Everyone loves late-night sketches and monologue jokes, but often the most memorable episodes of late-night comedy shows happen when the host takes on a serious topic that’s on the entire country’s mind. Here are five times that some of your favorite late-night hosts let comedy take a backseat while they addressed more difficult subject matter.
Of all the reactions to the 2010 accident in Chile that left 33 men trapped inside a mine, none were more powerful than Jon Stewart’s, who went on a lengthy Daily Show monologue about how that could have just as easily been him down there. The choked-up host recalled how in 1993 his comedy career in New York City was sputtering, so he had accepted a mining job with Chile’s national mining company Codelco. As he watched footage of the mining site on one of the Daily Show’s monitors, Stewart fought back tears, recalling having his bags all packed for his one-way flight to Santiago when a producer from Late Night With David Letterman called, asking him to perform stand-up on the show that night. Even though that performance helped launch Stewart’s very successful comedy career, it was clear on that night that the host remembered what almost was, and there was not a dry eye in the house.
2. James Corden debuting his new late-night talk show in 2015 with a somber, 60-minute tribute to the victims of 9/11
When James Corden took over The Late Late Show in 2015, he set the tone immediately by dedicating his entire debut episode to the victims of 9/11. As the names of those who perished that fateful day scrolled across the screen, Corden held a candle and read quotes from first responders who were there that fall day, 13 and a half years earlier. The most powerful moment was when Corden threw to a pretaped Carpool Karaoke, where he sang “Amazing Grace” with the teenage son of an FDNY firefighter who lost his life when the North Tower collapsed.
Time seemed to stand still when news broke that Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had died, but David Letterman helped us all get our legs back under us when he spoke beautifully about his life. Famously going off the cuff, Letterman talked about how as long as we remembered Gaddafi’s smile and laugh, he would never truly be gone, and how “Brother Leader” taught us all so much about being brave, sharing, and looking out for your friends. No matter what you think about David Letterman, you have to admit he helped get this country through a very trying time.
4. Seth Meyers’ monologue on the time President Obama locked himself inside the White House gym and wouldn’t leave until he made 100 consecutive free throws
It was late February 2014 and President Obama had just locked himself inside a gymnasium, determined to hit 100 consecutive free throws, having left the White House with no instructions on what to do in his absence. Americans were confused and afraid, until Seth Meyers took a few minutes on Late Night to assure the audience that the country would be all right. “Think about it,” he famously said. “This guy loves basketball, doesn’t he? It probably won’t take him that long.” You could feel the tension in the room lift as Meyers continued to remind his viewers that the president could probably bang out 100 free throws in under a week. The incident solidified Meyers’ reputation as not just a funny comedian, but also a great host, even if President Obama never did hit 100 free throws in a row and ended up dying in that gym after refusing to eat until he at least got to 80.
5. The time Stephen Colbert bounded out onto the Late Show stage, and everyone in the audience looked very sad, and it seemed like Colbert was unsure what sort of tragedy had just happened that was bumming everyone out
Who can forget where they were when Stephen Colbert sashayed onto the stage with his normal enthusiasm until he saw that his house band Jon Batiste and Stay Human were playing a somber dirge and looking at the floor, and many in the audience were openly weeping. Colbert’s touching monologue was just what the nation needed at the time, where he talked about how his thoughts and prayers were with the victims of the train station shooting or unspeakable bus accident or mudslide or whatever horrible thing had clearly just happened. When he wrapped up his moving oratory, calling for forgiveness and/or resolve and/or justice, it proved why he is one of the greats.