Spitfire Strategies

How Late-Night Talk Show Hosts Might Be the Activists America Needs Right Now

Late-night television programs are remarkably successful pushing policy issues into mainstream conversation – sometimes even better than traditional broadcast news. However, what’s really remarkable is that organizations rarely take advantage of this opportunity to promote their issues.

Shows like Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight use humor to reframe complex policies and uncover the essential outrageousness, hypocrisy and injustice in today’s political circus. Plus, with talk show hosts like Jimmy Fallon bringing in guests like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Stephen Colbert hosting Black Lives Matter activists on The Late Show, pointed political conversations – on issues from immigration reform and reproductive rights to police brutality – have become more the rule than the exception after 10 p.m. 

Here’s a list of four late-night talk show hosts who use their shows to engage in political conversations:

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: Daily Show veteran Samantha Bee serves up a unique recipe, baking political satire into a no-holds-barred feminist commentary. Soon after the election, Bee paid tribute to the Women’s March for its uplifting and unifying spirit. “Going to the Women’s March was like waking up from a nightmare to find that the monster was real, but all your friends were there with sticks and torches and unflattering hats to beat back the darkness,” Bee said. Touching on yet another heated topic of discussion in one of her segments, Bee shed light on the ugly truth behind crisis pregnancy centers. Planned Parenthood of Minnesota used Twitter to share footage of the episode in the hope of educating its audiences about how such facilities undermine women’s reproductive health.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: Colbert is no stranger to hot-button issues. Back in 2010, Colbert testified in Congress on the issue of farm laborers and immigration, slipping into his Colbert Report character as a satirical conservative to show his support for migrant farmworkers. “This is America,” he told the packed committee room. “I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican.” Hoping to highlight the issue of immigration once again, the late-night host addressed President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily barring refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries from traveling to the United States, with nothing other than humor and incredulity. “The line moves really fast on this ride,” Colbert said of the Trump administration. “Every day you just get right back on the rollercoaster and start throwing up.” Colbert also talked about some of the immigrants who were detained or deported since the order was issued, and praised the protesters who flooded the nation’s airports to voice their resistance. “At Dulles, a 5-year-old Iranian boy was detained for hours and kept from his mother,” Colbert added. “Or, as Kellyanne Conway calls it, ‘alternative day care.'”

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: Noah only started his late-night hosting career in 2015, but has already gained a large following thanks to his commentary on issues such as police brutality. In July 2016, Noah dedicated his opening segment to the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. While he holds that both deaths were unwarranted, he also stressed that the conversation around police shootings should not be so divisive. “The hardest part of having a conversation surrounding police shooting in America, it always feels like in America, if you take a stand for something, you automatically are against something else,” Noah said. “With police shootings, it shouldn’t have to work that way.” Noah’s segment sparked a national conversation around the idea of being either pro-cop or pro-black and was featured in numerous news outlets in the United States and abroad. Gun violence reform groups such as The Brady Campaign, for example, which already uses celebrities to address gun violence, could use pop culture moments like this to bring even more attention to their cause and encourage folks to get involved.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Oliver has been gracing our screens since early 2014 with news satire about issues like the coal industry and net neutrality. Throughout the 2016 presidential election Oliver regularly dedicated segments to Trump and his publicized comments on the campaign trail. However, during the show’s 2016 season finale, Oliver did more than talk about Trump – he commented on the limitations of his own show and asked his viewers to stay, fight and support the people and organizations who “are going to need help under a Trump administration […] We’re going to have to actively stand up for one another. And it can’t be just sounding off on the internet, or sharing think pieces or videos like this one that echo around your bubble. I’m talking about actual sacrifice to support people who are now under threat,” Oliver said. “If you care about women’s health, donate to Planned Parenthood or the Center for Reproductive Rights. If you don’t believe man-made global warming is a ‘silly issue,’ donate to the National Resources Defense Council. If you don’t think refugees are a terrorist army in disguise, donate to the International Refugee Assistance Project […] Oh, and given these guys’ track record, I would also recommend donations to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.” In the event your organization is mentioned in pop culture like that, it can be helpful to set up Google alerts so you and your organization are aware and can respond accordingly – via social media or other platforms.

How can your organization leverage these content-rich shows to promote and amplify your issues? Newspapers’ entertainment sections and trade publications such as The Hollywood Reporter and Variety regularly publish late-night comedy roundups. Scan them to see if they’re covering your cause that week.

In addition to reading general roundups mentioned above, find out which hosts have recently covered issues most relevant to your specific organization’s mission. To do this, recruit a pop culture partner in crime. Your greatest asset may be sitting in the cube across from you. Ask your teammates which late-night shows they watch and how your organization can latch on to ideas that already have traction.

If you’re looking for other ways you and your organization can strategically infuse its editorial calendar with buzzworthy content from Noah, Bee, the two Jimmys and others to bring attention to important policy issues, check out AndACTION’s report, “Pop Culture Works for Social Change.”

Incubated by Spitfire Strategies, AndACTION connects foundations, nonprofits and others to the film and television industries. It gives you the inside scoop on upcoming storylines from its Hollywood connections and helps you leverage these opportunities by developing strategic communications matching your organization’s mission. To get in touch, visit andaction.org or email info@andaction.org.


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