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How Late Night TV Addressed Charlottesville And This Week In Politics


With all the news out of Charlottesville, Va., over the past week, late-night TV shows have stepped up their game to try to help make sense and nonsense of the news. "Saturday Night Live" alum Tina Fey stopped by "SNL's" new weeknight version of "Weekend Update" on Thursday, joking about what would happen if neo-Nazis took to the streets of Manhattan.


TINA FEY: Part of me hopes these neo-Nazis do try it in New York City. Like, I hope they try and get the ham salad kicked out of them by a bunch of drag queens.

BROWN: OMG, that has to be RuPaul, right? Here to talk about how late night and entertainment TV is helping us process all this is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: You can't go wrong with a RuPaul reference, you really can't.

BROWN: No, you can't. I mean, over-the-top?

DEGGANS: Not at all (laughter).

BROWN: Yeah. So Tina Fey, who is actually a graduate of University of Virginia, shared her personal connection to Charlottesville, Eric, but also did a comedic bit which actually went viral but also got some blowback. What happened there?

DEGGANS: Well, she came on and talked about how upset she was to see white supremacists marching through her old college town. And then she suggested, rather than incite violence by physically confronting them, that maybe Americans should just grab a sheet cake and eat it and then say all of the things that are upsetting them about the situation into the sheet cake, which was kind of funny. And she had a lot of great lines. But, you know, I think people criticized her, particularly online, for appearing to suggest that Americans can avoid this violence and stop counterprotesting against the neo-Nazis, which people kind of objected to.

BROWN: With all the news out there, it was a big week, though, for late night to respond. CNN.com had a piece this week saying the late-night shows have morphed into a new form - comedy outreach. Do you agree?

DEGGANS: Well, what I think is going on here is that late-night hosts have always had this weird role on television, which we saw particularly during David Letterman's time on the air. Most of the time, they're just trying to make us laugh. But when important, jarring, really socially important things happen, they also step up, and they help us figure out how to feel about it. And this week, you know, I saw a guy do that who we don't normally associate with that kind of talk - with political talk - Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. He spoke directly to Trump voters. And we've got a clip of it.


JIMMY KIMMEL: It's exciting because this was your guy. You picked a horse at, like, 35 to 1 and somehow it paid off. So now he's the president. So he gets in there, hires his daughter. He hires his son-in-law, demands an investigation of voter fraud even though he won the election.


KIMMEL: He calls the prime...

DEGGANS: Yeah, and this guy, he goes on for two minutes, listing all of these things that Trump did that seemed out of the ordinary that were very peculiar and odd. And Kimmel is this comic who always comes across as kind of an every guy, you know. He pokes a lot at political correctness and people who can't take a joke. So when he turns to a Trump voter and says they should admit deep down that they made a mistake, and they need to accept that Trump should leave office, that feels like something significant.

BROWN: And Kimmel heard from a lot of Trump voters, as well. He actually read some of those tweets the next day. But I can hear folks out there saying this is just entertainment. Is it possible we're expecting too much of TV shows that are mostly trying to get ratings and make people laugh?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, you can ask Sarah Palin how Tina Fey's impression of her, I'd say, kind of crystallized the public image of what she was about in a way that I think still affects her. But, you know, at a time when we've got cable news channels that are supposed to be 24-hour sources of information, devoting so much time to just having televised food fights? I think people need a more fun, less traumatizing way to process the day's events.

BROWN: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thanks, Eric.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LATYRX'S "LADY DON'T TEK NO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.