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Late-Night Television Is Moving Backward

In a notoriously static genre of TV, the loss of ‘Full Frontal With Samantha Bee’ and ‘Desus & Mero’ feels particularly acute

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On Monday, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee revealed via social media that the late-night show was ending after seven seasons on TBS. The news came exactly a week after the devastating announcement that comedy duo Desus Nice and the Kid Mero had split up, concluding their namesake series on Showtime in the process.

Individually, these news items are disappointing enough. When given the reins of her own weekly half-hour, Bee proved adept at channeling the rage many liberals—especially women—felt during the Trump years. (The Daily Show alum may have apologized for calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” in 2018, but plenty of fans felt Bee was right to say it.) My colleague Rob Harvilla has already eulogized the Desus and Mero partnership, which began on Twitter and grew to include a beloved podcast, as well as an earlier show on Viceland. But it bears repeating that their rapid-fire chemistry and brash New York bravado were both unprecedented and unmatched in late night’s otherwise staid terrain.

Taken together, their loss’s impact starts to snowball. In recent years, late night has started to diversify around its edges. Trevor Noah has successfully steered The Daily Show into a new era, while former Late Night With Seth Meyers writer Amber Ruffin leads her eponymous, Emmy-nominated show on Peacock. But the field’s flagship programs still largely adhere to the white-guy-in-a-suit model established more than half a century ago. Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and James Corden anchor broadcast TV’s big four, while award magnet John Oliver holds court on HBO.

To the extent that late night’s paradigm had started to shift, the fate of Full Frontal and Desus & Mero shows how fragile that incremental progress truly is. Just a couple of cancellations are enough to bring late night back within spitting distance of its former status quo. And, however impressive one show’s accomplishments, recent events are a case study in how individual achievements are no substitute for systemic change.

Full Frontal and Desus & Mero ended under very different circumstances, though they produced the same result. According to Puck’s Matthew Belloni, Desus and Mero parted ways after longtime manager Victor Lopez became a disruptive presence on set, to the point where Showtime fielded multiple official complaints and requested that Lopez—a credited producer on the show—no longer attend tapings or meetings. (Disclosure: Belloni also hosts a podcast for The Ringer.) Desus reportedly agreed with the network’s response, while Mero sided with Lopez.

Showtime did not cancel Desus & Mero, and surely appreciated the high-profile interviews and ecstatic press the show received throughout its four seasons. Instead, Desus & Mero ceased to be over a personal dispute, one whose outsize impact is a testament both to the show’s quality and late night’s short supply of distinct voices. It’s rare that a disagreement between longtime friends has the power to affect an entire genre of entertainment.

The reasons for Full Frontal’s demise are more corporate, and therefore easier to extrapolate into industry trends. TBS exists under the umbrella of Turner Networks, which used to be owned by WarnerMedia, which used to be owned by AT&T, until it was spun off and merged with Discovery Networks. The new company, now called Warner Bros. Discovery, is saddled with over $50 billion in debt, largely as a result of the merger.

That amount of red ink requires some cost cutting to balance the books and appease shareholders. The newly combined company has taken some dramatic steps, including layoffs and pulling the plug on expensive projects like J.J. Abrams’s Demimonde. But other money-saving measures also dovetail with Warner Bros. Discovery’s larger strategy: pivoting away from linear TV channels like TBS and going all in on streaming. Back in April, Variety reported that Warner Bros. Discovery was ending scripted development entirely at TBS and TNT, cutting off any future new series at the pass. Unsurprisingly, current shows were next on the chopping block, with a handful still left in limbo. In the meantime, TBS’s parent company has turned its attention to less pricey but still significant investments like unscripted late-night shows.

Not too long ago, TBS was something of a hub for slightly left-of-center comedy: Conan O’Brien’s post-NBC perch, the absurdist parody Angie Tribeca, the alien abduction sitcom People of Earth. That state of affairs has been in flux for some time, symbolized by the transfer of the cult hit Search Party to HBO Max in Season 3. But not every show can simply be shuffled over, especially with a balance sheet as burdened as Warner Bros. Discovery’s. The entertainment industry as a whole is moving toward consolidation. Full Frontal With Samantha Bee is simply that pivot’s latest victim.

Late night is notoriously static and small-c conservative. It’s largely anchored to a linear TV schedule that doesn’t make much sense for modern viewing habits, though Corden and Fallon have thrived by catering to newer platforms like YouTube. And it often favors inertia, with icons from Johnny Carson to David Letterman cementing their legacies with multi-decade reigns. This context is what made novelties like Full Frontal, an unabashedly angry catharsis, and Desus & Mero, a top-quality hang with the funniest guys you know, so refreshing. It’s also what makes their loss so acute.

In late night’s medium term, there’s some opportunity for turnover. Corden has announced he will leave The Late Late Show in 2023, providing a window for CBS to bet on a relatively new name. But as TV’s decade-long growth streak starts to stall, it’s worth asking where the next Desus & Mero or Full Frontal will get its start. Late night’s already small circle just shrunk considerably—and it’s unlikely to expand again anytime soon.