wife clichÃ©.
7. Late Night with Seth Meyers – “A Closer Look at Planned Parenthood”
Seth Meyers became a satirical juggernaut this year. Due to the absence of Colbert for much of the year, and the end of Jon Stewart’s reign as satirical king, a void opened in late night television, and Seth Meyers filled it by moving his monologue behind his desk, and using his recurring “A Closer Look” segment to put his own wry smirk on Daily Show-style satire. One of his best segments this year was his closer look at the Planned Parenthood congressional hearing after the organization’s president, Cecile Richards, was questioned for five hours. Seth was sure to point out not only the absurdity of some of the questions, but the utter defiance of logic shown by the committee in their questions and evidence, logic that it would seem even Donald Trump can understand.
6. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah â€“ “Good Guy with a Gun”
Trevor Noah has had a tough time filling the shoes of the great Jon Stewart, but the one thing that has remained consistent through the transition has been the correspondents, led by Jordan Klepper and Jessica Williams. Klepper has consistently turned in some of the best work the show has to offer as his often tone-deaf, swaggering all-American discussed white privilege, Donald Trump, and police brutality. But none has been as solid as this segment on guns. In the segment, split into two parts across the commercial break to more fully examine the issue (see Part 2 below), Jordan Klepper sought to find out what it would take to stop a bad guy with a gun by trying to become a good guy with a gun. As Klepper discovered all too easily, the key to becoming a good guy with a gun is to take a lot more than just the eight hours of training it takes to get a permit in most states.
5. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert â€“ “The Hungry for Power Games: Chafee-ng Fire”
Colbert’s use of Hunger Games references to discuss the presidential race has been a highlight of the show, mainly because the tribute metaphor works so perfectly to describe the crowded Republican field. In October, though, it was the Democrats on the chopping block as Stephen donned his bright blue Flickerman wig and paid tribute to the recently lost candidates, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb. With the news that Jim Webb dropped out, Stephen said, “I’m sure that’ll come as a disappointment to his supporter,” and regarding the end of Chafee’s run, Stephen thought it a shame, because “this tribute had all the charisma of the logs he was named for.” But Stephen’s parody was just getting started when he received a surprise visit from Caesar Flickerman himself, Stanley Tucci, who got real with Stephen about what it means to play a larger-than-life television host, something Colbert apparently knows nothing about.
4. Key & Peele â€“ “Negrotown”
This year marked the end of Key & Peele, but segments like this will live on for anyone who witnessed their special brand of absurd and racially charged humor. This sketch premiered online months early, then capped off the final episode of the show, giving a perfect summary of everything they represented throughout their five season run: challenging racial and social stereotypes in the most colorful (and off-color) way. In “Negrotown,” a man visits a land without racism that is “a utopia for black people,” where the taxis always stop and you can “wear your hoodie and not get shot.” But of course, it’s only a dream.
3. Inside Amy Schumer â€“ “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer”
Amy Schumer came alive this year. Inside Amy Schumer pushed more boundaries for women than ever before and became for women’s issues what Key & Peele was for racial issues. This “12 Angry Men” parody was the most extensive and well-executed parody this year as the show produced an almost beat for beat remake of the original film, but instead of a young man’s life in the balance, this time the men put Amy Schumer’s beauty on trial. The sketch revolves around a question many internet commenters have asked since her show began: “Is Amy Schumer hot enough to be on TV?” The sketch features such powerhouse actors as Jeff Goldblum and Paul Giamatti as men fighting over whether or not she’s hot enough, and it is presented in black and white to really drive home how outdated the notion is, not only that TV stars should all be beautiful, but that men should be the ones to decide who is and isn’t beautiful.
2. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart â€“ “Mighty Morphin Position Changers”
This year, Jon Stewart shocked late night viewers when he announced he would step down as host of The Daily Show, especially because it seemed far too soon, considering an election year was just around the corner. But despite our disappointment, Stewart didn’t skip a beat and, until the end of his show, continued to do what he did best: expose the folly of the Fox News network by comparing archived clips of anchors contradicting themselves. This segment came after the DOJ released its report on Ferguson, stating that the “Hands up, don’t shoot” story didn’t match up with the evidence, but that the Ferguson police department had a history of widespread, systemic racism. Fox News, however, only latched on to the first half of that report, ignoring the second, and demanding apologies from proponents of “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Stewart used his extensively researched archive of Fox News material to compare the network’s response to Benghazi, saying, “wouldn’t it be nice if people who jumped to conclusions and peddled a false, divisive, anger-stoking narrative had to apologize for misleading America.”
1. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver â€“ “Government Surveillance”
John Oliver has solidified himself as the heir apparent to Jon Stewart’s fury, but he has also become known for his thorough investigative journalism and long segments devoted to a single issue that many would otherwise never discover. In this segment, the focus was more popular, as Oliver discussed government surveillance and the NSA in light of the Edward Snowden leak, but Oliver pushed the boundaries of journalism by traveling to Moscow to sit down for an exclusive interview with Snowden himself. This was no puff piece, either. Oliver asked Snowden some very pointed questions, like “How many of those documents have you actually read?” To which Snowden mumbled, “I do understand what I turned over.” But Oliver pushed further, “There’s a difference between understanding what’s in the documents and reading what’s in the documentsâ€¦because when you’re handing over thousands of NSA documents the last thing you’d want to do is read them.”