As 2020 began, nobody could have doubted that the presidential election would be the story of the year when it came to late-night talk shows. The hosts and their teams spent most of 2019 getting into fighting shape for Trump: The Rematch.
But a not-so-funny-thing happened on the way to the Oval Office. By late February, the shock of a deadly pandemic reaching U.S. shores blew the presidential race off the front pages. And then, just as the tide seemed to be turning on coronavirus, the brutal May 25 killing of George Floyd spurred a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement that has vastly overshadowed the race between presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Trump.
The severity of the times has had a huge impact on late-night television. Shows produced in a remote format don’t lend themselves to stunts and games. The lurches in the national political landscape and the national mood have made it impossible for politicians to be too jocular in late-night TV appearances.
“It’s been a tricky moment for figuring out what is funny,” says Josh Gondelman, writer and co-executive producer, Showtime’s “Desus & Mero” and a “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” alum, speaking about the late-night genre in general. “When things are bleak, you’re always thinking about what is expected by the audience and what they’ll accept.”
In short, the whiplash of the past 135 days has forced late-night to get a lot more serious. If nothing else, the comedians that lead the most prominent shows in the genre are adept at reading the room.
“With the ongoing coronavirus crisis — impacting both health and economy — the Black Lives Matter social-justice movement, and the fast-approaching referendum on the Trump presidency, the stakes are high,” says Geoffrey Baym, a professor at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication. “At the same time, the entertainment industry is largely on hiatus, and the kind of Hollywood promotional tours that feed the traditional late-night interview are paused for the time being. That all indicates a need for serious and informed conversation, and a related lack of pure distraction.”
As a lockdown mentality took hold of the nation, the shows that were already inclined to dive into politics — notably CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” — began to go deep with political- and public policy-related guests. In many cases, the hosts have given up multiple segments of remotely produced shows to conversations about CDC protocols and the supply chain issues that left the nation starved for PPE. Not exactly the set-up-joke-plug formula of traditional late-night talk.
The sober tone has only been heightened by the outrage over the Floyd killing. Late-night has become a platform for discussion of social-justice issues and the nitty-gritty of police reform measures that were long stalled until the national wave of protests helped fuel a resurgence of focus on criminal justice reform and the Black Lives Matter movement. The harsh impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on marginalized communities with limited access to health care has also put more focus on dense wonky topics that previously would have been seen as less than compelling for late-night fodder.
Recent examples of late night getting more serious: “Daily Show” has featured Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Dr. Anthony Fauci in recent remote broadcasts. On June 9, Noah even hosted a six-person virtual panel to talk about policing. The show is still based in comedy, but “not everything is funny right now,” says Jen Flanz, executive producer of “The Daily Show.”
Colbert’s guest list in recent months has included former presidential candidates Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); Mayor Pete Buttigieg; as well as NAACP Legal Defense Fund chief Sherrilyn Ifill; Congressional Black Caucus chair Karen Bass; and former Georgia legislator and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams.
“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” has kept its focus more firmly on entertainment-related guests, but the post-Floyd moment has spurred segments with a host of artists and thinkers, as well as the June 17 appearance by “White Fragility” author Dr. Robin D’Angelo.
Conan O’Brien has on several nights simply invited an array of Black guests from different walks of life on TBS’ “Conan” and listened to them. Those shows have generated powerful moments that showcase the hosts stretching their muscles. As America reopens from the pandemic and shows return to their traditional sets, the big question is will the old rhythms of the late-night return.
“My question is what’s going to happen as to what the booking situation is going to be as far as people promoting shows and movies over the next six months,” says Jeff Ross, O’Brien’s longtime executive producer. “I don’t know the answer.”
One thing that is clear from the way TV’s topical late-night shows have responded to this extraordinary moment is that viewers expect their favorite bedtime shows to reflect the world at large — even when it’s anything but funny.
“Late-night comedy is part of the experience of processing difficult feelings,” Gondelman says. “Comedy is a way of hearing someone articulate their feelings, through jokes and through facts and things that everyone is experiencing. It feels stabilizing emotionally.”