On Wednesday night, the country’s Funniest People™ will deign to make jokes about the climate crisis for a full night of hilarity. Seven late-night shows across five networks hosted by James Corden, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, and Samantha Bee are teaming up to feature climate change on their shows in honour of Climate Week, in what Dateline calls “a rare show of unity across the genre.”
Raising awareness, you see, is important, and this will definitely make up for them largely ignoring climate change for all the other nights of the year. I haven’t seen or heard any of the jokes or sketches in advance, and we’ll see what these folks come up with. Maybe they’ll be incredible! But the issue here is not how good or bad the laugh lines are. No, it’s the idea that devoting one night to covering climate makes up for the fact that these shows have largely ignored the biggest story on Earth for years.
I’m also, honestly, a little sceptical about the quality of the jokes. Dateline gave us a delicious preview of what’s in store for us:
“I don’t want to die,” said Kimmel.
“In the interest of recycling, please use whatever Jimmy Kimmel said,” said Fallon.
“I’m thrilled to participate in Climate Night,” said Bee. “But maybe we should move it up a few days? Just because, you know, it’s urgent?”
“I’m proud to dedicate one entire night of my show to the climate, so I can say I wasn’t part of the problem, I was 1/365th of the solution,” said Colbert.
Well, at least Colbert said what we’re all thinking.
People often use the fact that climate change is all-encompassingly depressing as a reason not to talk about it, let alone crack jokes. The idea that climate is so deeply unfunny that it can only be approached on one night and then forgotten the rest of the year is, however, just wildly wrong and lazy. There are people doing climate comedy, and doing it well, all over the internet. I spent about five minutes thinking about funny or joke-worthy stuff we’ve published on this very site and came up with a lot of possible fodder for the late-night TV writers’ rooms. If you’ll allow me a brief but non-exhaustive list of comedic genius waiting to be mined on late-night TV:
- The CEO behind the Dakota Access Pipeline saying that talking about the pipeline is “like talking about my son” because he’s “just so proud of it” (lmao).
- ExxonMobil got its arse handed to it by shareholders (and elected a new board member who refers to himself as a “space cowboy”).
- Rich people (many of them Democrats) trying to sue a wind project out of existence simply because it ruins the view from their mansions.
- Chevron trying to be ~super queer~ during Pride.
- The Bachelor using water resources in a megadrought to create a cheesy romantic moment between two deeply underwhelming straight white people.
- Utilities reading mean tweets about themselves (hey, that’s even a segment already!).
The comedians who will be doing the standup thing of confronting our planetary crisis on Wednesday night have raked in millions of dollars over the past five years making nonstop jokes about Donald Trump. The former president is an incredibly easy target, and in many respects, the jokes simply write themselves. But the Trump administration was one of the most deeply unfunny moments in American history.
We saw an open white supremacist elected to the highest office in the nation, Republicans blithely endorse fascism while allowing corporations to rake in billions, and a disastrous, politicized response to a pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands. All that was capped by a deadly insurrection that saw a literal gallows erected outside the Capitol. If late-night comedy writers could create comedic gold out of all that and more, climate change jokes should be pretty doable.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. A millionaire like Seth Meyers making a joke about a president that looks like a Cheeto is a little different than joking about the political system that delivered him to power in the first place. Much of these hosts’ Trump jokes were driven by the fact that people paid attention: There was a lot of money to be made out of the attention economy with easy jokes about the president’s hair. Those kinds of surface-level jokes do nothing to rattle power structures; they can even make people in charge feel more comfortable and chummy with their court jesters. (Remember Jimmy Fallon playfully mussing Trump’s hair?)
But humour can expose abuses of power at play. Comedy can be a way to keep people engaged in what’s happening and undercut bad people and forces in power by making them look weak and laughable. There’s a lot of opportunity here with regards to climate, if comedy shows want to take it — John Oliver famously pissed off coal magnate Bob Murray so much with one of his segments that Murray sued HBO. (Murray lost and is now dead. Presumably these things are unrelated.)
I’d be hard-pressed to write a joke about a wildfire or a deadly heatwave: There’s not a lot that’s humorous about vulnerable people suffering. But the climate change era as a whole is nothing if not darkly comical. Here is an existential threat to humanity that oil companies have spent decades lying about to confuse the public and governments’ response has been to basically to just encourage us to recycle. The response to the climate crisis is literally laughable! Comedy is at its sharpest and most effective when people interrogate power structures, expose uncomfortable truths, and take a hard look at the forces that got us to the absurd precipice we’re on today, which isn’t exactly what Jimmy Fallon is, uh, known for.
Which is why I’m not expecting much more tonight than a couple of lazy jokes about being sad and guilty and panicked, and maybe a song or two about the weather. At the very least, I expect James Corden to do carpool karaoke in an EV. (Do I have a job in late-night comedy now?) The rich funny people will get their cookies for “highlighting the issue.” Then, the climate crisis will almost certainly be allowed to fade to the background once more while shows will go back to making jokes about eating horse paste, or whatever easy joke is in reach in the news that week.