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Late-night comedians team up to tackle the climate crisis

Climate change, which is responsible for magnifying this summer's deadly heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods, is typically no laughing matter. But for one night, seven popular late-night comedy shows hope they can change that.

On Wednesday, September 22, the hosts are dedicating a portion of each of their shows to giving climate change a very unusual platform. The goal of the unprecedented, coordinated effort is to reach a wide audience and convey the seriousness of the challenge faced by humanity.

CBS' "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" and "The Late Late Show with James Corden," ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" and "Late Night with Seth Meyers," Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" and TBS' "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" are all participating in Climate Night.

"I'm thrilled to participate in Climate Night," said Bee. "But maybe we should move it up a few days? Just because, you know, it's urgent?"

"I'm proud to dedicate one entire night of my show to the climate, so I can say I wasn't part of the problem, I was 1/365th of the solution," said Colbert.

The initiative is the brainchild of comedy veteran Steve Bodow, former executive producer of Netflix's "Patriot Act" and "The Daily Show." In an email exchange with CBS News, he said hopes the event can help normalize talking and thinking and even joking about the climate.

"Laughing at a problem can help make the problem seem less intimidating — maybe even more solvable," Bodow said.

Late-night hosts team up for "Climate Night" 04:40

What inspired him to organize the effort? "Making big basic changes in how the world works (i.e. what's needed for climate) is, um, hard," Bodow replied. "Getting people to hear and talk and think more about climate is one of the necessary steps to making that change even possible. And, god help us, late-night tv is a place where a lot of people do get a lot of information."  

And with Americans constantly bombarded by an overwhelming amount of media content, he felt that one coordinated event might punch through the noise. "And so --> Climate Night!"

Bodow says when he approached the shows they seemed "pretty enthusiastic about it" and  liked the idea of doing something that was both together but also still in their separate, unique shows. What they do with the shared climate theme is up to them, and each show will tackle the issue in their own way.

While communicating climate change through comedy may seem like an odd mix, the formula could help reach people who otherwise might not be engaged on the issue. This is the opinion of perhaps the world's only dedicated climate comedian, New York-based Rollie Williams. 

For years, Williams wrote and hosted a running comedy club show in which he impersonated Al Gore and interviewed climate scientists on stage. He took the issue so seriously he even got his master's degree in Climate and Society from Columbia University. (In full disclosure, Williams was my classmate.)

Now Williams has a successful YouTube channel called ClimateTown, with over 60,000 followers, where he makes educational, in-depth climate comedy videos — not unlike what you'd expect to see on "The Daily Show." Just be careful what you call it. 

"I think some people call the sort of comedy I'm doing 'edutainment,' but that term is so punishingly unsexy I want to set myself on fire whenever I hear it," Williams joked.

But Williams says the entertainment aspect is what helps him spread the message to a new audience. 

"A lot of videos about the climate crisis tend to be depressing or make people feel guilty, and while those videos might be WAY better than mine, I think they lose a lot of people who are just on the Internet for a good time."

So Williams lures them with a good time and leaves them with a dose of climate truth. His most recent video makes light of an Exxon lobbyist, Keith McCoy, who was recently caught on camera by Greenpeace spilling the beans about Big Oil's efforts to downplay the seriousness of climate change and to derail climate policy. "I get a lot of comments like, 'I HAD NO IDEA THIS WAS HAPPENING!' and 'how is this possible??'" said Williams.

Asked why he thinks this type of serious comedy resonates, Williams said, "I think people have a natural sense of justice and witnessing injustice tends to really set people off. It's very satisfying to see a wrongdoer caught." 

As for Bodow, he feels comedy helps people approach this otherwise weighty topic in a new way. "Fun. Optimism. A healthy sense of absurdity. Because what we've been doing — jetting and air-conditioning and hamburgering and generally prospering our way into deep trouble — is pretty absurd."  

Williams says it is the absurdity that makes these videos necessary and funny, and while he loves his climate comedy niche, he'd be happy if he could just move on. 

"If they're all about climate change, that's fine with me, but I'd really love for the climate crisis to be solved so I can go back to making other types of videos," he said. 

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