Your Daily Dose of funny Politics
A Round-Up of Late Night Comedy News Programs
I don't regularly talk about late night comedy news shows, and the reason is actually pretty easy: I feel like late night TV death. When this blog first started back up (as Musings of the Jewpacabra) I wrote an article about the then-new The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. Within weeks the show was canceled. Then, once we moved back to doing this site as Asteroid G, I wrote a review of The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale, and then it was quickly canceled. At that point I'd gone two-for-two and didn't want to see any other late night shows I liked his the bin, so I stopped while I was behind. I swore off them and went on to talk (at length) about other things instead.
Of course I probably could have written about some shows and never worried about their fate. The Daily Show is an institution and likely isn't going anywhere, and Last Week Tonight is so popular John Oliver will probably be doing it until he dies at his desk, fading away like a corpse that drank from the wrong grail (that's an Indiana Jones reference). Still, I was wary about doing any major reviews just in case. Like, you never know, right?
Instead (and due to some cancellations that absolutely aren't my fault) it felt like the right time to do a "round-up" look at some of the talk shows that are (and were) out there to see what the Late Night landscape looks like. And we're going to start with one of the shows I was sad to see leave us: Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. This show was basically Last Week Tonight in concept, just with a different host, one who stands up the whole time instead of hiding behind a desk. Over six volumes (because NetflixOriginally started as a disc-by-mail service, Netflix has grown to be one of the largest media companies in the world (and one of the most valued internet companies as well). With a constant slate of new internet streaming-based programming that updates all the time, Netflix has redefined what it means to watch TV and films (as well as how to do it). never uses consistent naming for its "seasons") Minhaj tackled topics from "Affirmative Action" to "Supreme", "Hip-hop and Streaming", "Indian Elections", "Cricket Corruption", and more. It was in depth, informative, and very funny.
I use the comparison to Last Week Tonight because, in many respects the two shows really did share similar DNA: long discussions on a single subject, getting in really deep to truly educate the audience (while entertaining them). I actually think the format of Patriot Act worked better, though, because of the setup. Minhaj stood on a stage that was basically one giant screen and everything he talked about would flow behind him, giving big pictures, detailed charts, and everything else that was relevant to the topic. The discussion was as good as anything John Oliver spit out (better in some cases), while touched on topics that even Last Week Tonight hadn't broached, all done in an engaging style that really helped you pay attention. Plus, it was cool having a person of India descent in the Late Night scene (a crowd largely dominated by white men). The cancellation of the show not only robbed us of a great format but also a very funny late night host.
But then, canceling shows is Netflix's number one business focus. Which, speaking of canceling shows: WB-Discovery. As you've likely heard (on this site, no less, with the shelving of Batgirl), the new head of the combined WB-Discovery group has started culling anything and everything he can that doesn't immediately make billions of dollars. Many of the shows on TBS and TNT have gotten the ax over the last month, and most recently that included Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. As you'll notice, most of the shows we're discussing here star old correspondents from The Daily Show with John Stewart and that's because Stew-Beef's old show found a lot of great comedic talents and fostered them in the ways of funny news coverage. Sam Bee came from that crop and went to TBS to create her own brand of The Daily Show, and it worked really well.
Sam B.'s show sat somewhere between Patriot Act and The Daily Show. Bee would stand on stage, no desk in front and screens behind, giving her own comedic monologues about whatever topics of the day were relevant. Sometimes that would be one topic per act (in a three-act show), while other episodes were all about one single, overriding discussion. Topics ranged from "Syrian Refugees" to "Democrats Debate in Flint", a "Roast of Jeff Zucker", "Goodbye, Roe v. Wade", and "The GOP's Favorite Racist Rhetoric: The War on Drugs", all tackled with Sam's personal style.
Sam, being a woman, was able to tackle topics from a perspective (and with a voice) that her male cohorts couldn't. Her talking about Roe v. Wade came from a much more personal space than any male correspondent could muster. She was dragged Online (by dudes on the right) for being "just another angry woman", but he monologues weren't just angry (although there was fire to her delivery, which I liked) but also very, very funny. It's interesting to see how the removal of a desk, leaving the comedian on stage to delivery their jokes, really allows them to open up and get in touch with the audience (and the material). Full Frontal had a great run of 218 episodes and seven seasons and, again, with its cancellation another important voice in late night has been removed.
From here, though, we go into the institutions, with Late Night with Stephen Colbert being both one of the more popular entries and also the most unlikely (depending on the way you look at it). Colbert took over The Late Show from David Letterman in 2015 and at the start his show was a little rocky. The production team tried to make Colbert into the standard late night host instead of playing to his strengths in delivery political comedy (as seen on his Daily Show spin-off, The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert). Within the first year, though, the format shifted over to Colbert delivering the kind of material people would expect, adding his own style into the standard late night show format.
A typical episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert will open with a monologue (that is largely political), followed by a later "Meanwhile" segment, touching on other weird news of the day, and then sometimes another short news break or two, all interspersed between the usual interviews and musical performances that come with the format. It's a marriage of The Colbert Report and The Late Show and it works decently well. The one thing I will admit is that I mostly tune in for the politics, not the interviews, which means I tend to gravitate to clips posted on YouTube over actually watching the full episodes live. Colbert is very funny. and a good interviewer, but I prefer comedy over just random people chatting (although any interview segment that features John Oliver as a guest is a must-watch).
That naturally takes us over to The Daily Show, the series from which all these other shows owe their DNA. Currently in its third incarnation, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, the show is still carrying on even if it's not quite the cultural institution it was under the guidance of John Stewart. I don't blame current host Noah for that; he's a very funny comedian put in the impossible situation of following John Stewart in his prime. The issue is that people wanted more of Stew-Beef and, for all his skill as a comedian (a more subtle style, dryer but still very funny), Trevor Noah is not John Stewart.
Part of the struggle is audience expectations from the show, which naturally had to find its feet again with a new host and a new voice. Of course, a bunch of cast members left when Stewart left (or soon after) which further shook up the show. Things changed, and while the show still resembled itself it didn't feel the same. I will admit I fell off after Stewart left, although my switch away from pay-cable to only streaming Online did part of that damage. I think the biggest issue, though, is that Trevor Noah just didn't get the time to win the audience over as a regular correspondent before taking over the show. He appeared in only five episodes right before the switch and the transition was a touch jarring. We needed to spend a year or two with him working alongside John Stewart, letting the audience get to know him and his voice, so that the transition could have been smooth.
You can see how this could have worked by watching the previous year of the show. Stewart took the summer off to go film a movie and John Oliver filled in for three months as the host. Oliver had been on the show for years before that and between the audience already knowing Oliver, and then his time at the desk revealing his skill, he could have then transitioned into a permanent hosting gig... which he did, just over on HBO. Had Noah been given that same time I think he could have settled in solidly and carried on the audience with him on a grand version of the The Daily Show. Really, I blame the way the transition was done than anything Noah did. He came in, worked to make the show his own, and has done a great job with it. The audience just didn't get the show they wanted and slowly the ratings slipped off.
The show that is still reigning as king of Late Night right now, at least as far as news and comedy, is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Where The Daily Show did news of the day bits across two acts (and then an interview at the end), Last Week Tonight was designed to be a 60 Minutes-style program. The show would open with a quick bit of news of the week before switching to a twenty-minute (or longer) discussion of a major topic. Episodes have ranged from "Net Neutrality" to "Patent Trolls", "Car Finance and Subprime Lending", "Executive Office for Immigration Review", "Mueller Report" and more, all presented with Oliver behind the desk, talk right to the audience, ranting about the topic at great length.
Oliver essentially pioneered the long-form comedy-news discussion that so many other shows (like Patriot Act and Full Frontal) went on to also use. What works so well about the show is the host. As he likes to point out his career was a misfire back in his homeland of Merry Old England, but here, doing his news-comedy shtick, Oliver is in his element. Of all the hosts to follow in the legacy of John Stewart Oliver has nailed it best, finding the right tone between news caster and angry comedian, all so he can educate and elucidate on the news of the moment. It's a great show and one that, via citings in the actual legal record, has had a real world impact. It's impressive.
Discussing late night comedy-news, though, wouldn't be complete without a couple of honorable mentioned. One is Late Night with Seth Meyers, another show to blend news-comedy with late night talk. Seth Meyers is one of the few hosts working (at least on the liberal side of comedy-news) who didn't come from The Daily Show. Instead he's front what could be viewed as the progenitor of all comedy-news shows, SNL's "Weekend Update". Seth served as a news anchor on that show for nine years (two of them co-hosted with Amy Poehler, six on his own, and then one co-hosted with Cecily Strong). He then took his anchor duties to Late Night where he did his thing.
The primary segment he's famous for is "A Closer Look", a deep-dive ten minute (or so) segment touch on a specific topic of the day. It's like a mini-form of Last Week Tonight, and is very watchable (and informative). He will touch upon the news in other little segments from time to time, but I wouldn't say comedy-news is as big a part of his show as it is for Colbert on The Late Show).
And then there's a sort of spin-off from Late Night, The Amber Ruffin Show. Ruffin worked on Late Night before getting her own talk show on Peacock. Her show is what you'd expect, monologues, interviews, and sketches, but the topics are important, focusing on "the intersection of race, gender, and politics in America and abroad." Considering she's the only black, female talk show host working the late night scene right now, her voice is very important.
And now, go hit YouTube and find a bunch of clips of these shows. It's informative and funny watching.