2016 was a watershed year for the genre defined as “late night,” even as we saw a redefinition of what late night television might be (thanks to Netflix and Hulu), as well as an explosion of new talent taking on the format, including (GASP!) women. While each host had their own approach to tackling current events and more, in looking back at the last 12 months it was relatively easy to pinpoint a defining moment for each of them — for better, and for worse.
Interview with Donald Trump, Sept. 15, 2016
Oh boy, did Jimmy Fallon have a lot of fun this year! He played games and did lip sync battles and goofed around with his famous guests and made the Republican candidate for President seem like a nice normal guy who can take a joke! With Donald Trump’s guest appearance last September, “The Tonight Show” confirmed for good its status as a politically neutral institution, much to the dismay of its critics. Fallon attempted to poke fun at the infamous hair ruffle during a later “SNL” appearance but in an age when neutrality doesn’t really feel like an option, Fallon’s most defining moment this year was also his most damning.
“Late Night with Seth Meyers” (NBC)
“Join the Fun!”, Nov. 10, 2016
In a landscape where many of his peers had to double-down on their own appeal to separate from the pack, Seth Meyers succeeded most this year when he ceded the floor. Meyer’s “The Day After” monologue was the best example of a clear four-year mission statement, delivered with a level head and a reticence to place backward-facing blame. Nothing illustrated that plan for the future better than when “Late Night” showcased writer Amber Ruffin the evening following the Presidential election. It’s a simple premise, with brilliant execution as usual from Ruffin (watch what she was able to do back in September during the furor over various athlete anthem protests). Turning the nationwide bummer into something that might get people to think beyond just themselves has been Meyers’ goal since “A Closer Look” entered the nightly rotation. (If anyone’s concerned that the election results would dilute the show’s non-political efforts, just look to the recent Joke Bucket segment for proof that this staff does sharp goofy fun better than anyone else.)
“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” (ABC)
Hillary Clinton Proves She’s in Good Health, Aug. 22, 2016
Some late night hosts are known for their populist humor, others for their political satire. Jimmy Kimmel may be the most versatile of them all, quickly switching from absurdist bits to astute takes on current events. When fake news started floating during the presidential campaign that Hillary Clinton was sick, Kimmel capitalized on the silliness of the charge by making her do something equally silly: Open a jar of pickles. “It does give you some perspective on conspiracy theories and theorists,” Kimmel told IndieWire in September. “Because I know what happened. We didn’t tamper with that pickle jar. The idea that I’m somehow in league with someone who might be President of the United States kind of delights me.” Meanwhile, Kimmel earned strong marks for his second stint as host of the Primetime Emmys, which helped land him the gig as host of the 2017 Oscars.
“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” (CBS)
This Diagram Explains Trump’s Response To Orlando, Jun. 15, 2016
After a strong start last fall, something went missing from “The Late Show.” The adventurous spirit of the former “Colbert Report” host sagged under the weight of obligatory guests and the kind of safe late-night fare less likely to scare away lead-in affiliate audiences. But flashes of “the old show” began to flicker as the post-primary landscape solidified. In June, in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub mass shooting, Colbert finally discarded the veneer of objectivity and went after the the man who looked to turn this tragedy into a political victory. Bringing out a Glenn Beck-esque conspiracy chalkboard like he would have in his bygone faux-pundit days, Colbert minced neither words nor diagrams. (His devilish smirk as the audience figures out the visual punchline all but screams, “Man, I wish I got to do this more often!”) Even though a month later, he was back to playing “Hunger Games” characters at the Republican National Convention, this proved that the dormant dean of political late night was still capable of reaching back for his fastball.
“The Late Late Show With James Corden” (CBS)
Adele Carpool Karaoke, Jan. 13, 2016
“Carpool Karaoke” is unstoppable. The viral video phenomenon/”Late Late Show with James Corden” segment featured superstars this year in the passenger seat including Bruno Mars, Madonna, Chris Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Mariah Carey. But it was the January appearance of Adele that took “Carpool Karaoke” to an entirely new level: The most-watched late-night clip on YouTube has now tracked more than 141 million views. Meanwhile, the segment “Drop the Mic” has also become its own phenomenon, attracting guests such as Anne Hathaway, Kevin Hart and Rebel Wilson to perform rap battles with Corden. Both segments are now being developed as TV spin-offs, but it’s “Carpool Karaoke” which really defined Corden this year.
“The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” (Comedy Central)
Interview With Tomi Lahren, Dec. 1, 2016
Although many lamented Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” departure and only half-heartedly embraced his replacement, Trevor Noah has been finding his niche and style that amounts to a combo of self-deprecation, silliness, wordplay and charm. When he gets serious, however, he is quietly earnest and calm, and that’s what served him well in one of his best interviews to date.
Noah went head-to-head with conservative Blaze commentator Tomi Lahren after the election, but instead of arguing with her, he systematically pushed her to elaborate on her views. It wasn’t a take-down or gotcha journalism, nor did it pretend to change either party’s minds about their respective stances. Instead, it was more realistic and effective; it made Lahren shift her energies from her usual outwardly focused, anti-liberal anger to a more inward-facing consideration of her logic. Also, in the aftermath of such a divisive election that highlighted the fractured state of our country, we could all take some time to at least try to listen to the other side’s impassioned concerns.
“The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” (Comedy Central)
Meet Donald Trump’s Black Supporters, Mar 22, 2016
Tragically canceled just when we needed it, Larry Wilmore’s talk show was a loud and beautiful voice in the late night landscape, and never was that more true than when he took on a group of black Americans who were planning to vote for Donald Trump.
“Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” (TBS)
“The Morning After,” Nov. 9, 2016
It has been a stellar debut season for Samantha Bee, the former “Daily Show” correspondent who made her mark on TBS, and picking just one defining moment is a tough one in a season full of memorable highlights. Would it be the “R.I.P. GOP” segment? Or perhaps her informative package on Syrian refugees? Then again, the very convincing argument that Donald Trump can’t read is one of the most viewed clips on her YouTube channel.
What we finally settled on was her post-election, morning after special episode. In it, she encapsulated many of our feelings — shock, fear, denial, despair. “This isn’t a great day to be part of the most diverse staff in late night,” Bee said. And while she acknowledged that the episode was a struggle to put together, it did not skimp on entertainment (the dream sequence), heart (having Trump and Clinton supporters talk to and hug each other), and most importantly of all, conviction. In a call to action, Bee let it be known that losing an election didn’t mean giving up. Work for her staff, and for us, was not over.
“Donald Trump,” Feb. 28, 2016
When John Oliver finally engaged with the Presidential election this year, he did so with literal fireworks. “Last Week Tonight’s” savaging of Donald Trump from last February did not end up stopping the President-elect’s march into office — Oliver openly acknowledged as much in subsequent episodes. But the show made it clear that the framework it’d established over its first two years on the air was capable of both keeping up with current events as well as doing the sort of epic deep dives that helped it stand out in its earliest days.
Ann Coulter Emails In Sick, Sept. 28, 2016
You always know where you stand with Chelsea Handler — and for no one is that more true than Ann Coulter. When Coulter canceled last minute on a scheduled “Chelsea” appearance, Handler technically made good on the spirit of the booking, which she said she did originally in order to offer some balance to the show’s liberal leanings. How did she follow through that? By having “Ann Coulter’s body double” (the hilarious Fortune Feimster in a long blonde wig) come on the show to read passages from Coulter’s latest book, Coulter’s views did get heard on the show. But between Handler and Feimster’s mockery, Coulter probably wished that she’d made the appearance after all. It was the sort of don’t-give-a-shit move that’s Handler at her most entertaining.
Ice Cube, Kevin Hart And Conan Help A Student Driver, Jan. 5, 2016
Conan O’Brien has found new vigor in taking his show on the road, traveling to spots including Cuba, Armenia, Korea, San Diego (for Comic-Con) and most recently, Berlin. But O’Brien also continues to get plenty of mileage out of classic remote bits, including another one this year with Ice Cube and Kevin Hart. This time, O’Brien, Cube, and Hart taught a “Conan” staffer a few rules of the road (or, perhaps just importantly, what not to do behind the wheel). Along the way, Cube and Hart schooled O’Brien on when not to say “G-thang,” and what “having your trap full” means.
“Triumph’s Summer Election Special 2016” (Hulu)
Trump Focus Groups, Aug. 11, 2016
Trust a cigar-smoking, foul-mouthed dog puppet to get some of the best and most unfiltered political reactions out in the field, which we enjoyed in the form of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s limited Election Watch specials, streamed on Hulu. He made the biggest splash without lifting a leg when he lured actual Trump supporters into a room to act as a focus group for fake Trump campaign ads, which they thought were authentic.
From giving undocumented Mexicans shock collars to questioning Hillary Clinton’s gender, the ads were outrageous and beyond belief… but apparently that’s what appealed to the focus group, who backed a candidate fitting that description. Almost all of these ads were met with approval and sometimes glee, and one enterprising woman even suggested an improvement on the shock collar — “vaccinating” illegal immigrants with a tracking device, a comment that caused an eavesdropping Triumph to spit-take. The entire scene encapsulated how the election felt to many: incomprehensible, funny and frightening.