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Why Late-Night Comedy Is Under More Scrutiny Than Ever Before

Late-night tv viewing is getting significantly more intense.

In an era when audiences have become increasingly polarized by politics and their viewing habits have been fragmented by a dizzying array of streaming-video technologies, TV’s growing spate of late-night programs face new challenges. What’s funny to one crowd can be offensive to another. And with the internet and social media serving as universally accessible archives for a comic’s work, offensive statements can spark mass outcry long after they were initially made.

NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” on Monday reversed course on hiring Shane Gillis as a new cast member four days after racist remarks made by the comedian prompted protest. Gillis’ comments, delivered in a podcast, were resurfaced Sept. 12 by freelance journalist Seth Simons. “Let the f—ing ch–ks live there,” Gillis is heard to say in one episode about Chinatown. Though he and fellow comic Matt McCusker deleted the bulk of their “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast” library from YouTube later that day, a review of the material by Variety prior to its removal found that Gillis has an established history of making racist, sexist, homophobic and ableist remarks. In a 2016 interview with the Philadelphia news site Billy Penn, Gillis said that when deciding what jokes work with his audience, “you can be racist to Asians. That’s what we’re finding out.”

In a statement Monday on “SNL” exec producer Lorne Michaels’ behalf, an NBC spokesperson said: “The language [Gillis] used is offensive, hurtful and unacceptable. We are sorry that we did not see these clips earlier, and that our vetting process was not up to our standard.” In his own statement posted to Twitter minutes after NBC announced that it had parted ways with him, Gillis wrote: “I’m a comedian who was funny enough to get SNL. That can’t be taken away. Of course I wanted an opportunity to prove myself at SNL, but I understand it would be too much of a distraction.”

Many comics feel like the have come under a microscope in recent years. “Increasingly, comic performances are accessible to the entire world via social media. This means people who never ‘signed the contract’ inside the comedy club get access to these jokes,” says Danna Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication, who has studies the politics behind late-night comedy for many years . “And sometimes they decide: ‘You don’t make the rules out here. We make the rules. And you broke them.’”

Indeed, “SNL” isn’t the only late-night program that’s had to contend with viewers taking offense.

In 2018, TBS’ “Full Frontal,” a weekly comedy program led by Samantha Bee, lost advertisers for a few weeks after the comedian used a charged epithet that refers to a part of the female anatomy to insult President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka. HBO’s Bill Maher came under intense scrutiny in June 2017 after the host delivered a racial epithet during a conversation with Sen. Ben Sasse in an attempt to make a joke. Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah ran into controversy when jokes he had posted on Twitter prior to being named host of “The Daily Show” were resurfaced and drew offense. All three apologized, and the controversies around them effectively blew over.

Even Stephen Colbert, whose CBS program, “The Late Show,” is the most-viewed weeknight program in the time slot, has run into headwinds. In the Spring of 2017, Colbert said on air that President Donald Trump was suited to be “Vladimir Putin’s c–k holster,” and the remarks triggered a short-lived social media campaign calling for the host’s ouster. “I have jokes; he has the launch codes. So, it’s a fair fight,” Colbert subsequently told viewers.

When Johnny Carson, then Jay Leno and David Letterman, held sway, late-night TV was watched differently. Viewers had to stay up after their local late news to check out what a host said — and if they missed an episode, they were unlikely to see it again. These days, a good chunk of viewing comes via clips that live on YouTube, Twitter and elsewhere. In some cases, like the popular “Closer Look” segments on Seth Meyers’ “Late Night” on NBC, the clips may go up for viewing even before the show airs.

Now even some hosts admit they are performing for fans more frequently via video clips. “In this day and age at least, the direct time slot competition doesn’t seem quite as urgent as it used to be,” David Spade, host of the recently launched “Lights Out” on Comedy Central, told Variety in July. “People are going to find clips or things they like and watch them the next morning, watch them on their phones, maybe grab this guy’s field piece, grab this guy’s interview with a celebrity. In a world where there’s so much stuff out there, you just hope to get a piece of it and stay afloat.”

But sometimes social media and digital viewing can cause people to sink. (Simon’s tweets calling attention to Gillis’ racist history, for instance, were made just four hours after Gillis was announced as an “SNL” cast member.) Producers and networks will need to recognize that more fully as wee-hours comedy gets distributed in a new fashion.

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