Breaking Down the Three Tiers of the Late-Night Talk Scene

It’s often been said there is no more grueling job in television than being a writer on a daytime soap opera. But in today’s environment, the workload on sudsers has been eclipsed by the demands of producing a late-night talk-variety show.

As with everything else in TV, late-night has been on steroids for the past five years, with shows and formats proliferating at a dizzying rate. The landscape seems to be divided into three broad camps: the Entertainers, the Explainers, and the Interpreters. Given the pedigrees of the stars of most late-night shows, the distinctions might also be described as shows from the school of Lorne Michaels and those from the school of Jon Stewart.

Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” exec produced by Michaels, is the brightest light among the Entertainers. He’s there to amuse, to spoof, to dance and sing, to gush over his guests and get them to do silly things that you can’t believe made it past their handlers.

When a host can convince President Obama to “slow jam” the news in front of 4 million viewers on NBC, you know the TV gods are on his side. James Corden, of CBS’ “Late Late Show,” has got some of that glow as well thanks to the viral punch of his “Carpool Karaoke” segments.

John Oliver, who rose to prominence on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” is standard bearer among the Explainers. HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” amounts to a weekly class on Outrageous Things You Didn’t Know Were Happening.

“When a host can convince President Obama to ‘slow jam’ the news in front of 4 million viewers on NBC, you know the TV gods are on his side.”
@Variety_Cynthia on Twitter

Oliver and his team are geniuses at offering perspective on news stories, social trends (good and ill), and bizarro items from around the world. Only Oliver & Co. can spend 10-12 minutes unpacking the nitty-gritty details of voter ID laws or political redistricting or tax loopholes for churches or the looming lead poisoning time bomb and make it both entertaining and enlightening.

Among the Interpreters, the heat is behind TBS’ “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.” The show fronted by the 12-year “Daily Show” alum has served up virtually wall-to-wall political material since its Feb. 8 premiere, for obvious reasons.

There is no sharper voice offering a bipartisan skewering of the candidates, their foibles and faux pas and platforms than Bee. Her status as the only woman in the field only makes her more distinctive in a way that amplifies her impact. (Chelsea Handler’s new Netflix series is a different animal altogether.) And Bee’s success in barreling into the national consciousness in a matter of months underscores how much traction “Daily Show” has lost under host Trevor Noah.

A common thread among these disparate offerings in late night is the intense amount of preparation, research and production that goes into them. The booking wars of yesteryear are just one aspect of the battle these days. Every two-minute taped bit usually amounts to days of work behind the scenes. Throw in a celebrity or politician and the production becomes that much more tricky.

With all of its highly produced material, there’s probably no show more demanding than “The Tonight Show.” At a June 9 gathering hosted by the Writers Guild of America East, the show’s writing team marveled at how it is able to pull off outlandish stunts such “Two James Taylors on a Seesaw,” which featured the famed singer-songwriter and Fallon (in Taylor guise) singing together while riding a giant seesaw that the prop department assembled in a matter of hours.

“We put out so much content,” said “Tonight Show” writer Albertina Rizzo. “We basically put together a one-hour, fully formed play every day, 240 days a year.”

Whether it’s James Taylor on a seesaw, Adele’s pipes booming out of a compact car or Donald Trump’s head on a stick, the late-night TV pageant is a truly a wonder to behold.

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