UPDATE: South African comedian Trevor Noah has been chosen to replace Jon Stewart as host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” later this year, the network announced this morning. The exact date for Stewart to pass the baton has yet to be determined. Noah, who is biracial and multilingual, further widens the gulf between broadcast late night, still the domain of white men, and cable/streaming late night, which increasingly offers a platform for women and people of color. Though he has only appeared on “TDS” three times since his December debut as the show’s “senior international correspondent,” race and race relations have long been a subject of Noah’s comedy, and he seems poised to bring an international perspective to late-night programming that only John Oliver, who frequently covers news from around the globe on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” has done with any regularity.
EARLIER: With a tip of the cap from David Letterman, James Corden made his debut on “The Late Late Show” (CBS) last Monday, notching another transformation in the face of late night. For audiences and networks inured to hosting stints measured in decades, the five years since NBC’s abortive “Tonight Show” transition from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien have been a time of unprecedented tumult, and 2014-2015 is sure to be remembered as the period of most rapid change. But efforts to increase the diversity of voices and update moribund formats for an age of viral videos have yet to return the genre to its glory days as the culture’s bedtime listening post. Though the landscape continues to evolve, the revolution in late night remains unfinished.
Since early 2014, when Leno finally relinquished “The Tonight Show” to Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers assumed Fallon’s position as the host of “Late Night,” the changing of the guard has only accelerated. Craig Ferguson is out, Corden is in. Stephen Colbert concluded nine years of “The Colbert Report” in December, as he prepares to take over CBS’s “The Late Show” from Letterman on Sept. 8. Colbert’s Comedy Central slot now belongs to Larry Wilmore‘s “The Nightly Show,” while fellow “Daily Show” alum John Oliver has pioneered a brilliant new form of satirical news at HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.” Stalwart “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart is set to depart later this year, to be replaced by Trevor Noah. O’Brien dusted himself off with the premiere of “Conan” on TBS in 2010, a lineup to which the network hopes to add longtime “Daily Show” correspondent Samantha Bee, and Chelsea Handler left E! Network’s “Chelsea Lately” to develop a talk show for Netflix.
A new era of late night is upon us. Right?
As one might have said of the Leno-Coco fracas of 2010, it’s complicated. Though Stewart transformed Comedy Central into the cable leader in late night, for instance—not only by developing a deep bench of talented writers and performers, but also by reaching out to a young, diverse, liberal demographic that broadcast late night had lost—the “fake news” format has grown stale from overuse. It’s telling that Stewart’s three most successful protégés all changed course before the master himself: for all his continuing influence, Stewart’s iteration of “The Daily Show,” with its particular brand of absurdist media criticism, is long since past its prime. Indeed, the main hurdle facing Noah may not be his status as a relative unknown—both Stewart and predecessor Craig Kilborn were not exactly household names when they assumed “TDS” hosting duties—but rather his ability to shake up Stewart’s reliable send-ups of Fox News to remake “TDS” in his own image.
Though Colbert has six more months to prepare for “The Late Show,” it’s clear that serious challenges await him, not least of which is shedding a prickly, ironic public persona for the warmer register of CBS while reviving a show which has, due respect to Mr. Letterman, lost its appeal for all but the insomniac and the comatose. By contrast, Oliver, as I wrote in September, has forged a distinctive comic voice from in-depth coverage of current events and avuncular outrage at everything from police brutality to payday loans, turning “Last Week Tonight” into one of the best shows on television.
The latest addition to cable’s late-night ranks is Wilmore’s “The Nightly Show,” which premiered in January to mostly positive reviews. Though topical in nature, the series breaks from “Daily Show” convention by devoting perhaps two-thirds of each episode to a panel discussion, usually focused on a single theme: the Oscar nominations, Bill Cosby, the war on drugs. It’s “Last Week Tonight” without the week to prepare, “Real Time with Bill Maher” without the smug privilege, “The Daily Show” with a specific focus on black, Latino, and women’s voices. In other words, “The Nightly Show” manages to be both sui generis and faintly reminiscent of its forebears, an uneasy détente between novelty and tradition that Wilmore has yet to overcome.
Two months in, “The Nightly Show” mostly hews to the pattern of its first weeks, with perhaps a few more minutes each night for ancillary characters (such as the Jesus of “prosperity gospel”) and Wilmore’s introductory turn at the anchor desk. Though the series’ point of view is proudly oppositional, however—even the world map behind the host is upside-down—Wilmore, as Inkoo Kang of The Village Voice wrote in January, continues to serve as straight man in order to keep his panelists in line. The result is an uneven affair, sometimes stimulating and sometimes clumsy, helmed less by Wilmore, now absent his “Daily Show” deadpan, than by his grab bag of guests.
As for Corden, his tearful thanks to his parents in the opening monologue, like an early, Willy Wonka-inspired segment sending up his selection as “Late Late Show” host, set the affable, self-deprecating tone from the outset. Indeed, with the midcentury modern set design and several nods to late-night vernacular (“relating to the audience,” “the anecdote”), Corden established the conventions of the genre as his central point of reference. It was, in short, an effective, even winsome performance, though not one that suggested Corden is the man to challenge those conventions in any serious way. His persona is that of the versatile charmer, the people-pleaser—he’s almost aggressively pleasant, down to his soft-focus features and matinee idol haircut—not that of the rebel with a late-night cause.
For their part, Corden’s broadcast colleagues, Meyers, Fallon, and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, have already made strides toward reinvigorating the largely apolitical terrain of the networks’ unshakable late-night properties. In particular, Fallon’s boyish grin and game-show antics, whether in lip-sync battles (which go viral in social media) or a few rounds of “Password,” have helped him navigate celebrity guests’ penchant for canned tales with aplomb; his “Tonight Show” intermittently achieves the sort of gregarious repartee for which late-night legend Johnny Carson was rightly known.
Even so, just as Stewart’s influence created and perhaps foreshortened the development of new late-night forms on cable—imitation is the sincerest and most lucrative form of flattery—Carson’s shadow looms large over broadcast late night, for better and for worse. Without the fire of political satire, the series in question continue to rely on good-natured ribbing with famous figures whose lives are more or less an open book the other 23 hours of the day. Tabloid magazines, gossip websites, entertainment reporters, Twitter, and Instagram depend to a significant extent on the fodder we might once have heard only on Carson, or Leno, or Letterman, only here, by network decree, it’s softened for mass consumption.
One way out of the late-night rut is to embrace diverse audiences with a broader spectrum of hosts, as Comedy Central, TBS, and Netflix seem poised to do with Wilmore, Noah, Bee, and Handler. To their discredit, the networks now feature fewer women in late night than in 1987, when “The Late Show with Joan Rivers” (FOX) came to its ignominious end, and fewer people of color than in 1994, when “The Arsenio Hall Show,” produced by CBS and aired in syndication, completed its final episode. (About CBS Television Distribution’s failed attempt to resuscitate the show in 2013-2014, the less said the better.) In terms of audiences if not executives, white, straight men are no longer the sole arbiters of success in primetime, and until broadcast late night acknowledges that fact, its flagship programs will continue to lose viewers, fragment by fragment, to their cable, premium, and streaming competitors.
The other lesson of the recent late night scramble is its reminder that tropes developed over decades die hard, and in lieu of shifting to the streamlined, weekly model of “Last Week Tonight,” cable and broadcast series alike must be willing to risk failure to cut through the clutter. Though Wilmore’s ratings have flagged since the debut of “The Nightly Show,” for example, his distinct perspective and wide range of panelists instill a certain passionate commitment: the conversations he leads four nights a week are conversations we need to be having, whether in the form of #KeepIt100 or a still-to-be-seen alternative.
Indeed, the foremost evidence for this risk-taking precept may be the genre’s most recent “disaster,” an airing of “The Late Late Show” in January. As you can see in the video below, Adam Pally (“Happy Endings,” “The Mindy Project”), hosting without a live audience and in the midst of a snowstorm, blended the homemade aesthetic of Kyle Mooney’s brilliant “Saturday Night Live” segments with the raffish nonchalance of the format’s cut-rate, nicotine-fueled beginnings. Awkwardly funny, almost surreal, it’s the single best episode of late night television I’ve ever seen, because it was entirely, devilishly, charmingly unexpected. “CBS could not give a fart about what I’m doing!” Pally exclaims, and that may be the trick. At its best, late night promises the carefree rhythms of live television, stand-up comedy, and musical-variety shows, and finishing the revolution at hand may require exactly what the word “revolution” suggests: a return to the genre’s down-and-dirty roots.
“The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” airs Monday through Thursday at 11:30 pm on Comedy Central. “The Late Late Show with James Corden” airs weeknights at 12:35 pm on CBS.