The current crop of late-night hosts have no doubt studied the format’s obvious pioneers, people like Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Joan Rivers – even George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. They might also want to read some Sun Tzu, the military strategist, who once wrote: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
Some of TV’s top late-night comics in recent months have turned their shows into the equivalent of a battlefield. Even when they are trying to crack jokes, they are also and throwing verbal assaults that can detract from the laughs they hoped to spark.
Samantha Bee provided the most recent example of such stuff, when she capped off a smartly crafted segment about immigrant children being separated from their families by calling Ivanka Trump, the daughter of President Donald Trump, a “feckless c—.” The jab spurred backlash and defections by sponsors. Others have waded into feuds. Jimmy Kimmel in April got into a verbal slugfest with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Twitter. Stephen Colbert raised hackles in May of last year when he said President Trump was a “c— holster” for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The remarks are shocking, surprising and, for those who don’t like the comedians’ main target, quite cathartic. But are they funny?
In the current climate, the answer is no longer easy to determine. “When comics abandon humor and go with anger instead, they become just another ‘outrage’ host,” says Danna Young, an associate professor of communication at University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication who has studied TV’s late-night shows for more than 15 years. “Now, if that’s cool with them, great. But if they are looking to capitalize on the special sauce of humor, then they’ll need to take that anger and use it to inform their craft, but not have it become their craft.”
Late-night executives must be aware of the tightrope upon which the shows are treading. Just a few weeks ago, “Saturday Night Live” ran a sketch in which mothers of the show’s various cast members kept asking why the venerable program kept making fun of Trump.
Positioning themselves as outraged observers has given many of the late-night comics new relevance in a competitive business. There are more voices in late-night than ever before, Tapping into the animus, confusion and emotion stirred by some of what’s taking place in America in 2018 has created some amazing TV moments – noticeably from Kimmel, whose monologues about his young son’s medical issues and the American health insurance system took his ABC program to a new level.
Wee-hours TV is no stranger to squabbling. David Letterman would needle General Electric, the owner of NBC during his tenure on that network’s “Late Night.” After arriving at CBS, he famously mocked Leslie Moonves, then the president of CBS Television, on air. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain pulled out of a scheduled appearance on CBS’ “Late Show,” and Letterman poked fun at him for several months.
In those days, however, Letterman was something of an outlier. The main goal of late-night TV had been set by his predecessor, Johnny Carson. Late-night shows were supposed to give viewers quick doses of humor before sending them off to bed. Now many of them are getting Americans to stay “woke.”
In 2018, much has changed about the shows. Rather than sit and watch one of the programs around midnight, viewers often surf through specific segments at times of their own choosing via YouTube or other social-media venues. These days, one could say that the most important time to get engaged with Seth Meyers’ “Late Night” isn’t after 12:35 in the morning, when the show starts its linear broadcast over NBC, but rather at sometime after 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, when the program’s signature “Closer Look” segment often surfaces online, with Meyers or his executive producer, Mike Shoemaker, calling attention to it through Twitter.
When Carson held sway over late night, each program commanded a more sizable audience. In Carson’s heyday, top-rated episodes of NBC’s “Tonight” used to lure more than 9 million households. During his final week on air, in 1992, “Tonight” averaged 19 million viewers per evening. Letterman’s move to CBS split the broadcast networks’ hold over the daypart – and the viewership.
Now, viewers don’t have two main hosts but rather two handfuls of them: Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah and TBS’ Conan O’Brien kick things off at 11 p.m. Half an hour later, the three broadcast networks start up with Jimmy Fallon, Kimmel and Colbert. They must also contend with Comedy Central’s Jordan Klepper at 11:30 p.m., before all give way to James Corden and Meyers after 12:30 a.m. Fans of the genre can now check out Bee, HBO’s John Oliver, BET’s Robin Thede and Comedy Central’s Jim Jeffries in weekly programs that can often command as much attention as their daily rivals. The arrival of programs featuring Sarah Silverman on Hulu and Michelle Wolf and Joel McHale on Netflix only serves crowds the field and fractures the audience further.
Under these circumstances, the hosts are no longer trying to attain Carson’s status. Simply put, they can’t.
Their success hinges not on winning the most viewers, but on winning the most like-minded ones. That way, the networks can position themselves with advertisers as winning the youngest men, the most women, the most people between 18 and 34, et cetera. Samantha Bee likely doesn’t feel the need to broaden the show’s audience to people who might support Trump because the business power of her “Full Frontal” program on TBS comes from its ability to carve out a niche distinctive from what the other programs can command. That swath of die-hards then follows her brand of content through linear broadcasts, sure, but also on Medium, Twitter and other places where her humor and sensibility can thrive.
“Are these shows supposed to reach the broadest possible audiences? That’s a real Johnny Carson-era assumption about late-night, that the goal is to reach the largest, most non-denominational audience you possibly can,” says Geoffrey Baym, author of the 2006 book “From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News” and chair of the Department of Media Studies at Temple University. “I’m not sure that’s the way the genre works now.” The various hosts “might turn away a potential viewer, but they are doubling down on their appeal for a particular audience.”
Consider Tuesday night’s broadcast of CBS’ “Late Show,” hosted by Colbert. It is TV’s most-watched late-night program, but captured an average of just about 3.85 milliion viewers in the most recent season. That viewer base is narrow enough that its host could spend all of his time before interviewing guests launching broadsides at President Trump. A “cold open” sketch poked fun at the recent public absence of First Lady Melania Trump, and subsequent segments examined Trump’s canceling an invitation to have the Philadelphia Eagles visit the White House and looked at the troubles of former Trump campaign aide Paul Manafort. A Trump supporter might have to search really hard to find something that sparked a smile.
The same is not true of Fallon’s “Tonight” or Corden’s “Late Late Show.” These two programs take swipes at Trump and other hot-button U.S. issues – Fallon’s post-Super Bowl impression of Bob Dylan singing about the foibles of the Trump era come to mind – but have yet to let politics infuse their shows to the degree others have.
All eyes should start to glance at Conan O’Brien, who is slated to rework his TBS program in early 2019. The new “Conan” is being billed a half-hour curation of work O’Brien might do in a variety of places, including digital and social media (Yes, it will still have some of late-night’s traditional trappings).. The new program may free him up to focus even more on his own cerebral and surreal line of humor, and even less on the headlines.
Ask Colbert, Meyers or Bee whether they are more interested in laughs or getting people to think seriously about the world and politics – this reporter has – and they will tell you they are more eager to hear chuckles. But their fortunes have soared along with those of Noah, Kimmel and Oliver as their humor has become a sort of” laugh resistance” for the Trump era.
The trick, of course, is to make sure their content is fueled mostly by humor. This country will face a real challenge if TV’s late-night programs become as partisan as the primetime lineups of Fox News Channel and MSNBC. That wouldn’t be funny at all.