The late-night talk shows have undergone two years of experimentation due to the COVID-19 pandemic — and honestly, that’s been a rare silver lining in these bizarre times. But will any of this translate to a shakeup in the variety talk category?
It’s a race that has been dominated by “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” since 2016, after Jon Stewart left “The Daily Show.” Ironically, Stewart is back in contention this year with “The Problem With Jon Stewart.” But the larger question of whether Oliver’s dominance may finally be tested comes as the talkers showcase COVID-era creative renaissance.
With no audience to play with, James Corden turned to the staff and producers in his empty studio — and made CBS late-night exec Nick Bernstein into a star, as he was the butt of countless jokes and stunts. “The Daily Show” created segments in of the correspondents’ homes, and musical guests left the studio and produced what were essentially mini-music videos for their appearances. Similarly, “Late Night” host Seth Meyers says he feels like there’s even more authenticity to his show now.
Most of the shows finally brought audiences back in studio — including “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” which waited until April to do so. “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” which relocated to a studio in Connecticut during the pandemic, has opted to continue without an audience.
“I think it’s a permanent change for us,” Bee says. “There’s a part of me that misses having people clap. But I actually don’t think that the experience of watching the show was really guided by that. We could make our processes a little easier and more life-friendly.”
Speaking of making things a little more life — and production — friendly, in one more major shift, Showtime’s “Desus & Mero” returned to weekly episodes, rather than twice a week. Yet, there’s a creative boom that’s refreshing to see. I loved Jimmy Kimmel dusting off an old radio stunt — in which morning drive time DJs would switch spots to confuse listeners on April Fool’s Day — and bringing it to Jimmy Fallon. The result was Kimmel on “The Tonight Show” and Fallon on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
“So many people confuse us and we’re mentioned in every sentence, because we have the same first name,” Kimmel says. “It is amazing that as many people who knew about it, that it didn’t get out.”
This year, talk shows were able to return to signature segments or trips put on pause. For Corden, that meant a return to Carpool Karaoke — starting with Cardi B.
“Over the past year, very slowly, in one sense or another, we started to get our show back,” Corden says. “This [segment] is obviously a big part of our show. … The entire pandemic, there were so many things that we couldn’t do, and I think that’s true of every show. But for us, our show is very much about getting out there.”
Corden is taking his show to London for the first time in three years this month, while Kimmel has planned his long-awaited return visit to Brooklyn for a week of shows this fall. (“The Daily Show” also plans a trip this fall, to Georgia, timed to the midterm elections.) Of course, this return to normalcy is just a prelude to what could be another transformative year in the talk space, as Corden exits in spring 2023, while Kimmel also has to make a decision about his future as his current deal with ABC ends. And so goes the circle of life in late night.