Tuesday night, checking late-night television for vital signs and
symbols, I began with “Conan” (TBS), where an angsty Conan O’Brien
wandered a redesigned stage set. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s very
collapsed,” he said, in a prelude to celebrating a new intimacy with the
studio audience. He pilfered a pair of sunglasses and made a clammy
attempt at being ingratiating. Then he turned to the news of the day:
“President Trump had a physical.” Earlier on Tuesday, the White House
doctor had held a press conference to publicize the findings of a regular physical exam conducted the Friday before.
It had been a long weekend, and a lot of material for topical comedy had
seeped into the news stream since Trump’s Friday-afternoon exam. There
was an ongoing international disgrace extending from the “shithole” remarks Trump reportedly made to legislators. There was fresh scandal
regarding hush money that Trump reportedly paid to an adult-film star.
There had been a false alarm warning of the annihilation of the state of Hawaii, and most everyone except the smug James Corden, of “The Late
Late Show” (CBS), saw nothing amusing in it. Yet, in the general
consensus of late-night hosts, the physical was the top story.
How could it be otherwise? Mockery of Trump’s bodily presence—for
instance, the comb-over lacquered into iconicity by caricaturists and
clipped into shorthand by graphic artists—has been bound up with censure
of his conduct since the days when Spy magazine invented the epithet
“short-fingered vulgarian.” And, on top of that, we are in new terrain.
The health of the President is a laughing matter because his presence
causes citizens to need a cleansing laugh.
O’Brien set up his first joke by saying, “President Trump’s doctor
predicted that the President will have, and live, a long life.” The
setup aroused grumbles and low jeers among the studio audience, a noise
groaning with the sad weight of a discarded norm. The crowd rumblings
said that Americans so disdained their President as to boo at his
healthy constitution, and O’Brien’s punch line tugged that extraordinary
thread of feeling: the doctor predicted a long life for Donald Trump,
and, “as a result, the doctor is now treating Melania Trump for
Because the context is easy to understand, and because fat jokes are
easier yet, the Trump physical is, in some ways, a safer subject for
comedy than other very recent political news. It is especially a safe
subject when treated as the object of Jimmy Fallon’s determined slide
into irrelevance. Near the start of his monologue, on “The Tonight Show”
(NBC), Fallon imagined that Trump, after the physical, thanked the
doctor, whose name is Ronny Jackson—“and told him to say hi to his
brothers Jermaine and Tito.” Which is not at all apposite. Rather, like
so much of Fallon’s material, it was a pretext for him to act silly and
On “The Daily Show” (Comedy Central), Trevor Noah suffered different
symptoms. Noah summarized the doctor’s findings—“No heart problems, no
dementia, no dentures”—before inquiring, “But did you test for racism?”
Which was an instance of Noah coasting on the goodwill secured by the
correctness of his politics; the constituency of “The Daily Show” knows
Trump to be a racist, so it allows lines like this to pass for wit.
Meanwhile, on “Late Night” (NBC), Seth Meyers noted that the doctor’s
statement indicated that Trump takes Propecia for male-pattern hair
loss, and said, “I guess it’s working, because there doesn’t seem to be
a pattern.” Light and cheap, the joke nonetheless satisfies by sneering at
a would-be demagogue in the oratorical style of an insult comic.
On “The Late Show” (CBS), after the announcer Jen Spyra teased the
topic—“Trump gets physical!”—during the opening sequence, Stephen
Colbert hustled to the stage and high-fived the front row with urgent
glee. His best material drew lines from Trump’s medical condition to his
moral one. The heart exam was normal, so, Colbert said, “despite all
evidence, Donald Trump does have a heart.” Likewise, Colbert used the
finding that there was no indication of any cognitive deficit to reach a
grim conclusion. “I assure you,” he said, adopting the doctor’s voice,
“the President has no cognitive issues, he’s just very, very stupid.”
Which encouraged a chuckle in search of catharsis.
The most extraordinary response to the physical came on “Jimmy Kimmel
Live” (ABC). The host took the stage with calm purpose, ready to get
down to business. Two decades ago, on “The Man Show,” Kimmel was not
just a sketch-comedy frat boy but a professional lout. Now, having used
his late-night stage as a pulpit for discussing health care, he holds himself like the moral conscience of the fraternity’s grad board. Kimmel
said, “Today was the live-results show for his annual checkup,” and he
said it deadpan, conveying that it was plain to see—that it is not even
cynical to say—that this White House has the values of a reality show.
At best. The depravity of this state of affairs achieved a grotesque
tangibility in a taped “Jimmy Kimmel Live” bit set in a White House
briefing room. At the podium, a civilian official explained that
“President’s Trump hair has taken over his brain.” According to the
mock-science of the scene, the chemicals in Trump’s hair dye had reacted
with “the French-fry oil” in his veins to create a sentient “hair
parasite” affecting the parts of his brain responsible for controlling
“anger, attention span, and the urge to say reprehensible, racist
things.” Then a faceless, beastly blond creature stormed the dais. It
was a hair monster, a puppet, like a toxic Cousin Itt with chitinous H.
R. Giger limbs, absurd but sufficiently hideous to conjure a taste of
revulsion. This freak throttled the civilian official quicker than you
can say “You’re fired.” The reality show had mutated into a horror film.