Latenight shows laugh at change

Nominees might remain the same, but skeins themselves adapt

Emmy voters have seen this one before.

This year’s variety, music or comedy series nominees include the names Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Lorne Michaels, Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart. In fact, since 2006, no other name besides David Letterman has breached that list.

“One reason people don’t respond to the Emmys the way they do the Golden Globes is that there’s so little surprise year-to-year,” Kansas City Star TV critic Aaron Barnhart says.

Still, when shows run as long as “The Daily Show,” “Saturday Night Live” or “Real Time With Bill Maher,” change is inevitable — and not just with the cast or hosts. As time marches on, shows adapt how and whom they satirize or lambast.

“Evolution is unconscious,” admits Scott Carter, executive producer at HBO’s “Real Time.” Change does occur, he says, though when he’s in “go go go” mode, the change is too slow to measure, like trying to watch your hair grow.

But looking back on his show’s flowing golden locks, so to speak, Carter notes a trend toward simplicity.

“We’ve gotten rid of other elements besides Bill, following the strength of the show,” he says. They no longer close each show with a variety act, nor do they shy away from booking lesser-known journalists or authors. The discussion itself, candid and respectful, is now the sole focus. In fact, they’ve mostly put the kibosh on satellite interviews, which distract from the intimacy the show has cultivated.

In finding what works best, “The Daily Show” has trended away from chat. “Instead of bringing in experts, Jon Stewart summons his writers (onscreen) for angry screeds,” Barnhart says. “It’s proven more effective than any media criticism out there.”

Though the show’s jabs at media and politics have been slowly building for some time, it’s our current climate that has allowed the criticism to truly scorch the earth. There’s plenty more unchecked commentary nowadays — Fox News, anyone? — as well as outlets for distribution, like Twitter and the Huffington Post.

“There had to be a critical mass before ‘The Daily Show’s’ lampoon of the media could have the echo-chamber effect it has now,” Barnhart points out.

Similar changes have affected “Saturday Night Live” in recent years, says Jim Miller, author of the show’s oral history “Live From New York.” After “Lazy Sunday,” arguably the show’s first truly viral video, “SNL” went about creating more digital shorts.

“More people saw ‘Dick in a Box’ on the Internet than on the actual show,” Miller says.

Now, with the advent of Hulu, nonvideo sketches can have a life after live, and the show tailors its content accordingly. Read: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin.

This year saw “SNL” tap the Internet’s collective wishes. The penultimate episode for 2009-10 had Betty White as host in response to a Facebook campaign.

“For most of the show’s history, it’s been what Lorne Michaels and his producers wanted,” Miller says. “Plus, it would have been enough had Betty White simply shown up” — dayenu — “but that show had surprise guests and really good material.”

The remaining 2010 nominees, however, have stuck with the status quo. Colbert is “a guy who arrived fully formed when he started doing the show,” Barnhart says. Not much has changed in five years; then again, not much has had to.

And, according to Barnhart, the same goes for O’Brien, even though his past nominations were for “Late Night,” not “Tonight.” There was also that whole thing where Jay Leno took his “Tonight” spot. Didja hear about that?

“I take exception with people who say Conan did a more uptight show at 11:35 p.m. than he did at 12:35 a.m.,” Barnhart says, adding those last two weeks on the air weren’t much different, either. “There was a looseness to those episodes, but if Conan hasn’t been rewarded with an Emmy before, he’s not going to be rewarded now.”

Though, who knows, there might be a surprise this year. For a change.

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