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Late night TV continues to evolve slowly

Jon Stewart returns to ‘The Daily Show’ on Mondays

By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times
Published: February 17, 2024, 6:03am
2 Photos
U.S. comedian and writer Jon Stewart arrives for The Albies hosted by the Clooney Foundation at the New York Public Library in New York City on Sept. 28, 2023. Stewart, 61, who presided over &ldquo;The Daily Show&rdquo; for 16 years, is again the program&rsquo;s regular Monday night host, and also an executive producer. (Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images/TNS) (Roger L.
U.S. comedian and writer Jon Stewart arrives for The Albies hosted by the Clooney Foundation at the New York Public Library in New York City on Sept. 28, 2023. Stewart, 61, who presided over “The Daily Show” for 16 years, is again the program’s regular Monday night host, and also an executive producer. (Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images/TNS) (Roger L. Wollenberg/Pool/Getty Images) Photo Gallery

Change comes slowly to late night television. Talk show hosts occupy their seats for years and years and, on the whole, leave only when they’re ready.

Having spent nearly a year and a half not deciding on a replacement for Trevor Noah, its host since 2015, “The Daily Show” has turned again to Jon Stewart. Stewart, 61, who presided over the show for 16 years, is becoming the program’s regular Monday night host, and also an executive producer. (Guest hosts and “Daily Show” “correspondents” will fill out the rest of the week.) His “this can’t be happening” affect may be just what this absurd year needs — he’s expected to stay through the presidential election — but it remains to be seen whether this step backward is a step forward, or a step forward that’s just a step back.

Meanwhile, over on CBS where James Corden left “The Late Late Show” after eight years, talented young comic Taylor Tomlinson, 30, has been anointed his successor, at least in terms of taking over the time slot. This struck me as good news when I heard it, both for her youth — the torch being passed to a new generation and all — and her sex: You can count the number of women who have hosted network late night shows on the fingers of one hand. (Cable and streaming platforms have seen female hosts as well, but only Chelsea Handler’s “Chelsea Lately” and Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” have had any kind of life.) I was excited to see what she’d do with the medium.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when “After Midnight” proved to be not a talk show — and by “talk show” I mean anything from a show that’s all talk to one that’s closer to variety, with sketches and musical numbers and whatnot — but a revival of an old Comedy Central panel show, “@midnight.” I remember that show, which ran from 2013-17 and consisted of guest comedians riffing on internet videos and memes, as amusing and energetic. (Though mostly I remember host Chris Hardwick crying “Points!” as he arbitrarily assigned them to its contestant guests.)

And so I’ve got nothing against “After Midnight,” per se, which capably fulfills its brief, gives work to comedians I like and for all I know hits a bull’s-eye on its target market. It might run until there is no more internet to mock. (Stephen Colbert produces the show.)

Still, it strikes me as a missed opportunity, a tightly formatted, conservative choice for a sector of television that has been historically open to, even relied on innovation; sillier and more serious than prime time, it’s a place for toy instruments and in-depth discussions, robot co-hosts and personal revelations, among many other things you would never find in prime time. Political satire, which to greater and lesser degrees is an aspect of most late night shows, doesn’t exist before 11 p.m.; Stewart’s “Daily Show” could have happened only after prime time.

New late night hosts have typically arrived with their own creative team and after a period of adjustment — during which they may receive skeptical, often negative notices from viewers and reviewers — establish an identity, a rhythm, bring dumb ideas to productive life and discover the bits and characters that keep an audience coming back. Conan O’Brien, an unknown quantity when he took over “Late Night” in 1993, and something of a weirdo, barely survived cancellation in his first year, but ultimately hung around for 16 seasons. His weirdness won out.

The world has changed, of course, around these shows, which date back to the dawn of the medium. (“The Tonight Show” turns 70 this year.) Until the adoption of the VCR, late night television was available only at night; it had what might be called a circadian subtext. Where consumers now shape television to their schedule, television once shaped the day. Late night TV was for people who were happy to forgo sleep, or couldn’t sleep, or had nowhere they had to be in the morning. You might not be ready for bed after Johnny Carson finished, or you’d come in from a club or a movie or whatever and turn on the set, and there’d be Tom Snyder talking to John Lydon or Orson Welles, or Chris Elliott living under the bleachers on “Late Night With David Letterman.” The later the start time, the less the financial risk and so the more freedom to play — and arguably the more dedicated the fanship. Craig Ferguson’s still-celebrated throw-out-the-cards, unusually autobiographical “Late Late Show,” was constitutionally a 12:30 a.m. show; it wouldn’t have worked at 11:30. And the people remember.

The broadcast networks have all made their deals with that devil, creating their own streaming platforms: You can get CBS through Paramount+ and NBC via Peacock and ABC and Fox shows from Hulu, and watch them whenever and wherever you want; for such users, “late night” is an aesthetic rather than a chronological term.

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