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What Makes a Late-Night Election Special Work?

Four major hosts went live on Tuesday night, poised to cover the dramatic midterm results that never quite materialized. Is late night equipped to compete with cable news—and do we want it to?

Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The party in control of half our legislature changes, and yet the reactions to this possibly monumental shift were all largely the same. Across different networks, time slots, and sensibilities, the late-night hosts who covered the 2018 midterm election still seemed like they were working from an identical playbook. To start, there were the self-aware jokes about how wrong things could go. Then, there were the gags: about stress drinking, about cable news conventions, about Ted Cruz. As the results solidified enough to offset fears of false confidence, there was cautious optimism. And finally, as the news slowed to a trickle, the broadcasts pivoted into just another episode of a regular talk show.

For The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Late Night With Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, going live on election night was a savvy and understandable choice. All four programs have built a reputation for responding to the news in the authoritative-yet-humorous fashion audiences seem to want from their Trump-era late-night personalities. All four saw an opportunity to capitalize on that reputation by guiding viewers through their anxiety. (Neither the relatively light Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon nor The Late Late Show With James Corden aired new episodes Tuesday night; Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, another current-events-focused show, will air its midterm analysis Wednesday night during its regularly scheduled slot.)

Colbert’s 2016 special, broadcast on Showtime instead of CBS, is simultaneously the best- and worst-case scenario for this kind of stunt. On the one hand, the Daily Show alum was blindsided on air by one of the most shocking upsets in American electoral history, with decidedly unfunny implications for the direction of the country. On the other, Colbert’s ability to handle this surprise with grace and a steady hand proved his bona fides as a wise-cool-uncle type even better than his planned convention shows, themselves the first sign that Colbert’s Late Show could find its voice through political commentary. That Colbert himself would re-create the scenario, this time on the CBS mothership, was a no-brainer.

So, under network television’s find-what-works-and-copy-until-it-doesn’t-anymore logic, his peers are following suit. Over the past two years, Meyers’s “A Closer Look” desk segment, which breaks down the headlines, has become his show’s de facto calling card. Noah’s Daily Show has enjoyed strong numbers, particularly among the extraordinarily young 18-to-24 demographic, for its hipper take on the franchise, boosted by correspondents like Roy Wood Jr. and the recently hired “senior youth correspondent” Jaboukie Young-White. Kimmel has turned his affable everyman aura into an advantage instead of a liability when it comes to politics, breaking through deafening news cycles with his impassioned speeches on health care and gun control informed by personal experience. All four were as sensible an addition to their network’s lineup as any sober news broadcast, or as Noah cracked, Comedy Central Futurama rerun.

But 2018 was not 2016, a merciful turn of events for those of us chewing through our fingernails at home and an anticlimactic one for the handsome men on our television screens. By the time Colbert, Kimmel, and Noah went live between 11 and 11:30 p.m. ET, Democrats had already taken the House, and Republicans had cemented their continued control of the Senate. The Democratic triumph earned a nearly 30-second round of ecstatic applause from the Daily Show audience; the Republican one got shrugs and boos across shows, usually when the host announced that charismatic Representative Beto O’Rourke had lost his long-shot bid to unseat Ted Cruz for a Senate seat in Texas. And without much news to collectively process, most hosts were unable to live up to the real-time broadcast’s ideal purpose, a dilemma they shared with their blustering, hard news counterparts. Instead, they went back to doing what they’ve always done: promoting guests and doing silly comedy bits.

With just 27 minutes of airtime to fill up, The Daily Show managed to avoid this awkward transition; after celebrating the House victory, staging a handful of correspondent sketches, and soliciting some more straightforward opinion-mongering from Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith, Noah and his team called it a night. On the broadcast shows, though, the internal contrasts were more apparent. Colbert had to vent about voter suppression and do cross-promotion for CBS’s prime-time lineup, in the form of in-character cameos from the stars of Blue Bloods and NCIS: New Orleans. (Even his political guests, The Circus’s John Heilemann and Alex Wagner, were from sibling network Showtime.) Meyers’s guest Billy Eichner had to segue from gushing about the House to explaining the new format of Billy on the Street. Kimmel had to form a bridge in real time between jokes about nerve-wracking uncertainty at the episode’s open — “America was in the doctor’s office, waiting for our STD results to come back” — and a musical performance by Phosphorescent at its close. In theory, these were election specials; in practice, they were 15 to 45 minutes of election material, followed by an unavoidable return to business as usual. All four shows included an obligatory detour into Idris Elba’s recent selection as People’s Sexiest Man Alive.

Working from the same, limited set of facts, there were also odd parallels between the shows’ various antics. Both Kimmel and The Daily Show satirized newscasters’ graphics-festooned breakdowns with bits about technology so sophisticated it could zoom in on a single house. Both Late Night and The Late Show used bottles of alcohol as props, plus conversation starters with their guests. (Meyers sipped Fireball with Soledad O’Brien; Colbert poured sparkling cider for Hasan Minhaj.) “Blue wave” puns abounded: Meyers compared the results to a “ripple,” while Colbert pronounced them “not a tsunami,” but also not a puddle. These are the kind of echoes almost certainly unnoticed by anyone who didn’t watch four late-night installments in rapid succession. But they also undermined the live shows’ ostensible purpose: to help establish each host as a unique voice, particularly well equipped to handle whatever this bizarre historical moment throws their way.

At the evening’s end, the fact of each live broadcast seemed to matter more than their contents. That Fallon and Corden sat the midterms out entirely speaks volumes about their (accurately) self-diagnosed strengths and weaknesses; that CBS moved Colbert from its cable affiliate to its regular election night lineup says as much about his ascendancy over the past two years as anything else. Ultimately, there was no great crisis for this cluster of well-groomed entertainers to guide us through. But that they were positioned to do so is a testament to evolving, and heightening, expectations of what the ideal late-night host can do. Those expectations, and the men who have to live up to them, weren’t fully tested last night. Then again, they might be in two years.