They’re the names that fly by when the credits roll. But every member of the production staff on a late-night talk show is a foot soldier waging a daily battle against time and limited resources to make the show come alive.
Whether the series is a freight train that runs Monday through Friday or a weekly effort to synthesize and satirize the news, production values in late-night have come a long way since the days of overflowing ashtrays on Johnny Carson’s desk.
Today, there are video packages that need to be assembled, stunts that need testing, sketches that need costumes and moments of Zen to conjure. The topicality of these shows also means coordinating a small army to complete an endless series of creative and technical tasks under punishing deadlines. The unpredictability of the President Trump-era news cycle only adds to the pressure.
For executive producers and showrunners, steering the ship means relying on experts on staff to handle much of the detail work. Scouting for talent and learning to delegate authority is crucial, they say.
“We take pride in grooming our talent,” says Jennifer Flanz, showrunner of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.” “When we find people who can take on more, it only helps us in the long run. A lot of people on our show started as interns.”
Rob Crabbe, executive producer of CBS’ “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” echoes Flanz’s sentiment and emphasizes the importance of having good communication and relations between the myriad departments that need to coordinate with little room for error.
“We all look out for each other,” Crabbe says. “There’s no rivalries among departments. Everybody’s working toward the same goal — to put out the best product we can.”
Lou A. Trabbie III, production designer for “The Late Late Show,” plays a big part in setting the colorful look and feel of the show. He usually has a day at most to develop a set for a sketch or design the look for a video spoof. One of his proudest recent efforts was last December’s taped spoof of Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” music video. Corden called Trabbie with the idea on a Sunday and it aired — to viral acclaim — two days later.
“The best thing is that they trust me 100%,” Trabbie says. “They tell me they want this or that, and we just make it happen. There’s no time for meetings to talk about the color of the drapes. If you tell me you need a New York loft set, I’ll just do it.”
Crabbe says Trabbie, who has a nine-person team and has been with the show since its fifth month on the air, has “changed the way we think about what we present on the show.” His attention to detail is so great that his sets rival those that cost more and take a great deal more time to construct. “We did a bit recently with James as Melania Trump in the White House,” Crabbe says. “His White House looked like it could have come off the ‘West Wing.’ ”
The level of respect and appreciation Trabbie receives from Corden and the team makes all the difference when the calls with new ideas come in just hours before the show is set to air. “I’ve yet to say, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ ” Trabbie says. “We’re a well-oiled machine. We work well under pressure. And we love what we do because James is just such a talent.”
Dealing with last-minute changes is the rule, not the exception, for CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” footage producer Eliora Noetzel. Her job is to monitor TV news footage nearly 24/7 to search for moments that may spark jokes for Colbert’s writers or be worthy of running as standalone clips.
“We always have such a tight turnaround,” she says. “Trump likes to start talking around 4 [p.m.], which means we’re crunching out clips as quickly as possible for the writers.”
Noetzel usually works with a team of two other producers and an editor to deliver material. The holy grail is finding “Trump saying something absurd that he has no idea is absurd,” she says.
Her biggest challenge is keeping up to the nanosecond with the news cycle so that the show doesn’t miss a beat. There are monitors in “Late Show’s” studio that allow her team to watch four networks at a time. On Sunday mornings, Noetzel screens all five major public affairs shows (CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN and Fox News), on the hunt for material. She says she’s a news junkie by nature, but now she mostly watches with a detachment that is all about the show, rather than the real world.
“When you watch that much news through the lens of what would be good for the show, you’re kind of removed from it,” she says. “You’re not thinking about whether it is good for the country.”
Jay Katsir, “Late Show” head writer, calls Noetzel and her team an “elite squadron of footage ninjas” that have incredible influence on the final scripts.
“They’ll find trends within the news or the way things are being reported,” adds Opus Moreschi, “Late Show” supervising producer and head writer. That trend-spotting often leads to the many quick-cut montages that the show features of Trump and other politicians spouting talking points, among other trends. “It’s all terrifying to me — I’m glad they’re the ones doing it.”
At “The Daily Show,” the job of stitching together one of the show’s signature segments falls to Mike Choi, who edits the show’s opening “Headlines” segment featuring video clips from news stories that spur jokes and commentary from Noah. Like his peers on other late-night shows, he’s often making changes at the last minute before the late-afternoon taping begins, or struggling to edit down a guest interview for time.
But for Choi, the highlight of his day is usually assembling the show’s closing “moment of Zen.”
During the past 18 months, the 15- to 20-second segment has become a more elaborate production, often with animation and graphics added, as an exclamation point.
“It’s often something we decide in the last half-hour before the show airs,” Choi says. “It’s not something that goes through multiple rounds of notes. It’s an example of our creativity and silliness.”
Choi came to “The Daily Show” about three years ago, after working as an editor in the feature documentary realm — where production timetables are often measured in years, not minutes. Choi’s skill and ability to roll with the punches quickly endeared him to producers.
“Mike just doesn’t flinch,” says Justin Melkman, “The Daily Show” co-executive producer. “It may take him three or four tries to hit it just right, but he takes every assignment with the same enthusiasm. His passion for his work can be seen on our show every night.”
(Pictured: “The Daily Show’s” Trevor Noah and Jen Flanz)