The new CNN documentary series, “The Story of Late Night,” which premieres Sunday, May 2, arrives at a fascinating time for late-night TV. The six-part series is intended to trace the 60-year history of late-night shows, programs that, whether hosted by Johnny Carson, David Letterman or Trevor Noah, have become staples of the TV diet.
But this warhorse of a format – its roots date back to the mid-1950s – has continued to evolve, responding to changes in the cultural temperature. That’s never been more true than in the past several years, as late-night shows have put increasing emphasis on political commentary, and focused less on jokes for joke’s sake. The pivot may have gained momentum during Jon Stewart’s 1999-2015 tenure as host of “The Daily Show,” but it achieved maximum velocity with Donald Trump’s campaign, and his four years as president.
Back when millions of viewers went to bed with Carson and “The Tonight Show,” hearing the host use his monologue to poke fun at politicians and news of the day was a comforting ritual, a mildly spicy cup of cocoa before bedtime. Even though the behind-the-scenes battle to succeed Carson generated its own David Letterman vs. Jay Leno drama, once Leno took over as “Tonight Show” host, he kept aiming his monologue jokes toward what was then considered the middle of the road.
Seen now, those supposedly “harmless” cracks could be pretty cruel. Several comedians, among them Bill Maher, John Oliver, and Letterman, later apologized for jokes made at the expense of Monica Lewinsky, when she was caught up in then-President Bill Clinton’s impeachment scandal. Leno himself recently apologized for spending years making insensitive jokes about Asian people.
If there are fewer tasteless darts aimed at stereotypical targets, late-night TV has adopted a newer orthodoxy. Looking at the late-night landscape now, it is mainly populated by hosts (many of them graduates of Stewart’s time at “The Daily Show”) who wear their liberal points of view on their respective sleeves.
To their credit, Stephen Colbert (of CBS’ “The Late Show”), HBO’s John Oliver (“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”), NBC’s Seth Meyers (“Late Night”), Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah (who took over as host of “The Daily Show”), and TBS’ Samantha Bee (“Full Frontal”) don’t try and pretend they’re speaking for some imaginary mainstream. Often – too often – they may speak in utterly serious tones about a terrible story from the day’s news.
That swerve from serving undemanding end-of-the-day comedy to impassioned commentary has increasingly become what these shows are about. While Stewart’s “Daily Show” monologues mocked politicians, as the show went on, the host turned much of his fire on media coverage of issues, notably the Fox News Channel, and its hosts’ deeply partisan, pro-Republican, anti-Democrats slant.
During the Trump presidency, late-night hosts also became increasingly partisan, mocking Trump and blasting his administration for its policies. While some hosts, such as NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, of “The Tonight Show,” and CBS’ James Corden, of “The Late Late Show,” tended to tell less politically charged jokes, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel (“Jimmy Kimmel Live”) became ever more barbed in his criticism of Trump and his followers.
The last days of Trump’s presidency also coincided with the coronavirus pandemic, which forced late-night hosts to make unprecedented adjustments in how they made their shows. Several filmed at home, using their attics, garages and houses as temporary studios.
Now that they’re mostly back in some semblance of their studios, albeit without big audiences and with crew members masked up, the late-night hosts have also shown what they’ll do for material now that the Trump presidency is over. Colbert refuses to say Trump’s name, but, like his fellow hosts, Colbert still makes jokes about the former president. Cracks about Biden have been fewer, which may not be surprising considering the vast difference between the two men, and the hosts’ obvious preference for Biden.
And the late-night world continues to get more densely populated. After decades of these shows, with a very few exceptions, mainly being presided over by white guys, the hosting roster has belatedly expanded to include “Desus & Mero,” the Showtime late-night series hosted and executive produced by Daniel “Desus Nice” Baker and Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez.
The Bronx natives riff on current events, interview guests (an eclectic mix that ranges from musical stars to former president Barack Obama), appear in pre-recorded segments, and add their own Black and Latino perspectives to the cultural conversation.
On Peacock, the NBCUniversal streaming service, “The Amber Ruffin Show” gives the “Late Night With Seth Meyers” writer her own showcase. Ruffin, whose on-air appearances on “Late Night” have been standouts, has been doing her show, according to COVID safety protocols, in an empty studio, though she’s joined by sidekick Tarik Davis.
As has been the custom on late-night shows for eons, Ruffin starts out by sitting behind a desk and running down a list of some of the crazy things that happened during the week. Her show, so far, is a mixture of Ruffin’s charming energy, and awareness of the not-that-funny realities of life as a Black American.
Sometimes, Ruffin cleverly blends the two, as with a fake trailer for a supposed Harriet Tubman movie biography, in which Ruffin’s Tubman isn’t as interested in helping enslaved African Americans escape to freedom as she is in getting on the twenty-dollar bill. Just as we laugh at Ruffin’s irreverent take on the legendary Tubman, the trailer ends with her looking at the camera, and saying, “Why have real change when you can have a symbol, on a piece of paper?”
At other times, Ruffin responds to grave news with gravity, as in the show taped following a Minneapolis jury finding former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, a Black man. After some satirical back-and-forth with Davis about whether the verdict was cause for celebration, Ruffin shifted to straight commentary, talking about how the judicial system had failed other Black victims of police.
If newer entries have continued late-night shows’ history of leaning into liberal politics, the Fox News Channel is again trying to offer a conservative/libertarian take. In the recently launched “Gutfeld!” Fox News personality Greg Gutfeld delivers an opening monologue, then discusses news events with a rotating panel of guests, most of whom are Fox News personalities.
“Gutfeld!” premiered with Gutfeld joking about what competing telecasts were offering, including a parody of MSNBC host Brian Williams reporting “live from the surface of Mars,” and a supposed CNN segment with panelists calling each other racists.
“As for those late-night shows we’re supposed to compete against, why bother?” Gutfeld said. “Who do they offend? The only time Stephen Colbert ruffles feathers is at a pillow fight. The definition of risk to Kimmel is dehydration from crying too much. Fallon? That guy fawns more than a herd of deer. And I heard Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah have ran off to be obscure together.”
It seems like there’s room for a late-night show that, as the “Gutfeld!” program description says, “examines the news of the day through a satiric lens fused with pop culture.” It’s not hard to understand why viewers with less-progressive views than Samantha Bee or John Oliver might crave a show that reflects their concerns.
Unfortunately, so far, at least, “Gutfeld!” is the latest example of conservative political humor that doesn’t really work. “Gutfeld!” echoes the official line served up by Fox News opinion hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, i.e., liberals are pushing cancel culture, Democratic-run cities are in flames because of protests, and the true villains are “the media” and liberal elites who hate conservatives and promote a narrative that American is a racist country.
Gutfeld would stand a better chance of holding the interest of non-Fox News loyalists if the writing on the show was more incisive and less blunt: “Still to come – Is cancel culture real? One guy doesn’t think so, and he’s stupid.” Instead, the show again demonstrates that the country is deeply divided, not just in its politics, but in what it finds funny.
There’s room for a late-night show that allows contrarian viewpoints. Extremists on the left and right are both rich subjects for satire. Bill Maher, for example, has for years shown that it’s possible to make conservatives and liberals equally angry, a practice he’s continued on HBO’s “Real Time.” But Maher is still fairly lonely in his willingness to skewer sacred cows.
Which brings us back to Jon Stewart, whose “Daily Show” helped set the stage for comedy-as-news-programs. After keeping a fairly low profile since leaving “The Daily Show,” Stewart is set to come back to TV. This fall, Stewart will host “The Problem With Jon Stewart,” for the Apple TV+ streaming service.
We don’t know much yet about what to expect. The publicity material says “The Problem With Jon Stewart” will be an hourlong, single-issue series devoted to current affairs that will “explore topics that are currently part of the national conversation,” along with Stewart’s advocacy work.
When it comes to late-night shows, there’s no doubt that Stewart, and his team, helped define and create this moment we’re in. Even in this crowded field, there’s still room for a show, and a host, that can shine light not just in the places we expect, but in more surprising corners. Will Stewart work the same kind of alchemy in his new show? If so, that would really feel like something new, and necessary.
“The Story of Late Night” airs on CNN. Check local listings.