In a raw, impassioned monologue on Jimmy Kimmel Live last night, Kimmel described for his audience the harrowing nightmare he’d spent the past week living. Within hours of his son’s birth, a nurse noticed something off about the infant — a heart murmur, a purple flush — and what followed was an unimaginably awful series of discoveries and events. The baby was born with congenital heart failure and rushed to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles where he underwent surgery. A photo of the days-old infant, more tape and tubes than skin, filled the screen. But Kimmel had assured the audience that the ending was a happy one, and it was: His son will need follow-up procedures in the months ahead, but he’s home now, doing all the thrilling things babies do: eating, sleeping, peeing on his parents.
Kimmel choked up, visibly struggling not to cry as he spoke. He thanked, by name, all the nurses and doctors who saved his son’s life. And then — in a turn that just a year ago would have seemed not just unusual, but extremely out of character for a late night host who’s probably second only to Jimmy Fallon in his reputation for offering viewers apolitical, even juvenile, entertainment — Kimmel pivoted to talking about health care reform and Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the National Institute of Health.
More pointedly, Kimmel emphasized the callousness of any politician who is willing to sentence an infant to death based on the income bracket of that infant’s parents:
“I want to say one other thing. President Trump, last month, proposed a $6 billion cut in funding to the NIH. And thank God our Congressmen made a deal last night to not go along with that. They actually increased funding by $2 billion, and I applaud them for doing that. Because more than 40% of the people who would have been affected by those cuts at the National Institute of Health are children, and it would have a major impact on a lot of great places, including Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. Which is so unbelievably sad to me. We were brought up to believe that we live in the greatest country in the world, but until a few years ago, millions and millions of us had no access to healthcare at all.
Before 2014, if you were born with congenital heart disease like my son was, there was a good chance you’d never be able to get health insurance because you had a pre-existing condition. You were born with a pre-existing condition. And if your parents didn’t have medical insurance, you might not live long enough to even get denied because of a pre-existing condition. If your baby is going to die and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make. I think that’s something that whether you’re a Republican or a democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right? I mean, we do.
Whatever your party, whatever you believe, whoever you support, we need to make sure that the people who are supposed to represent us, the people who are meeting about this right now in Washington, understand that very clearly. Let’s stop with the nonsense. This isn’t football. There are no teams. We are the team. It’s the United States. Don’t let their partisan squabbles divide us on something every decent person wants. We need to take care of each other. I saw a lot of families there and no parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life. It just shouldn’t happen. Not here. So. Anyway. Thank you for listening. I promise I’m not going to cry for the rest of the show.”
Why make the personal so political? For one thing, maybe Kimmel realizes — or has always known, but has recently decided to state publicly — that there is no such thing, really, as “not being into” politics, because no family gets to decide when politics will interfere with their everyday, ostensibly apolitical lives. Whether or not your newborn makes it out of the ICU alive, as Kimmel says, shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but here we are.
Do viewers want their late night comedians, as so many want of their favorite actors and athletes, to leave politics to the politicians and just focus on their job of making us laugh? If the past few months are any indication, apparently not.
Jimmy Fallon probably had no idea just how much blowback he’d get for toying with then-candidate Donald Trump’s hair last September, but since then, it’s been clear that the “just-the-jokes” shtick isn’t landing quite like it used to. Stephen Colbert, who was floundering around for his real personality after leaving his “Stephen Colbert” identity behind, saw his numbers rise as his faux-objectivity fell away. After Trump took office, Colbert started beating Fallon in the ratings; by April, after nine consecutive weeks on top, Colbert won the week by the widest margin yet. A source told Page Six that Fallon’s team is adjusting accordingly: “They had to figure out a way to get Trump [into his routine] because he’s too weak on Trump, and viewers are going elsewhere. [He’s been] uncomfortable talking about politics, and that’s not what the people want.”
Late night comedians do have a serious gear, one they shift into when the news is too horrifying for humor. There is, as Stephen Colbert put it on The Late Show after the mass shooting in Orlando, a “national script” for the aftermaths of terrorist attacks and the like. Jon Stewart dropped the jokes for his arguably genre-defining post-9/11 episode of The Daily Show, a style of no-bullshit, “nothing is funny today” address that he relied upon again after the church shooting in Charleston.
Seth Meyers offered his own version of this during his first post-election episode of Late Night, which was a mash-up of jokes (“Well, that was a real grab in the pussy”), empathy (“I do really feel for the parents who had to explain this to their kids this morning”), hope (“Whoever you are,” he said to the future first female president of the United States, “I hope I live to see your inauguration. And I hope my mom does too. She was really excited yesterday, and I was really sad for her.”), and a vow to stay hopeful (“I’m hopeful that he’s not actually a racist, and he just used racist rhetoric to court voters.”)
If Kimmel had gone through this heart-wrenching experience three years ago, maybe he wouldn’t have mentioned health insurance at all — or maybe he would have just offered a winking, “Thanks, Obama,” and moved on with his show. But perhaps, like so many of his viewers, Kimmel is now finding it impossible to not refract much of his life through the lens of politics and the surreal circumstances in which our country finds itself. Kimmel couldn’t opt of out political discourse, even if he wanted to — and for millions of other people confronting policy issues that touch their lives, ignoring politics is literally a luxury they can’t afford.