On September 22, seven popular late-night talk shows put out one massive climate change awareness special. After Hurricane Ida, a rash of “unprecedented” Western fires, biblical proliferation of blood-sucking pests, fatal heatwaves, and an IPCC report that essentially says, “we’ll be lucky if we keep things to a merely challenging degree of warming” — this effort seems a bit like closing the stable door after the proverbial horse is 400 miles away.
The “late” of late-night TV would seem to extend beyond its broadcast time to the timeliness of its subject matter.
Steve Bodow, the executive producer of this evening of entertainment, told CBS News that “laughing at a problem can help make the problem seem less intimidating — maybe even more solvable.” That is one approach. But is “less intimidating” the most helpful way to see the colossally complex project of evading planetary demise? You can’t really put bunny ears on it and pat it on the head.
One might also ask — and with reason — who is this for? Well, let’s start with numbers. A late-night talk show host in 2021 can expect an audience of around 3 million per episode, if you’re Stephen Colbert, or down to 1 million, if you’re James Corden. In comparison, 19.8 million people watched Sunday Night Football this week, 6.7 million tuned into Judge Judy (who yes, is still recording new episodes), and 3.8 million listened to Tucker Carlson’s thoughts.
Optimists may argue that if this production causes even one person to vote, donate, shop, march, or change their lives in some way for the climate cause, it will have been worthwhile. Sure. But this is hardly the first comedy special devoted to climate change — Grist has even hosted its fair share of them over the years. Why do we keep trying to inspire activism and civic engagement with jokes and songs? At this point in time, is any approach as effective as simply observing what’s going on in the world?
In an attempt to answer that burning question, we ignored our bedtimes, signed up for live TV trials, and watched all the shows. Here they are, ranked:
“Jimmy Kimmel Live” (ABC)
Jimmy Kimmel actually managed to draw humor from our shared sense of dread over impending planetary catastrophe, and how ill-prepared we are to address it. There is absurdity enough, for example, in a plan from the fossil fuel industry to refreeze parts of the Arctic so that drilling operations can continue unimpeded.
Kimmel had a group of scientists (truly, “not actors”) address the audience to illustrate the direness of the situation. “We’re mostly f*cked,” they said. “We really hate to say this, but we told you so,” adding that only urgent action within the next five years can save us. Kimmel’s main guest, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, reiterated that message in slightly different words. She called for viewers to talk more about climate change, and gave tips on how to engage with conservative Uncle Ernie, who thinks climate change is caused by “natural cycles.”
This is all well-trod territory for even the vaguely climate-aware, but Kimmel managed to make light of the climate crisis without trivializing it. “We’re not gonna vegan or Prius our way out of this,” he said, urging lawmakers to get behind multitrillion-dollar spending plans to transform the nation’s economy. For a climate-uninitiated viewer, that combo made an effective case for climate action — and made a “great unf*ckening” all the more appealing.
“Late Night With Seth Meyers” (NBC)
Meyers’ “Closer Look” segment made a compelling case for climate change being both here and serious, the urgency of a clean energy transition (bonus! It’s affordable too), and the criminal absurdity of the fossil fuel lobbying apparatus’ continued influence over climate policy. “How is it acceptable that the guy writing our climate policy personally profits from coal?” he demanded, with regard to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.
This segment was effective because it was primarily a news montage. Burning highways, flooding subways, and an irate Bernie Sanders all make for a pretty clear picture of the situation. I am happy to get my information about climate change sans an “updated” reinterpretation of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a torturous bit about New Jersey tornadoes involving accents from the Sopranos, and quips about kayaks in the MTA, all delivered to an airless room. It is safe to say that the Saturday Night Live schtick does not work for climate jokes, if we are to call them jokes.
Meyers also interviewed John Kerry, whom he used to play on Saturday Night Live. Kerry argued that young people should be “hopeful and optimistic” and that the “private sector is stepping up.” Alright! Then we heard a brief debate on whether Meyers should purchase a bidet, for the environment.
“Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” (TBS)
Samantha Bee made it clear that she thinks climate change is the defining problem of our time — but that she, like many Americans, doesn’t really want to talk about it. (She joked that she “bit the writer” who pitched the subject matter.)
Bee’s six-minute segment focused on the country’s aging sewage infrastructure, which now overflows with each 100-year flood and hurricane — storms that lately seem to come every couple of years. She explicitly mentioned how these infrastructure problems disproportionately impact communities of color. Yet the segment was strangely apolitical for a show that is mostly political satire.
Bee, like so many before her, pointed to individual behavior as an important part of the problem — the same route she took in last week’s episode about emissions from food waste: “We have to stop flushing our non-shit shit,” she urged the audience. Keeping baby wipes out of the sewers really seems to miss an opportunity to discuss concrete policy changes that could actually, you know, fix the infrastructure crisis and protect us from floods.
This all echoed Bee’s past approach to climate issues: It’s a real chore to talk about this boring, complicated, depressing, or unappetizing stuff, but we have to. Perhaps that was true four years ago, when the show ran its first climate-focused segment. But now, over half of Americans believe urgent climate action is needed, climate change is very much here and not all that dull, and it’s not really clear who Bee is talking to.
“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” (CBS)
The Late Show opened with a fake commercial for “buzzkill condoms,” each package containing a “stark global warming fact” intended to kill any desire to bring a child into the world. It was a surprisingly dark and weighty start to an otherwise thin survey of the issue, and possibly the only part of the show that will leave a lasting impression.
Colbert spouted off recent climate headlines, covering the lack of action from pretty much every country in the world, and the United Nations’ warning of catastrophe without stronger commitments to cut emissions. He appealed to the smallest domestic pleasures, citing the climate threats to pasta and the carbon footprint of pet food.
In a later segment, Colbert conceded that individual action was insufficient — government regulation was necessary — but stopped short of saying what that meant. The only solution he highlighted was the invention of the “whitest paint,” which could reduce the need for air conditioning.
He repeatedly joked about the futility of celebrities talking about issues like COVID-19 and climate, essentially mocking the whole purpose of the night. But at one point, Colbert almost took his task seriously, noting that it is older Americans who need to be convinced to tackle climate change. “What better place to do that than CBS?” he said.
Unfortunately, his special guest was 23-year-old pop singer Shawn Mendes. I’d be surprised if anyone got much out of Mendes’ sage remarks such as, “The info is out there” about “what we can do.”
“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” (ABC)
I am sorry, really, that Jane Goodall was the focus of Jimmy Fallon’s tepid segment on climate change. Goodall, a repeat guest, came on to promote her “Trees for Jane” campaign, which aims to plant a trillion trees over the next decade. But she also spent a couple of minutes explaining to Fallon how forests sequester carbon, protect biodiversity, and balance the climate while he nodded along and offered, “Trees can make you happier, as well.”
Then our host pulled the saddest little potted ponderosa you’ve ever seen from under his desk and announced, beaming, that the Tonight Show will plant one tree for Jane.
That was climate change’s big moment on the Tonight Show, and the following segment, an interview with the actress Margaret Qualley, spent the equivalent amount of time talking about her failure to furnish her apartment. But with regard to our species’ survival of climate change, Fallon has faith! He has hope.
“The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” (Comedy Central)
In his opening remarks, Daily Show host Trevor Noah acknowledged that everyone already knows the direst effects of climate change. So he pivoted, instead delivering a roundup of trivial climate impacts: sea turtles threatened by lack of male progeny, unappetizing espresso, hotter weather discouraging sex. A bizarre segment from correspondent Michael Kosta explored California’s drought through the lens of “dousers,” people who say they can find water by sensing mysterious currents in the air.
A Zoom interview with the renowned teen activist Greta Thunberg was the show’s least comedic but strongest segment. In contrast to Noah’s weirdly off-the-mark global warming factoids, Thunberg reminded viewers that world leaders aren’t treating climate change like an emergency, despite their apparent capacity to do so, given their rapid and well-funded responses to COVID-19.
Noah’s show missed so many opportunities to ridicule the actual perpetrators of the problem. The focus on small impacts of climate change over systemic ones just felt… not funny. Jokes about the changing flavor of coffee and wine — “we’ll just put more oat milk in both of them” — left a lot to be desired
“The Late Late Show with James Corden” (CBS)
Going into the evening #ClimateNight, James Corden was already dealing with the fallout from a climate joke gone wrong. On Tuesday, he upset fans of the mega-popular Korean pop group BTS by lightly poking fun at its members for their speech about global warming at the United Nations General Assembly. The “BTS army” was not amused, and Corden found himself under attack going into Wednesday night’s show.
Late late #ClimateNight started jointly with Corden and comedian Seth Meyers, whose show airs simultaneously on NBC. The two gave viewers a bicoastal reminder that global warming transcends regions, and urged them to write to their political leaders to demand action. What followed was a short bit about how we’re all in it together, including a quick mention of an 11-year-old Malaysian girl, Maryam Muzamir, who has won several awards for turning seafood shells into a sustainable livestock feed. “When I was a kid I worked at a pizza place called Bella Pasta and I was so concerned about food waste that I would eat some of the leftover slices,” Corden quipped. “Never got an award for it, though.”
But the jokes dried up even further when the show brought on the night’s expert guest, Microsoft multibillionaire-turned-climate-author Bill Gates. Gates awkwardly side-stepped Corden’s invitation to make fun of space-obsessed billionaires, then launched into his usual technophilic spiel about how innovation is key to combating climate change. The combination of the late hour and Gates’ habit of discussing the climate catastrophe as if it were an engineering crisis rather than an existential one made for a flop, especially when Corden ended by asking Gates, “Is it all going to be OK?”
THAT’S ALL, FOLKS
Attempting to organize a group of five young journalists — none of whom has a cable box in their home — to watch the live broadcasts of these shows as they aired was basically as complicated as negotiating the Paris Agreement. These programs are not intended to be viewed in real time by the streaming generations. If you are watching a television program as God intended, via cable box or satellite or antennae at its scheduled broadcast time, odds are that you are older.
That’s maybe not such a big problem in this case. The ideal target for climate awareness is those who know their way around a TV Guide, because that demographic is more likely to have merely tepid concern about climate change or none at all. And they also tend to vote, shop, and donate in greater numbers than the younger crowd. That cohort is hardly representative of those driving the climate activist movement — something that could also be said of our late-night hosts’ in-studio guests, who were overwhelmingly white.
But any thoughtful analysis of this production has to acknowledge that so much of any late-night show episode gets consumed as it is chopped and sold for parts across the internet. We will be bombarded with clips of Seth Meyers doing Billy Joel on Twitter and Instagram and remixed on TikTok for days and weeks to come. Are we to believe that a 90-second humorous jingle will capture the awareness and the conscience of some passive scroller, no matter their age, more so than the news segment on the next hurricane to decimate the Gulf Coast that will pop up next on their feed?
To that end, Olivia Cathcart wrote for Paste Magazine earlier this year: “Why stay up past midnight on a weekday to catch the same jokes you’ve read 100 times on Twitter already? TV is becoming less and less of a suitable medium for late night as we know it.” Perhaps late night — or any talk show television, really — is less and less a suitable medium for climate awareness.
Eve Andrews, Teresa Chin, Emily Pontecorvo, María Paula Rubiano A., and Joseph Winters contributed to this story.