Political comedy isn’t easy in the Trump era. For “Late Night With Seth Meyers” writers, the process to come up with nightly jokes is already intense — or as Ally Hord describes it, “a masterclass in failure” — but the unpredictability of the Trump administration has exacerbated it tenfold.
“Since Trump became president, he breaks a lot of news at like 6:15 p.m., so sometimes we have a late, late, late deadline right before the show so Seth can get in that one last joke about how [Trump] fired 30 people,” Hord said at a Paley Center for Media panel for the show in New York Tuesday.
The current political climate has changed their dynamic in other ways, too. The day Alabama passed the nation’s strictest abortion law, Karen Chee vividly recalls “waking up feeling like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t have control over my own body.’” She and the other women in the writers’ room found themselves texting on the way to work, already reaching for ways to process the event.
“We were all angry, but we were also like, ‘Yeah, I’ll put some jokes on the Google Doc.’ ‘Yeah, I’ll read your jokes,’” she said. “It felt very therapeutic on what was otherwise a really dark day.” By the time Meyers asked if they wanted to write on the ban, they had already finished two full scripts.
“Since the election, we’ve had so much rage and anger that you don’t know what to do with it,” Hord added, noting the significance of having “a platform where you can sublimate it into something that gets a few laughs and hopefully helps women who are watching take a breath.”
From the Women’s March to the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Hord said, the show has allowed them “to come out and speak our minds and find an angle that’s funny. I really appreciated that, because it’s helped stop me from drinking a bottle of red wine every night.”
When Jenny Hagel first pitched “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” Meyers told Variety, “it was the closest to an audible gasp that we’ve had on ‘Late Night.’ It’s such a clean comedy idea, and it makes so much sense right away — the idea that there are jokes that wouldn’t work if I said them, and yet they’re as good as the ones I can say. It was just such a smart way to minimize waste. Like opening a recycling plant.
His staffers’ insights have also proven invaluable outside of recurring segments and the nightly monologue: He’s learned to trust them “not just in what they write for us, but also in the other writers they bring to us,” he said.
For example, Hagel came to “Late Night” with the backing of Amber Ruffin, who was already on staff.
“I didn’t have an agent, and in my experience, it’s a lot harder for women to get agents than men,” Hagel said. “When women and people of color create networks to help each other out, that tends to lead to those jobs more, whereas the traditional channels are more open to straight white men.”
It was this sense of solidarity that prompted Hagel, Ruffin and Hord to take Chee under their wing when they first met while writing for the Golden Globes.
“I think if you’re a woman who works in comedy, you’ve been the only one in the room,” said Hagel. “You know that feeling of, ‘Oh, I don’t think she knows anybody else here.’ And so, I think we made a point to be like, ‘Oh, we have this assignment, do you want to write with us?’”
Having more women in the room also emboldens them to take risks they might not have otherwise, as they’re in constant contact across email threads and group texts, which they use to test-drive new material.
“Sometimes we’ll throw a joke out, and we can respond like, ‘That’s not too far; that’s great,’” Hord said. “It definitely feels good because someone in the room will get it. I’ll feel heard no matter what.”