How should late-night comedy handle a second Trump candidacy?

Two weeks ago, the night after Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential bid at Mar-a-Lago, Stephen Colbert recapped the occasion with clear reluctance. Colbert, who for two years has refused to say the former president’s name on The Late Show, confessed to not watching Trump’s speech – “I pay some sucker to do that for me,” he quipped – but nevertheless devoted the bulk of his monologue to what he called “2016 all over again”. “I get it, but you’re going to want to pace yourself,” he told his booing audience. “Those boos need to last for two years.”

Related: Beyond Trump jokes: how has late-night comedy fared in the Biden era?

It was a typically conflicted performance from a host who has often served as the mean for late-night comedians’ response to Donald Trump’s presence in American politics. It was Colbert who, on election night 2016, openly mourned Trump’s victory on live television and prefaced the identity crisis to come for late-night talk shows: “I’m not sure it’s a comedy show any more.” For four years, nightly comedy shows – Colbert’s Late Show, Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live! – cycled through a deadening Trump feedback loop. Trump says or does deranged or dangerous thing, hosts mock; Trump lashes out on Twitter or elsewhere, hosts lash back with righteousness; insert joke about his diet or covfefe or loveless marriage to Melania, repeat.

It was occasionally insightful – especially during the upheaval of 2020, comedians’ capacity to call bullshit served a crucial processing function for a deluge of unbelievable, destabilizing headlines. But it scraped the bottom of the barrel of humor. The conundrum of how to satirize parody-as-president, of how to mock an attention monster, neutralized the funny in late-night and, as some have argued, killed political comedy.

Biden’s victory in 2020 offered an escape hatch from the Trump loop, which, in the two years since, hosts have taken to various degrees (or, in the case of Kimmel and Meyers, barely at all). But Trump’s 2024 announcement places late-night comedy in a familiar, stale position: how to cover him? Is a Trump joke worth it, or even justified anymore?

It’s a similar question posed to news organizations like this one: how newsworthy is a Donald Trump rally now, or a statement, or a Truth Social post or, given recent Elon Musk-related events, a Trump tweet? Where’s the line between coverage and potentially damaging amplification? Not just for Trump, but a slate of other troll-ish or otherwise attention-sucking characters such as Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, Musk or, as recently as last night, Trump dinner guest and known antisemite Nick Fuentes.

Of the mainstays, Colbert, as usual, has taken the middle road so far: chagrined circumspection with a few smug jabs here and there, ambivalence at the whole endeavor. He still won’t mention Trump by name and, for the most part, couches Trump stories and those of his cronies with other bits on, say, the World Cup, powerball updates, and non-Trump political fare. Trevor Noah, who ends his seven-year run on The Daily Show next week, has strayed the most from mocking Trump directly, instead favoring more global stories (on crypto crises, or protests in Iran) or a whole week in Atlanta for the midterms. When he does take on Trump or, more often lately, Musk, it’s from a slightly more novel angle: Trump’s straight-up weirdness or delight in Twitter’s chaos under Musk’s hubristic reign. Fallon offers the skinniest of late-night monologues; The Tonight Show’s bread and butter continues to be its consistently A-list celeb guests.

Meyers and Kimmel, meanwhile, have doubled down on Trump the most – Meyers, in his extended Closer Look segments which basically serve as self-satisfied rants about the shambolic state of the Republican party, Trump (and his Trump impression) still foundational to it. Kimmel has stuck to the standard Trump-joke playlist: jabs at Trump’s hair and orange skin, his children, Melania, Stormy Daniels, etc. Plus, consistent focus on some of his most unhinged acolytes such as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and especially MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell (whom Kimmel controversially interviewed in 2021).

The talk-show format is certainly not beholden to Trump; a batch of edgier, alternative talk shows hosted by not white men named Jimmy – Showtime’s Ziwe, HBO’s Pause with Sam Jay – rerouted around Trump entirely while still touching on political issues with either fanged satire (Ziwe) or disarming curiosity (Jay). In Apple TV+’s The Problem with Jon Stewart, the arguable king of late-night political satire dispensed with comedy entirely for issue-themed episodes. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is often lumped in with the nightly shows (at least for the Emmys) but its weekly deep-dives, involving significant digital archival research and long season breaks, is a genre unto itself. Oliver’s is the best and most acclaimed late-night “comedy” show in part because it has the time and resources to circumvent the Trump attention loop, to make proactive analysis instead of reactive burns.

Late-night shows ostensibly cover the news, and there’s an argument to be made that Trump is still relevant. One of two major US political parties are now molded in his image. He is the subject of several criminal investigations. It’s worth reminding that he’s almost definitely running for president again to potentially escape said investigations.

But as fodder for comedy or insight outside the bounds of punditry or hard news, it’s hard to see how covering candidate Trump serves any purpose. What new insight is there to be found in, as Kimmel often jokes about, Trump’s waistband or non-relationship with son Eric? What hasn’t been said? (As Trevor Noah put it on Monday about Trump’s dinner party with Ye and Fuentes, also discussed by Colbert and Kimmel: “Why still act surprised when Trump does Trump stuff?”) Tell me the last time a Trump joke, let alone an impression, was genuinely funny. The conversation on how to break out of the Trump rut felt overdue years ago, and only more of a creative dead-end now.

I wrote last year that the late-night genre’s most promising function seemed to be not comedy but candor, the format’s ability to state plainly how ridiculous and ominous American politics often is. Candor now would be admitting, as Colbert seemed to know, that we don’t have to do this. We don’t have to repeat the cycle. It is perhaps unrealistic to fully ignore an attention hog, especially one in power (Musk) or under federal investigation (Trump), but late-night shows could stand to feed them less.