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Last Night's Letterman Was a Slap In the Face to the News Cycle


By the time Letterman kicked off his monologue last night at 11:35 p.m., all major news networks were proclaiming the fiscal impasse over and the government restarted. Maddow had already ranted that the GOP had gotten exactly none of their “weird, specific demands.” Michele Bachmann had complained on Fox that Obama had gotten “100 percent of what he wanted.” But then Letterman ambled onstage and started slinging jokes about the National Zoo Panda Cam (he played a video clip of the "panda cam" stamped "LIVE" with a man chewing on bamboo) and the idleness of Congress (a supercut of congressmen saying the word "pizza")—the same kind of nothing-is-happening-in-the-government jokes that late night hosts have been making for two weeks now. “If the government ever does default, if we do just completely go belly up, the festivities when the government goes belly up will be hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler,” he said.

Of course, late-night TV being off-the-news is nothing new. But a parade of "the goverment is currently shut down" jokes (after fifteen days of the same) while said shutdown is literally in the midst of being lifted ends up feeling like some pretty aggressive irrelevance. Letterman’s segment was pre-taped, as always—he tapes in New York at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesdays—but clearly the producers knew beforehand that the night was set to yield some major debt deal plot developments. Indeed, before "The Late Show" was over, the House had voted and the bill was signed by Obama.

As Letterman's show struggles to reel in young viewers and claim a spot in the cultural conversation, it seems like there are ways, on a night when breaking news events are rapidly unfolding, to preempt the sense that late-night TV exists in a time warp somewhere far afield from the headlines. Jimmy Kimmel did a better job of this last night, opting for one funny, retrospective sketch featuring a bunch of kids at a table trying to explain the political situation. But The Late Show just felt like a slap in the face to the news cycle. Amid Letterman's Panda Cam jokes, his guest Bill O’Reilly—who has been on a marathon media tour to promote his book Killing Jesus—said: “They are all trying to pander rather than trying to solve the problems,” the same talking points he’s been spouting every night since shutdown day one.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Michele Bachmann's last name.