The brainchild of longtime late-night writer and producer Steve Bodow (of The Daily Show and Patriot Act tenures), Wednesday’s late-night shows teamed up to tackle climate change with Climate Night. All seven of Wednesday’s late-night hosts took time out from their busy schedules of interviewing celebrities and finding ways to mine humor from the still-simmering roil of white supremacist, anti-democratic conservatism in America to turn all 14 eyes toward the existential threat of climate change.
Each current late-night host took a significant portion of his (or Samantha Bee’s) show to tackle the red-hot climate crisis in signature style. (Amber Ruffin airs on Fridays, so it was an almost total sausage-fest Climate Night.) Monologues dug for jokes about how the U.N. recently declared red alert status on our species-wide assault on the environment, hosts prepared variously cheeky segments where, in Colbert’s case, Mother Earth popped in to suggest becoming the reform-minded CEO of a super-polluting energy company (oh, and reusable water bottles), and experts were booked to bring their unique perspectives to the issue. And while Colbert shoehorning in some talk about how Shawn Mendes is really worried about the issue might smack of effort, Dr. Jane Goodall also got six network minutes on The Tonight Show to promote her tree-planting initiative, and if we can’t even muster up some behavioral and societal change to save the chimpanzees, we are well and truly fucked.
It’s easy to be cynical. Just ask Fox News blowhard and climate change-denier Greg Gutfeld, who was mocked by Bee for sneering his way through a predictable rant against those Hollywood/New York elite late-night hosts for devoting a fraction of their time to the issue. (All while talking about his genitals and making super-topical Gilligan’s Island put-downs, because comedy is harder than it looks.) After all, all of these hosts are working for huge corporations with no small effect on Earth’s industry-polluted environment. And, if Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” celebrity singalong taught us anything this year, it’s that showily empty gestures from the rich and famous are, at best, the stuff of memes and internet mockery.
Everyone recalls Greenzo, the NBC and Sheinhardt Wig Company corporate mascot who memorably dispensed scolding advice for individual viewers of 30 Rock’s T.G.S., while studiously omitting any mention of how NBC/Sheinhardt’s daily carbon footprint is bigger and more destructive than Godzilla’s. Sure, Greenzo eventually went “broken arrow” with self-righteous power and got summarily canned (and presumably not recycled), but nobody wants to be a Greenzo when it comes to either lecturing—or judiciously not lecturing. Colbert did his own version of the comedic Greenzo dance, noting the relative insignificance of individual efforts to combat climate change compared to the disproportionately unthinkable despoilment caused by major companies like energy giants B.P., Chevron, Exxon, and Shell. “Unless they’re sponsors,” Colbert added, mid-rant, “in which case, knock it off, maybe?”
It’s that often unspoken disconnect in which conservative corporate shilling and climate denialism can really drive a wedge between helplessly concerned viewers and those darned Hollywood types, whose industry relies on subsidies from the hugest polluters while, say, pulling a one-night climate change joke-around. But, not to sound like a post-awakening Greenzo, but that’s how they get you, isn’t it? The problem is too big, too insoluble, and would require too much personal sacrifice while, as Colbert’s Mother Earth states in passing, the real solution is to “dismantle the suicidal, world-destroying system of greed from the inside.” Now let’s go to a commercial where oil companies tell you that the Pacific garbage patch is your fault for not riding your bike to work.
But the response to such cynicism can’t simply be more cynicism. It is irretrievably true that Climate Night will be forgotten in the endless march of late-night jokes and celebrity interviews. Even the best examples of late-night political comedy (like that of Emmy-winner John Oliver and his deep-dive Last Week Tonight weekly issue action research squad) are, after all, just TV shows. We binge on, and binge away. Life is hard, the problems are too big, and our cars are simply necessary, while we keep pumping gas made by one of the tiny handful of massive corporations who, as various hosts noted, account for some 35 percent of all the pollution sending us hurtling toward the sustainability abyss.
Unlike performatively tough-talking conservative TV hosts assuring viewers that the real problem is those other TV hosts daring to bring up climate change on their shows, the Climate Night conceit saw some people giving a shit. Some were better at it than others. Noah’s piece on the unexpected, trickle-down effects of climate change (all-female sea turtle orgies and gradually degrading beer, wine and coffee quality) steered too far into the smartass comedy, while Seth Meyers and James Corden’s sparring simulcast segment seemed designed to kill two obligations with one split-screen. (Meyers did come back with a blistering A Closer Look segment lambasting those “centrist” Democrats with ties to the fossil fuel industry currently threatening to scuttle the Biden administration’s infrastructure and climate change spending plan.)
But, if nothing else, it was occasionally bracing to see these disparate comic minds (and their writers) come at their collective comic goal in different ways. Jimmy Kimmel’s cathartically profane tack was to invite some of the same climate scientists he had on Jimmy Kimmel Live five years ago to fling a scholarly “We fucking told you so” while grudgingly explaining that, while the situation is dire, we as a species are not yet “totally and irreparably fucked.” Bee, like Meyers, tied her piece on outdated, inadequate sewage infrastructure to that same spending bill currently under debate, Full Frontal’s fully disgusting clips of overflowing waste lagoons (often located in majority-Black communities) and pipe-clogging fatburgs speaking a thousand, convincingly repellent words. (Seriously, you jackasses, stop flushing wipes.)
Meyers had U.N. Special Presidential Envoy For Climate John Kerry on (with that studious and measured John Kerry sparkle) to lay out some hard but not insurmountable truths, all while the two assessed Meyers’ old SNL John Kerry impression. Colbert made room for bandleader and New Orleans native Jon Batiste to speak about his city’s necessary resilience in the face of yet another climate-exacerbated major storm, and to steer viewers toward coderedcongress.com to pressure their lawmakers into desperately needed action. Kimmel’s potty-mouthed scientists likewise urged watchers to go to globalchange.gov in order to help “un-fuck the planet.”
Being cynical is easy. And it’s boring. Especially when all the comments airily proclaiming, “Yeah, that oughta solve things” do absolutely nothing but ensure nothing gets done. Will seven wiseacre millionaires cracking wise for one night solve global warming, convince Fox News viewers that science is real, or plug up the overflowing pipes spewing greenhouse gases, oil, and untreated sewage into our already on-life-support environment? Well, no. But, as we mop up from another record-setting shitstorm of climate-caused disasters, and watch corporate greed and bought-off politicians actively working against any substantive change to the noxious behaviors literally poisoning humanity’s future, a cross-network stunt forcing the issue is still something worth celebrating—especially if watching leads to action. After all, if Must See TV can force a multi-sitcom blackout for our entertainment, or every municipal agency in Chicago can team up for the occasional sweeps-week disaster-fest, here’s to at least using late-night’s comic powers to change the night’s conversation a bit.