The evolution of late night

Nearly two weeks ago, the late-night host Trevor Noah revealed that he will soon step down from The Daily Show on Comedy Central. His announcement blindsided his viewers and possibly even his colleagues and network executives—he reportedly told his studio audience before some of his own staff—but, rather than juicy, behind-the-scenes acrimony, his decision seemed driven by a desire to do something new. “I spent two years in my apartment, not on the road, and when I got back out there, I realized there’s another part of my life out there that I want to carry on exploring,” Noah said, referring to covid and his sideline as a stand-up comedian. “I miss learning other languages. I miss going to other countries and putting on shows.”

Noah’s impending exit stretched out a broader season of turnover for late-night TV; in recent months, a number of high-profile hosts have quit, or announced their intention to do so, for a range of reasons. In April, the British comedian James Corden announced that he will step down from The Late Late Show on CBS sometime next year, stating, like Noah, that he wants to see “what else might be out there” for him. (Your British-based newsletter writer fears that he might find it back in the UK.) In July, it emerged that Desus & Mero would not return to Showtime amid rumors of a rift between the show’s eponymous hosts. (At the very least, they wanted to pursue independent projects.) The same month, TBS canceled Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, calling the decision “business based” and “difficult.” (TBS had just come under the ownership of the merged Warner Bros. Discovery, which has since tinkered across its properties, including CNN.)

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As I’ve written following periods of heavy turnover in high-profile roles in the news-media business, different people change jobs for their own individual reasons, but it’s often possible to discern trends among such moves—I wrote, for example, that a clutch of personnel moves in 2021 seemed to reflect a broader moment of change for the media business whereas a similar clutch of moves earlier this year seemed to reflect a reinforcement of the status quo at major outlets. The recent turnover in late night similarly invites some broad conclusions, even if we must be wary of generalization. For one, recent moves have raised sharp questions around diversity in a corner of the media industry that, as with many others, has long been dominated by white men; of those departing their shows, Bee was a rare woman with a big late-night platform, while Noah was born to a Black mother and a white father in apartheid-era South Africa (the subject of his book Born a Crime) and Desus and Mero hail, respectively, from Jamaican and Dominican immigrant families in New York. (Also of note here: NBC last year canceled its show A Little Late with Lilly Singh, which actually aired very late, and didn’t replace it.) Replacements—for Noah and Corden, at least—have yet to be appointed, so opportunities to diversify the late-night space persist. Still, as Eric Deggans, NPR’s TV critic, wrote after Bee’s show was canceled, “It seems the space for original content in late night TV is slowly shrinking. And it’s happening just as women and people of color are getting real opportunities to join the party.”

Indeed, space in late night seems to be shrinking across the board as the genre faces sharp questions, too, about its cultural relevance and business viability; for months, the media press has rung with headlines about late night’s decline—even its possible death—as ad revenues and ratings have shrunk, mirroring trends across the linear-TV landscape. This week, John Koblin and Benjamin Mullin, of the New York Times, reported—in a piece headlined “Is There a Future for Late-Night Talk Shows?”—that these and other factors are posing big questions within the industry, attesting to a sense of shrinkage, rather than expansion. (Donald Trump recently took credit for this, because of course he did.) CBS, for one, has already said that it will tweak Corden’s show when he leaves, possibly switching from a single host to a panel format.

As Koblin and Mullin report, the growing popularity of streaming services has been a big part of the problem for late-night shows, which have struggled to establish a beachhead there; talk-style offerings designed for streaming—Hasan Minhaj’s show on Netflix, for instance, or Sarah Silverman’s on Hulu—were canceled, and there’s a sense that the late-night format isn’t easily adaptable to anytime, on-demand viewing due to its tight topicality, be that in an opening monologue riffing on the day’s political news or an interview with a celebrity who has a new project to hawk. That’s an understandable concern. (It’s not quite the same thing, but I recently saw someone watching what looked like an early-pandemic episode of SNL on their seat-back monitor on a plane and wondered why on earth they’d do that to themselves.) As I wrote earlier this year, topicality has also proved an obstacle to hard-news formats that have sought to make the transition to streaming, or begin to. My article was pegged to the debut of CNN+, CNN’s ambitious attempt to remake news on demand. We all saw how that turned out.

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Still, the on-demand landscape—for both news- and late-night-style programming—is textured. In recent years, late-night hosts have sought to craft content that can be clipped and viewed on social media, a step that risks atomizing their shows as cohesive entities but has at least helped keep them relevant. And some hosts have already achieved some measure of success on streaming platforms. Amber Ruffin’s show on Peacock, an NBC streaming platform, has won critical acclaim, even if the same critics have complained about its limited runs and relatively limited reach. Jon Stewart, meanwhile, is now into the second season of his streaming show on Apple TV+. Koblin and Mullin wrote that the first season “struggled to garner much attention”—but the second debuted with a splash last week after Stewart interviewed Leslie Rutledge, the attorney general of Arkansas, and impressively held her feet to the fire over her anti-trans policies. John Oliver’s show, meanwhile, airs weekly on a network, HBO, but has an evergreen sensibility, structured, as it is, around newsy investigations that, while broadly topical, often tackle issues of enduring interest.

CNN’s Bill Carter wrote recently that Oliver’s show “shares only part of its DNA with the rest of late night,” which is a fair conclusion. But it invites broader philosophical questions: What is this DNA, exactly? And how far can it evolve before it mutates into something we wouldn’t consider “late night” anymore, but just comedy or just news or just celebrity TV? Literally speaking, “late night” refers to a specific time slot and implies appointment viewing; a wholesale switch to an on-demand format would clearly explode this notion. But late night is a sensibility, too, or rather a range of sensibilities that tie together news, entertainment, and culture in a certain way—within certain genre boundaries, sure, but boundaries that are porous and squishy. Humorous-yet-also-serious deep dives add more value than one-liners about Trump’s latest ReTruths while remaining recognizably late night; so do celebrity sit-downs that promise no-strings fun or candor without the attached hook of something to sell. (Not all celebrities would go in for this, of course, but those who would are likely the most interesting.) Writing for The Conversation earlier this year, Jon Rineman, a former Jimmy Fallon staffer who now teaches late-night writing, noted that when he asked his young students how they’d change the genre, several of them said they wanted less immediate topicality. Also: more diversity.

In my view, late night at its best (at least at the newsier end of what it offers; goofiness can be fun, too) uses comedy, and its inherent flexibility, as an opportunity to hold powerful actors to account—including the rest of the news media, both by setting an example that hard-news journalists can actually approximate, albeit without the jokes (as Stewart did by asking basic follow-up questions of Rutledge), or overtly skewering our shortcomings (as Noah did, for example, in his set at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner). Noah may be a comedian, but, as Lorraine Ali, the TV critic at the LA Times noted recently, he deftly drew on his background and outsider status to bring fact-based, global context to a furiously introspective and exceptionalist US news cycle, knowing better than many journalists (especially on cable TV) that “clues to our own future lay in the oft-dismissed ‘third world.’”

When Stewart stepped down from The Daily Show, in 2015, his departure was covered as a seismic moment for the genre and the culture more broadly—President Obama quipped, on Stewart’s show, that he wouldn’t allow him to quit—even though, even back then, his show’s reach had its limits. Many observers saw Stewart as irreplaceable, and when a replacement was tapped, in the form of an unknown Noah, he soon found “klieg lights” directed at him “with 1,000-watt intensity,” as Carter put it. Noah will now step down having conquered many of his doubters by making the show his own. Of course, when Stewart took over The Daily Show, he himself redefined what late-night TV could be—he “didn’t conquer late night,” Vulture wrote in 2015, so much as “he ransacked it, then rebuilt it.” Ultimately, “late night” has never been one thing; there’s always something else out there for the genre to explore. Whatever that may be, we might not want to watch it late at night anymore. Then again, we might.

Below, more on late night and streaming:

  • The eleventh hour: Last year, Fox News debuted its own late-night show, hosted by Greg Gutfeld, and it has since rocketed in the ratings compared to its network rivals despite being about as funny as a root canal. (In May, The Atlantic’s James Parker went deep on Gutfeld! so you don’t have to. Really.) Now other cable networks may want in on the action: CNN has reportedly mulled adding a comedic evening show, while Koblin and Mullin report that executives at NBCUniversal have discussed the possibility of moving Seth Meyers’s late-night show over to MSNBC. (Other possibilities reportedly include a move to Peacock; the network insists that the show will remain on NBC.)
  • No problem with Jon Stewart: If Stewart’s interview with Rutledge was lauded by many liberals, some also downplayed it as preaching to the choir on trans rights—but that’s a mistake, Evan Urquhart writes for Slate. “We need people excited about comedians sticking it to a dumbstruck conservative attorney general who can’t even name the medical organization she’s attributing her completely made-up, bogus desistance statistic to,” Urquhart argues. “For too long, the right has been frothing in rage at trans people for merely existing, while on the other side, far too much of the left has acted embarrassed to have ever been associated with trans equality. Now, Stewart has given liberals a reason to fight for us. All it took was some follow-up questions.”
  • Candid Kamala: On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris went on Meyers’s show on NBC for her first late-night appearance since taking office last year, discussing marijuana pardons, the midterms, and reproductive health, among other topics. Recently, Aida Amoako wrote for JSTOR Daily recapping research as to why politicians continue to subject themselves to the late-night format. “As political scientist Matthew A. Baum notes, serving politics via late-night captures the attention of otherwise politically disinterested viewers,” Amoako wrote. Additionally, “the absence of negativity, at least while the candidate is physically present, turns out to be a boon.”
  • Not just late night: The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reported recently on how the influence of Sunday-morning talk shows has declined; politicians used to depend on shows like Face the Nation, This Week, and Fox News Sunday to launch their careers, Farhi wrote, but now feel that they can reach their constituents directly via social media without needing to face a journalist who might ask tough questions. In response, showrunners have sought to tweak the format, including by experimenting with streaming. A daily version of Meet the Press now airs on the NBC News Now service, which NBC has characterized as a bid to appeal to younger audiences, though others see the move as a demotion from linear TV.


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Trevor Noah arrives at the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)