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Inside Late-Night TV’s Ever-Expanding Content Factory

Jimmy Fallon and his “Tonight Show” staff could have used the Olympics as an excuse to take a few weeks off. Instead, they took on a task as tough as landing a triple axel.

To keep “Tonight” fresh in viewers’ minds — and maybe even win some new fans — staffers pitched NBC on the idea of running five-minute versions of the show, following primetime Olympic programming. “We pitched it to Jim Bell,” the executive who oversees NBC’s Olympics broadcast, “and he was down with it,” says Katie Hockmeyer, one of the main producers of “Tonight.” Each broadcast was a miniature “Tonight” — a few Fallon jokes, a nod to house band the Roots and a quick hit with guests like Paul Rudd or Chloe Kim. “Please stop clapping. We only have five minutes,” Fallon told the audience one night. “The show’s already over.”

In this era of content-hungry audiences, even a small helping of late-night antics have value. “We need to have content viewed everywhere, because the viewing habits of television have changed and it’s no longer just about your nightly time slot anymore,” says Hockmeyer.

The brevity of the “Tonight Show” stunt didn’t make the work any easier: Guests still had to be booked, and audiences still had to be loaded into the studio. To give them a full “Tonight” experience, the Roots put on a mini concert not meant for TV. On one night, Fallon held forth on a “homemade” set, with his signature blue curtain, desk and other elements made out of cardboard. In the hours leading up to one of the broadcasts, staffers confronted the ultimate challenge: They had come up with six and a half minutes of great material, and 90 seconds had to be cut.

What’s so hard about filling 300 seconds of air? More than you might think, particularly when the Olympics attracted viewers who may not watch Fallon regularly. “It was critical for us to think of creative ways to keep people engaged for those five minutes,” says Hockmeyer.

The staffs at TV’s ever-increasing number of late-night programs have always had to be ready to come up with content on the fly. Sketches need to be written. Jokes must be whipped up for monologues, questions researched for guests, field pieces plotted, planned and taped. Now, thanks to a surge of interest in the genre fueled by the Trump news cycle and the rise of a dizzying array of new-media outlets, everyone from NBC’s Fallon to BET’s Robin Thede is under growing pressure to churn out even more to stay competitive. Much of the activity is related to the core of the business — the shows — but a rising amount is devoted to tangential ventures too.

“Right now, the world is a scary place. People crave laughter. So it’s no surprise that there is a swell of content being produced by late-night shows, as there is definitely an audience for it, particularly in the under-30 crowd,” says Martie Cook, a veteran TV producer who is director of the comedic arts BFA program at Emerson College in Boston. “I expect to see more content coming from late night, especially because there are so many different platforms for it. For the late-night host, this creates an unprecedented opportunity for an extension of their brand, which can lead to even more notoriety on a global front.”

But it’s not as simple as just throwing leftovers online. The trick: All of it has to be good. “Jon Stewart always said, ‘If it’s not good enough for the show, it’s not good enough for the web.’ He’s absolutely right,” says Jo Miller, a veteran “Daily Show” writer and producer who helped launch and supervise TBS’ “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.” The new extensions can bolster the presence of a show, she says, “if it’s in the same voice and it’s of the same quality.”

At Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” they call Ramin Hedayati’s group “the expansion team.” Before Trevor Noah took over as host, staffers in the group had other tasks related to the linear broadcast. Now, they work exclusively on finding new ways to talk to fans.

The team recently won an Emmy for outstanding short form variety series for taking Noah’s between-segment patter and turning it into a quick-hit series, “Between the Scenes.” The videos, which get posted to Facebook, show Noah talking to and joking with the audience. The group also maintains a “library” of Donald Trump’s tweets from before and after he became president, which producers have used to create interactive exhibits fans have been able to visit in New York and Chicago.

These days, “the show is not just on from 11 to 11:30,” says Hedayati, the unit’s supervising producer. “It’s on all day.”

For some, it’s a matter of taking what works on the show and spinning it off into a stand-alone series. James Corden’s “Late Late Show” has given the world “Carpool Karaoke” for Apple, “Drop the Mic” for TBS and “James Corden’s Next James Corden” for Snapchat. Executive producers Rob Crabbe and Ben Winston say they are in the market to sell a show based on “Late Late Live Tinder,” a dating segment on the program. Stephen Colbert and “Late Show” showrunner Chris Licht have joined with a team to produce the wickedly satirical “Our Cartoon President” for Showtime. Its central character — a cartoon Donald Trump — first appeared in segments on Colbert’s CBS program.

A recurring “Tonight” segment that featured Fallon squaring off against celebrities has become the hit “Lip Sync Battle” series on Viacom’s Paramount Network. And Jimmy Kimmel has a special in development at ABC that would have popular comedy stars reenact classic sitcom scripts from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Fans of his program may recall how he had Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow and Courteney Cox act out a fake “Friends” scene in 2014.

Producers say all they need to do is monitor how pieces of content perform on social media and react according to audience response. Unlike any number of comedy pilots, these segments come with data about fan reaction. In fact, having a recurring segment is akin to having a pilot already banked, eliminating guesswork. “The numbers in the morning don’t tell you which part of the show people were gravitating toward,” says Crabbe.  But with social media, he adds, “there’s such immediate feedback you can gauge instant reaction.”

Late-night series can also be a testing ground for finding emerging talent.

Jimmy Fallon ascends the podium during one of his Olympics shows (clockwise from top left); a resplendent James Corden on “Drop the Mic”; Caleb McLaughlin styles a tune on “Lip Sync Battle”; “Our Cartoon President” (actor Jeff Bergman voices Trump); John Legend and Alicia Keys star in an episode of “Carpool Karaoke.”

In October, NBC said it would develop a comedy built around Amber Ruffin, a writer on Seth Meyers’ “Late Night,” with the host as one of its executive producers. The project is no longer moving forward, but the network intends to continue working with both on projects. Conan O’Brien’s production company wants to develop a business backing stand-up comedians that O’Brien likes, says Jeff Ross, the host’s longtime executive producer. “We are getting more and more into the comedian business,” says Ross. “It’s totally on brand.”

And sometimes, the offshoots of late night go beyond the screen.

Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” team recently launched a newsletter devoted to “little victories,” or positive developments in the news. The show has also unveiled plans to develop a game aimed at getting people to vote in the 2018 elections. TV’s newest late-night series, BET’s “The Rundown with Robin Thede,” has jumped on monthly podcasts as well as digital hangouts around big events like the State of the Union and the Oscars, says Brittany Scott Smith, the show’s co-exec producer.

The bottom line is, there’s no end to audiences’ appetite for material from their favorite hosts. O’Brien, TV’s longest-running late-night host, has backed new content for years, ranging from “Lookwell,” a 1991 cult-favorite pilot that starred Adam West as a washed-up TV action hero, to “Andy Barker P.I.,” a short-lived 2007 NBC series starring longtime sidekick Andy Richter, to “Super Fun Time,” a comedy series led by Rebel Wilson that aired on ABC in 2013. O’Brien tried a late-night TBS companion show starring Pete Holmes that same year, and his Conaco production unit has two series on TBS: the comedy “People of Earth” and the animated “Final Space.”

With so many outlets seeking standout content, “it is hard to think of an idea that is so crazy you can’t imagine a place where you could sell it,” notes David Kissinger, president of Conaco, who says the company is interested in projects that sometimes rely on the surreal humor that undergirds O’Brien’s show. “We have a lot of potential homes for things.”

Late-night hosts have long had a yen to develop their own projects; David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company famously oversaw the hit comedy “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Now the digital age has turbo-boosted those desires.

“Saturday Night Live” may have sparked the trend in 2005 when the show ran a “digital short” called “Lazy Sunday,” focused on Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell rapping their way through a series of mundane weekend events. “The kids who worked with me in their 20s and 30s immediately said, ‘This is sensational. This is huge.’ Of course, they were right,” recalls Rick Ludwin, who supervised late-night programming at NBC for decades. “The next day it got uploaded to this brand-new site called YouTube. It went around the world.”

“I expect to see more content coming from late night, because there are so many different platforms for it. For the late-night host, this creates an unprecedented opportunity for an extension of their brand.”
Martie Cook, TV producer/educator

Kimmel brought the technique to the more traditional late-night format. In 2008, comedian Sarah Silverman, who had been in a relationship with Kimmel, debuted a video on his ABC program featuring talk about having sex with actor Matt Damon, a frequent guest. YouTube lit up. When Fallon took over NBC’s “Late Night” in 2009, he introduced himself to fans with a series of online videos, says Ludwin. More of his sketches on that show would go viral.

In 2018, the opportunities to launch ventures are so plentiful that some producers wonder if they are becoming as important as the linear broadcast. “The Late Late Show” remains “crucial” to their plans, says Winston, but “I don’t like to see the spinoffs as a second project, because they are hugely important to all the people and networks we are partnering with.” Alison Camillo, an executive producer at “Full Frontal,” says the priority is the show’s voice.  “We built that voice, and now it’s about finding all the different places we can send it out.”

With so many ideas gaining traction, programs must wrangle with unforeseen organizational wrinkles. At “Tonight,” producers must keep an eye on outside projects, like a Universal Orlando ride based on the show, says Hockmeyer. Producers sent the theme park a reel of recent clips to keep things current for visitors. Host Fallon is hands-on with many of the efforts, including the marketing of a Ben & Jerry’s flavor based on “Tonight.” At “The Rundown,” says producer Smith, meetings include staffers who work on the show as well as those charged with getting it out in alternative venues.

One host wants nothing to do with any of it.

“It’s hard to overstate just how all-consuming this show is,” says John Oliver, speaking recently about his HBO program to reporters. “There’s no space for us to juggle another ball, because we’d drop all of them.”

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