Yes, this is the guy who served “Hollywood Minute” zingers on “Saturday Night Live,” made millions laugh with movies that also featured Chris Farley, and has become a regular TV element via roles on “Just Shoot Me” and “Rules of Engagement.” His new “Lights Out” will launch Monday July 29 at 11:30 p.m.
Spade may seem a traditional choice. By relying on one of modern comedy’s best-known players, however, Comedy Central is breaking the rules, not hewing to them.
For the first time since the debut of “The Colbert Report” in 2005, the Viacom-owned cable network will not launch an 11:30 program built around talent from its flagship “The Daily Show,” whose ranks have given viewers not only Stephen Colbert, but Larry Wilmore and Jordan Klepper. And another change: the network isn’t pairing “Daily” with a follow-up program that also hinges largely on politics.
“I don’t want half the crowd tuning me out,” says Spade of talking red-and-blue-state matters, in an interview. “I’m just not that smart and there are other guys doing it better.”
“Lights Out” will have a monologue, guests and field pieces, Spade says, but will likely focus more on talking to a panel about popular culture and digital happenings. He’s not even sure he will revive the celebrity put-downs that brought him a measure of fame on “SNL.” He will likely discuss “more cultural events and some Hollywood stuff, weird stories in the news,” he says. Sure, “I still like to make fun of everyone and what they are doing, but it’s more good-natured. I realize how hard careers are and I realize you don’t need someone overnight s—ting on you out of the blue. But when people do things, I think it’s fair game to make a few jokes, and then you move on – not too personal, of course.”
Jon Stewart gave Comedy Central late-night cachet for years by tilting at major news events and the way the media covered them. His successor, Trevor Noah, is tackling the political process and fallout from it with his own version of “The Daily Show.” But after years of taking some of those hosts’ most distinctive contributors to start new companion shows, Comedy Central is testing a new direction.
“We started realizing that there was such a glut of politics and vitriol – ‘Trump fatigue’ in particular,” says Kent Alterman, president of Comedy Central, Paramount Network, and TV Land, in an interview. “We kind of felt it intuitively, and we did research with our audience. People are just burning out on hard-core politics and Trump.”
Don’t tell that to some of Spade’s new time-slot competitors. At CBS, Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” has thrived in the Trump era, using an intense focus on scabrous jibes at the White House to become the most-watched late-night program in the U.S. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel has at times gone political, particularly when issues affect him personally. NBC’s Jimmy Fallon has also been testing a somewhat tighter focus on the headlines, recently doing a live program after the first round of Democratic debates.
A good chunk of late-night comedy has Trump in the cross-hairs, including Seth Meyers’ “Late Night” on NBC, Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” on TBS, Bill Maher’s “Real Time” on HBO and, on many occasions, that network’s “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver.
Viewers may have a surfeit of politics at this point. “I think it’s pretty reasonable to think that mode of heightened emotional political commentary is really unsustainable,” says Geoffrey Baym, a professor of media studies at Temple University in Philadelphia and author of “From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.” Many late-night programs have “really reached market saturation with the whole range of political commentary.”
Spade had been at work on a weekly Comedy Central program for primetime, says Alterman, one centered at tackling the culture of social media. Executives, however, wondered if he might be right for late-night – long the network’s signature time slot and one that has stood as one of Viacom’s stronger business elements. “We quickly pivoted our development conversation with David,” Alterman recalls.
For a long period of time, Comedy Central could do no wrong around midnight. Aided by the one-two punch of Stewart and Colbert, Comedy Central enjoyed a long moment as the birthplace of a new generation of late-night comedy. The network for a time even had a third successful wee-hours entry. Chris Harwick’s “@midnight” used a game-show format to have a range of comedians explore the nuances of digital media. Many viewers could use the show to find out what was trending online before those suggestions showed up on Twitter or in a Facebook feed. But the show ended its run in August of 2017, after Colbert signed off in 2014 to leave for CBS. Stewart subsequently retired, and the Wilmore and Klepper shows, while critically supported, didn’t gain the audience traction executives wanted.
Comedy Central has long relied on upstart talent to lead its late-night entries, but Alterman says Spade’s veteran status will be a boon. He can bring in guests who have worked with him in the past and also may have more leeway to discuss a broader range of topics each night. “He has worked in so many ways, from stand-up to sketch to acting.”
For Spade, “Lights Out” offers the chance to connect to a new generation. The comedian readily admits there is a chunk of population out there that has few ties to movies like “Tommy Boy” and “Black Sheep,” and almost none to the Tom Petty impression (“I think I’m allowed to do it, but I don’t know if there’s any great demand for it,” he says) and “Buh-bye!” catchphrase he made popular on “Saturday Night Live.” These days, says Spade, he’s more likely to win fans after making an appearance on “Ellen” or from his recent appearances in movies made for Netflix. This show, he says, may bring in new fans as well as old ones. “I may get people back that gave up on me,” he quips.
Indeed. he is approaching the new show with a dose of humility. “It’s exciting to have a forum for my shenanigans, but I know that it’s very hard to do a show and very hard to do it the right way,” he says. “It’s just such a question mark because you are live on your feet out there. It’s easier said than done,” he adds, then jokes: “I guess I’m not over-hyping it enough.”
Having vowed to keep his nose largely out of politics, Spade wonders if he’s setting himself up for a bunch of headlines crowing that he’s ready to leave Trump alone. “I just want to do a lighthearted show,” he explains. “We are going to throw our best jokes out and you’ll like them or you won’t , but you are not going to want to punch your TV.”