A year after David Letterman quit, late-night TV is in flux like never before. Following decades of stagnation, the after-hours landscape looks drastically different from how it looked in 2015 – and, no doubt, how it will look this time next year. It’s been just over two years since Jimmy Fallon took over from Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, and since then we’ve witnessed a multicouch pileup. Exit Letterman from The Late Show; enter Stephen Colbert. Farewell, Craig Ferguson, on The Late Late Show; welcome, James Corden. Adieu, The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart; welcome, Samantha Bee – oh, wait, no, Trevor Noah got that gig, for some reason.
It’s a massive generational shift for late night, and we’re only starting to see the results. But Bee’s spectacular rookie season on Full Frontal is the best thing to happen to late-night TV since microwave pizza rolls. Her legend-making moment came early, the night she ripped into Sen. Mitch McConnell for his vow that Republicans would block any Supreme Court appointment. “OK, fine, fuck this stupid thing,” Bee fumed. “Let’s just have a Supreme Court vacancy for a year because some chinless dildo wants a justice who will use his gavel to plug up your abortion hole.”
With those tender words, Bee served notice that it’s a new era in late night. Back in the Leno-versus-Letterman days, it was two giants doing two philosophically different versions of the same show, with the same format and the same guests. But in 2016, with clips going viral, you can sample peak bits a la carte – you can watch Fallon’s Lip Sync Battle segments without sitting through his still-cringe-y celebrity interviews. There was always a “captive audience” element in the late-show premise – as Leno famously said, “To me, the key to The Tonight Show is, you’re at the airport and, ‘Oh, look, it’s on the TV over the bar.'” That’s not an audience you can build a franchise on anymore, because #phones #got #invented, and these hosts know it – they have to work harder to reach an increasingly fickle crowd of insomniacs, most of whom are now procrastinating at work the next day. If the late-night set does something worth your time to watch, it’ll find you.
The hosts who are winning the new late-night game understand this principle. Bee has gotten it from Night One – her debut season has been a sensation, bringing her no-bullshit personality to weekly rants and field reports. She was always great on The Daily Show, but her new freedom has inspired her to new heights, as with her fellow Daily alumnus John Oliver as he slices up Donald Trump. In retrospect, it was the rise of Oliver on Last Week Tonight that blew up The Daily Show’s spot. Oliver’s decision to go weekly looks more and more prescient – it punctured Stewart’s mojo and sent him fleeing to HBO, where his former pet Brit was out-Daily-ing him every week.
Corden has a completely different personality – chummy, vulnerable, ego-free – but he gives the sense that it’s all him, which is why he’s earned so much goodwill so fast. He’s always determined to be less edgy than his guests, which means he can make them look cooler and funnier than they really are. That’s what’s made his Carpool Karaoke routine an instant classic. Belting in the car with Corden can make an uptight micromanaged celeb like Jennifer Lopez look spontaneous, especially since he’s genuinely trying to sing rather than just crack her up. With a more freewheeling personality, the segment can turn into a rampage, like the solid-gold moment when Corden started rapping Kanye West’s “Monster” and Adele came in with the Nicki Minaj verse.
As for the old-money Big Three cruise ships, they’re still afloat. NBC’s Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers own the ratings in their time slots; even their reruns beat the competition. Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert are neck and neck for second place. Talk about the triumph of Lorne Michaels — some 40 years after he had to make a humble pilgrimage to Johnny Carson’s dressing room and ask the great man’s permission to do his own late-night comedy show on the weekends. Now, he rules Carson’s entire empire, as well as that weekend show he still runs. Fallon and Kimmel have basically divided the old-school approach down the middle, with Kimmel as the wiseass adult bro to Fallon’s eager-to-please spaniel puppy. Fallon gets some badly needed grit from Questlove and the Roots, and he’s smart enough to let them save his bacon every night. And like Fallon, former not-ready-for-primetime player Seth Meyers knows exactly what Lorne expects from him and how to deliver; the big difference is that he gets to play a grown-up. After his wife gave birth, Meyers told a brilliant (and very New York) story about how the Uber driver who took them to the hospital gave them a passenger rating of one star, ruining his perfect score.
As for Colbert, the newest host in this group, he’s still finding his feet after a year, which seems strange – he’s continuing to tinker with his new role as he figures out how to make use of his appealing sincere side. The funniest moments come when he lets himself slide back into his comfort zone as a brazen political satirist. Colbert the Real Guy is still learning how to live with Colbert the Zany Fictional Character, and they’re occasionally elbowing each other for room. You can see it pains the guy that he pulled the plug on The Colbert Report right before this election turned into the godless killing machine of his former persona’s wildest dreams. When Colbert talks about politics now, he looks like a man who used all his willpower struggling to go gluten-free, then moved next door to a donut shop.
By the way, you might be startled to hear Carson Daly’s Last Call is still on at 1:35 A.M. — after 14 freaking years! — especially since it’s overshadowed by his more high-profile gigs on Today and The Voice. Yet it looks nothing like you remember it (if you do) and it’s entered truly avant-garde territory. Carson has reached this Zen state where he’s phased out the formal cliches — no monologue, no couch chats, not even a studio set. Now it’s a beyond-chill cruise through L.A. after hours, hitting bars with not-terribly-famous actors and under-under-the-radar bands. And Bill Maher keeps it raw on Real Time after 13 years — Bill and Carson Daly definitely make a strange pair of O.Gs., but he still brings it, especially when it comes to his favorite topic, religion, noting that the Supreme Court hasn’t heard a case about taxing churches since 1970. “And since then, religion has become a lot less popular, especially with younger people. To them, religion is the new pubic hair.”
Larry Wilmore took some time to build up steam on The Nightly Show after his debut last year – he’s so reluctant to seem slick or jokey that he initially looked like an awkward fit. He isn’t always funny, but he’s got a mean moral earnestness that ensures he isn’t ever bland – especially his January rant about the Flint water-poisoning crisis. “This is what small government looks like,” Wilmore fumed. “Officials in Flint, Michigan, should all be rounded up and put behind bars. If you need extra lead for those bars, just hold a town blood drive.” Like his fellow Daily vets Bee and Oliver, Wilmore can’t help showing up the mothership franchise on a regular basis, which might be how he ended up hosting this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
The Daily Show‘s decision to let Bee slip away looked nuts at the time, and does not look significantly less nuts now. Sad to say, Noah has not gotten better, despite a presidential election that should be God’s gift to political jokers. It’s a reminder that Stewart made his bones on the program with the most tedious campaign in history: the 2000 “Gush versus Bore” snoozefest, which didn’t become a horrifying melodrama until election night. If Stewart could spend his rookie year squeezing humor out of boredom like that, it’s baffling Noah can’t seem to get more friction going with this crazy cast of characters, but friction isn’t his thing. He can’t fake the personal anger of Bee or Wilmore, or the detached concern of Oliver, and while he’s wise not to simulate emotions he doesn’t feel, he makes it look like he’s only discussing politics because that’s the assignment his teacher gave him. He gives the impression he’d much rather trade jobs with Fallon. And it brings out the blah in him. It’s strange because barely over a year ago, the whole Daily franchise seemed like a sure thing.
But if anything’s clear in the late-night scene of 2016, there are no sure things, be cause the game is mutating too fast. Long gone are the days when Johnny Carson’s America drank itself to sleep in front of his monologues. Now that we’re sampling from the menus of different shows after they air, according to our own whims and on our own schedules, the pressure on hosts to generate buzz in an overcrowded field of contenders is causing them to up the ante on an increasingly regular basis. A concentrated blast of brilliance now makes more impact than endless hours of amiable plodding. When Oliver rewrote the rules with Last Week Tonight, he made it clear right in the self-mocking title he wasn’t aspiring to be early or even timely about the news – instead, he was taking the time to do longer in-depth reports that remained fresh and watchable for days or even weeks to come.
What a concept. Clearly, the competition was tuning in and taking notes. And suddenly, the most sluggish and complacent of TV formats is getting forced to innovate just to keep up with its audience – which can only mean it’s going to get more exciting.