Yes, I know I roundly criticized Pete Buttigieg’s guest hosting gig on Jimmy Kimmel Live yesterday, but if you read that piece all the way to the bottom you would’ve known that we’d still be posting the clips here today. Just because the whole thing is a little weird and pandering and highlights how we’ve kinda ruined politics and the news and maybe all of society by turning politicians into celebrities—by focusing not on what they actually DO but instead on how they try to present themselves in the public eye—doesn’t mean we’re gonna pass up the chance to dissect it the morning after. So let’s jump into it. Here’s the monologue, and below that you can find my thoughts on it.
The first thing that stands out is how, like Stephen Colbert’s show and the Seth Meyers clip that went up on YouTube last night, Buttigieg is performing to a mostly empty theater, with only Kimmel staffers on hand. Due to the coronavirus, no audience was permitted into the Kimmel taping yesterday, so instead of the loud laughter and sign-driven applause you’d expect to hear from a packed house, there’s a light scattering of chuckles after every one of Buttigieg’s jokes. They do seem to be a little bit louder and more… over-the-top? maybe forced?... than the laughs you’ll hear in those Colbert and Meyers clips, and hey, that makes sense. Buttigieg is a guest on this set, despite his hosting duties, and I’m sure the full-time TV staffers on hand felt the need to make him feel comfortable. Hence laughing maybe a little too hard at some of these jokes.
Speaking of material, despite talking at length about his campaign, Trump and the primary race, there’s not much here that seems uniquely Buttigiegian. It’s a fairly standard late night talk show monologue, only delivered by a politician instead of a comedian. Even his direct call for political action isn’t that unusual coming from Jimmy Kimmel Live—Kimmel’s become an outspoken critic of the American healthcare system over the last few years, and although it’s not like a normal, nightly feature of his show, it’s still happened enough to partially define Kimmel’s recent tenure in late night. Pete’s delivery is smooth, if a little robotic, with the same kind of bland professionalism that you’d expect from a weatherman or local news anchor. That lifelessness is the root of Buttigieg’s charisma problem; he seems so polished, so wary of presenting any unique personality trait or idiosyncratic tic that could potentially turn voters (or, now, a non-existent TV show audience) off, that he barely registers at all. His abject inoffensiveness helped him get more attention during the primaries than anybody could have expected, and perhaps could have taken him even further if his platform wasn’t the kind of banal corporate centrism that younger voters are roundly rejecting. That same blandness doesn’t really work well for a late night talk show host, though, no matter how many interchangeable white men in suits keep getting network time slots.
Also, hey, how bad a look is that cutaway to an African-American audience from an entirely different show at the 5:26 mark?
So hey. I don’t hate Pete Buttigieg. I don’t think his positions and previous track record would make him a good president, but I can understand why some people did support his candidacy. The problem with him hosting a show like Jimmy Kimmel Live—beyond the lackluster comedy—is, again, how it plays into the larger trend over the last 30 years of turning politics into an extension of the entertainment industry. How actual policy and platforms have become less important than whether a candidate is fun or likable or relatable. I’m not a political scientist, or anything, but I’ve watched this country get jerked far to the right over the last few decades, and I have to think that the simultaneous rise of the conservative movement, with their own echo chamber of partisan media and hardline ideological think tanks and PACs, and the devolution of mainstream political news coverage from actual news to celebrity-filled infotainment are largely to blame. I don’t hold people like Pete Buttigieg, or other centrists in the Democratic party, responsible for the sheer amount of lies and propaganda that has increasingly flooded the discourse over the last 30 years; that’s clearly the result of a massively funded right-wing media apparatus that has worked closely with each other and the Republican party to misinform the public. The problem is that the legitimate, non-partisan media has largely cast aside in-depth, informative coverage of the issues of the day in favor of two equally failed strategies: the kind of light, buzzy, attention-getting coverage that turns politicians into celebrities, and the sports-style horserace coverage that turns all politics into nothing but a game.
If Pete Buttigieg had been a guest on Kimmel’s show, and talked a bit about politics while cracking a few jokes over a five minute segment, that would’ve been fine. Not great, not good, but much lower on the “why is this happening” scale than what actually happened. Buttigieg is a vastly superior, more likable, and more qualified public servant and human being than Donald Trump, but inviting him to host an entire episode of the Kimmel show isn’t that far off from when Trump hosted Saturday Night Live in 2015. If the politicians stuck to politics, and didn’t become mired in this condescending quest for celebrity, we probably never would’ve wound up with Trump in office to begin with. That 12 minute video above might make you laugh, might entertain you, might even make you like Pete Buttigieg more than you already did, but it’s the clear result of a political system that has become deeply broken over the last few decades.