What do audiences want from their late-night hosts?
It’s a question that’s rarely posed directly, given that the medium’s importance is typically held as self-evident by media and viewers alike. John Oliver’s latest evisceration is inherently worth aggregating then recirculating on one’s Facebook feed; a difference in a few hundred thousand viewers between two relatively similar shows merits not one, but multiple in-depth New York Times profiles. These men — we’ll get to the exceptions later, but they’re almost entirely men — have major platforms on major networks. So between the ratings jockeying and the awards show MCing and the next-day YouTube clip circulating, we rarely stop to ponder the bigger picture.
It has been a long and strange year for late night. An inherently conservative format that once seemed increasingly outdated has become a guidepost for the liberal zeitgeist. In the process, late night has inched closer to cultural centrality than it’s been at any time since its 2014 changing of the guard. More than a year after Jimmy Fallon’s hair-muss seen ’round the world, the Tonight Show’s fortunes have fully reversed, declining from undisputed frontrunner to consistent second place. Since February, the Stephen Colbert–hosted Late Show on CBS has averaged more total viewers per night than its time-slot competitor, with Fallon holding onto a diminishing lead in the 18–49 demographic. This fall, Jimmy Kimmel began to encroach even further on Fallon’s turf with a politics-fueled ratings bump that put Live! in serious contention for second place. Those upsets, following a rocky early period for Colbert and years at a comfortable third for Kimmel, are inextricable from the event that preceded them: the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States.
Even as a candidate, Trump had already wreaked havoc on late night’s creaky, vulnerable infrastructure, exploiting congenital soft spots (in this case, writers’ and hosts’ equivocation in the name of seeming bipartisanship). The tangible effects of the 2016 election on late night were swift and dramatic: the meteoric rise of Samantha Bee via cathartically enraged monologue; the baptism-by-fire of a newly focused Colbert during a painful live special; the sudden pivot of some hipper-than-thou Fallon grumblings into a full-blown backlash. In the year following, the late-night landscape hasn’t necessarily calmed, but it has settled into whatever mental state results when fevered anxiety becomes a background condition.
The newest Late-Night Wars didn’t take up nearly as much ink as they did in 2016; the ninth month of a ratings streak or a second consecutive Emmy by definition registers less than the first. But the few notable moments from this year speak to the Trump-era ideal that’s emerged: sober, righteous, and most importantly, authoritative. If in 2016, satire wasn’t enough, in 2017, some of its foremost practitioners eased up on their attempts altogether. In this year of late-night comedy, “comedy” was the least important word.
First, it’s necessary to define what “late night” means, since — as with TV in general these days — the category’s boundaries are porous at best. In 2017, the term primarily refers to the five hour-long, broadcast-based shows traditionally considered the models of the form: Jimmy Kimmel Live!, on ABC; The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show With James Corden, on CBS; The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and Late Night With Seth Meyers, on NBC.
But over the last two decades, and particularly the last few years, late night has expanded into other networks and forms. Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment may be decades old, yet it is currently enjoying its most successful incarnation in recent memory. (Hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che were recently promoted to co-head writers of the entire show.) Conan O’Brien, formerly of Late Night, spun off his own basic-cable riff on the primary template with his eponymous Conan, which embraces its status as a lower-stakes satellite of late night’s primary orbit. The Daily Show, now led by Trevor Noah, has managed to build a strong, young-skewing audience in its life after Jon Stewart, but alumni have spun out their own takes on the topical comedy show: Samantha Bee fronts Full Frontal on TBS; John Oliver hosts Last Week Tonight on HBO; and for one night only, Hasan Minhaj threw his hat in the ring by hosting a Trump-less White House Correspondents’ Dinner. More audacious efforts at building a 21st-century native show from scratch have met with mixed success: Desus and Mero’s lo-fi clowning has found a home on Viceland, while Chelsea Handler recently pulled the plug on her attempt to make a talk show for streaming.
SNL in particular has seen the most dramatic rise in relevance and ratings, even as the internal spotlight has gradually shifted from megastar cameos and cold opens to Update’s blunt takes on the news. Alec Baldwin’s pursed-lipped Trump drew the ire of the president himself, and Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer became such an instant classic that the show bent over backwards to accommodate the superstar’s schedule, essentially Skyping her in from L.A. for an Easter appearance; both performers earned Emmy Awards for their work in September. But as the year continued on, the real Trump’s notoriously fickle attention turned elsewhere, Baldwin’s drop-ins became routine, and Spicer himself handed the McCarthy role its death sentence by co-opting it on national television. (More on that later.) The cold open is currently staffed by an awkward mélange of characters shaped around Baldwin’s core, a disproportionate number of them played by undisputed MVP Kate McKinnon. In retrospect, the cold open often resonated less on its own merits than the shockingly high-profile nature of its response — never a good sign.
Update, on the other hand, has hit its creative stride in the third year of the Che-Jost era, finally landing on the perfect use of Jost’s smug, preppy, literal punchability: as a foil to Che’s sly, sardonic charm. The duo’s rapport feels well-suited to a time when Update is pivoting away from the “riffs on oddball news items” schtick and towards more substantive fare. Crucially, Jost and Che don’t need to filter their opinions through an elaborate fictional premise, the very crutch that too often undermines the cold open. Update can simply let loose, as when Che addressed Trump as “President Miss Thing” and both anchors were surprisingly, refreshingly harsh on SNL alum Al Franken.
Such internal contrast makes SNL an acute example of a more universal trend: Attempts to fictionalize current events by amplifying some piece of subtext — to use a few examples from SNL’s own history, Gerald Ford’s klutziness or George W. Bush’s anti-way with words — aren’t striking a chord. Rather, the successes are head-on confrontations of text that feels overwhelming, slightly scary, and in need of clarification by someone equipped with a sharper wit, more gravitas, and a larger writers’ room. In late night’s present moment, sincerity overrules novelty.
In a testament to that premium on sincerity, Jimmy Kimmel’s sudden breakout as a political conscience became the single most significant event in late night this year. The momentum began in early May, when Kimmel delivered a tearful monologue outlining his newborn son Billy’s heart condition and treatment at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. In the monologue’s final minutes, Kimmel widened his focus to the then-ongoing debate over the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act: “If your baby is going to die and doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make,” he pleaded. “Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, or something else, we all agree on that, right?” It was an extraordinarily moving speech, and one that made an impact on the national conversation: Republican Senator Bill Cassidy appeared on the show to promise any final bill would live up to what he called the “Jimmy Kimmel test” of affordability for families in similarly dire situations but without Kimmel’s resources.
That promise began a predictable chain reaction. When Cassidy’s proposed bill, co-authored with Lindsey Graham, did not live up to those standards, Kimmel used his monologue to excoriate Cassidy and his Republican colleagues, his tone shifting from overwhelming emotion to disciplined anger. “Health care is complicated,” Kimmel admitted, mid-routine. “It’s boring. I don’t want to talk about it.” Later, he reiterated the point: “I never imagined I would get involved in something like this. This is not my area of expertise.” This performance of reluctance was crucial to Kimmel’s message, leveraging the unlikelihood of his political engagement for maximum rhetorical value: If Kimmel had his way, he’d continue on in the affable bro persona that made him a success, but unforeseen circumstances in his own life and the moral urgency of the issue at hand compelled him to step forward. Kimmel was only in this fight, which he continued after Cassidy and other conservative figures snidely dismissed him, because he truly felt he had to be. The host expressed sympathy for those tempted by apathy while urging his audience to resist it, an ingenious work of advocacy that appeared to have a real effect on the discourse surrounding the bill, which eventually failed.
All too soon, Kimmel would once again play the uneager spokesperson when another political lightning bolt hit devastatingly close to home. The early October shooting at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Kimmel’s hometown, became the subject of another impassioned Kimmel monologue, pushing past the stock “thoughts and prayers” to directly connect the attack to gun control. “Maybe I’m nuts, but I would like to think we could put politics aside and agree that no American citizen needs an M16,” Kimmel said in the night’s biggest applause line, against a background image of 56 senators who voted against a gun control measure in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. An everyman speaking his mind, forced into politics by politics’ growing extremism warping his everyday life, Kimmel cut a figure many at home could and did relate to. A few laughs were scattered throughout, but they were beside the point. Kimmel wasn’t offering escapism; he was offering a model for how to cope — first through sadness, then productive anger.
2017’s stand-out late-night moments tended to cluster more around such points of reckoning than charm offensives (though Jennifer Lawrence’s summit with Kim Kardashian West was entertaining) or rising stand-up stars (though Julio Torres knows how to win over an audience) who might have dominated in years past. Like Kimmel’s speeches, Jimmy Fallon’s response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville derived much of its power from the obviously shellshocked and distraught demeanor of a host unused to dealing with political subjects. (Though Fallon never crossed the all-important line into translating his horror into a renewed sense of engagement.) On the other end of the spectrum, Samantha Bee had seemingly spent her entire career preparing for the current post-Weinstein reckoning. “It is 2017. We don’t have to put up with this shit,” Bee said in the wake of the initial revelations. “We are coming for you.”
Though nothing reached the depths of Fallon’s infamous hair faux pas, the year also offered examples of hosts who didn’t live up to their own fans’ expectations. Colbert’s ascendancy was built on a reputation for playing the truth teller to Fallon’s sycophant, and in confrontational interviews with the likes of Anthony Scaramucci and Billy Bush, he often lived up to it. But when the entertainer decided to invite Spicer, once the object of his derision, to laugh with him onstage at the Emmys, Colbert undercut the source of his own appeal. He didn’t suffer the ratings repercussions that Fallon did, but the appearance, which seemed to help rehabilitate the press secretary’s image, still threatened to disrupt the self-conception at the heart of Colbert’s winning streak. (Corden, too, caught flak for palling around with the ex-spokesman, though the blowback was muted by Corden’s significantly more apolitical reputation, which he’s been able to retain thanks to a later time slot and, as a Brit, literal outsider status.) Similarly, Samantha Bee’s Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner hewed closer to the self-congratulation it was theoretically mocking than the actual Correspondents’ Dinner, where Minhaj called out Fox News to their faces.
Between the high points and lows, a median emerges of a late-night host custom-built for 2017: candid, unflinching, and unafraid of being charged with partisanship or didacticism. The two hosts who fit that mold best are likely Seth Meyers and John Oliver, men whose consistency is both laudable and antithetical to the viral hits other hosts tend to score at a more reliable clip. On Late Night, Meyers has built patient, factual dissection of dense and knotty issues into his signature section, “A Closer Look”; on Last Week Tonight, “patient, factual dissection of dense and knotty issues” works handily as a synopsis of the entire show. Though both men are gifted comedians with enough charisma to hold their own from behind the desk for 30-odd minutes at a time, I wouldn’t describe either as the funniest or most magnetic presence in late night; O’Brien takes the most joy in comedy as an art form, and having seen him work a room in person, I can testify to Corden’s almost absurd level of charisma. Rather, Meyers and Oliver are among the best providing the reassurance viewers increasingly crave from their late-night hosts. They digest the news so you don’t have to, then make full use of their freedom to express derision and amusement along with their insight. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “Stupid Watergate” in casual conversation, half the time by someone who’s not aware they’re even making a reference.
Meyers is also distinguished by a certain self-awareness about the contradictory nature of his station: a clean-cut white guy in a suit arguing on behalf of a worldview that holds the world should be less dominated by clean-cut white guys in suits. He has a whole segment dedicated to it, in which female and nonwhite writers deliver “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” The bit gets at the paradox of late night’s cultural resurgence, which offers the balm of a traditional authority figure at a time when most authority figures are demonstrating their staggering inadequacies — cultural conservatism as an antidote to the political kind. There’s more polished comedy to be found on shows that don’t have to generate material on such short notice and more in-depth analysis on the news. By synthesizing the former with the latter, late night in 2017 promised a commodity more precious than either: trust.