Late-night TV as we know it is being dismantled before our eyes and, while it might seem like we’ve been here before, this is different. The first thing to note is the biggest challenge to the Jimmy Fallon/Jimmy Kimmel/Stephen Colbert prototype isn’t coming from streaming services or an online innovation. It’s coming from Fox News, where the chat show Gutfeld! is doing astonishingly well in the ratings.
There’s so much going on, it’s hard to find a pattern. The cancellation of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee has been the attention-grabbing manoeuvre and yet it’s unclear what it means. While cable channel TBS says it is simply changing its programming strategy, almost all coverage noted that Bee was one of the very few women to have a voice in the late-night arena. Bee herself has said nothing, which is unusual.
One thing is reasonably clear: the template of white male host, monologue, studio audience, house band and guests from showbiz is now antique. That’s good, and overdue. One signal about the future can be found in speculation about what happens to The Late Late Show on CBS when James Corden departs next year. According to trade magazine Variety, CBS is considering ditching the traditional format and replacing it with a panel show with revolving hosts.
The history of Late Late is a sobering reminder of how limited that format was. Since its inception in 1995, it’s been hosted by Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn, Craig Ferguson and Corden. All male and white. Corden probably had the biggest impact on the slot by making it pure entertainment, as the Carpool Karaoke segments became its defining feature.
Attempts to make the late-night space more diverse and inclusive have certainly happened, but nothing has truly succeeded. Among the recent shifts in the space was the announcement that Desus & Mero, a weekly show, would not be returning to Showtime. (It streamed on Crave in Canada.) The cult hit never had much impact here, being a distinctly urban-American take on late-night comedy, Black and Latin humour and popular culture. It wasn’t cancelled because it didn’t have viewers or status. The two hosts, Daniel “Desus Nice” Baker and Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez, are going their separate ways.
NBC gave Canadian Lilly Singh a very late slot with A Little Late with Lilly Singh, which aired at 1:30 a.m. It was an enormously significant move, having a South Asian woman host her own show. Then it was cancelled after two seasons. Singh has blamed the cancellation on the timeslot, the budget and lack of resources given to the show. NBC would likely reply that it gave the show two seasons and tried numerous formats, but it never clicked and Singh simply couldn’t transfer her online popularity to nightly TV. And NBC would be correct.
Meanwhile NBC gave Amber Ruffin, a Black writer and performer on Late Night with Seth Meyers, her own show. In Canada you can only see online clips from Ruffin’s show, as it streams on Peacock. While it’s clear Ruffin is a formidable figure and very, very funny, having a weekly show on a streaming service is not exactly mainstream success. While we’re at it, it’s worth noting that Netflix’s attempts at talk shows have failed, no matter the talent involved. Talk shows hosted by Chelsea Handler, Michelle Wolf and Hasan Minhaj have won praise but not much more. All were cancelled.
The current state of flux is happening in part because two trends are dovetailing. First, the appetite for satiric comedy that was piquant at the start of the Trump era is now waning. When comedy is beggared by real events, bewilderment becomes fatigue. Second, the audience that savoured such figures as David Letterman or Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, has developed its own form of fatigue – it won’t tolerate the TV commercials that interrupt late-night shows, because it is now accustomed to ad-free streaming services.
Trevor Noah has been steady on The Daily Show, but the show has nothing like the impact it once had. Neither does Jon Stewart, his show on AppleTV+ being less than significant. Stephen Colbert’s CBS show is the ratings champ, but what can’t be ignored is what Greg Gutfeld is doing at 11 p.m. most weeknights on Fox News. Armed with vicious right-wing snark, Gutfeld and his panel are winning. The show often has more viewers than Jimmy Kimmel’s show and sometimes beats Colbert in the ratings. You can bet that everybody else is paying attention to that pattern.
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