Earlier this month, The Break with Michelle Wolf, a variety talk show hosted by the former contributor to both The Daily Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers, was cancelled by Netflix after one season. This came shortly after news that another late-night show from a former colleague, The Opposition with Jordan Klepper had also been cancelled after less than a year on the air. I wasn’t even aware that the wonderful Robin Thede had her own late-night talk show on BET, The Rundown, until I heard it had been cancelled in July. All of this comes as more talk shows than ever have been announced for late-night and that specific format: Hasan Minhaj is heading to Netflix, Busy Philipps parlayed her Instagram Stories success into an upcoming series on E!, and TNT will dip its toes into late-night for the first time with Niecy Nash at the helm.
It seems too reductive to ask if we’re in an age of too much late-night talk shows because we’re also in an age of too much television in general. There are more channels than ever, more platforms available outside of the traditional network structure, and a greater variety of voices being given the opportunity to do their thing. Late-night is still a white dude’s domain, but no longer is 12:30am on NBC the prime spot for a potential star. Yet, therein lies the problem for the late-night talk show format: If audiences are no longer beholden to the old ways of T.V., then why are networks so eager to replicate that model?
It’s been oft-discussed how entertainment-consuming audiences are more splintered than ever. Why stick with four networks when you can have hundreds at your fingertips or a whole streaming service of shows from around the world? What’s the point in staying up past 2am to see that actor you love on Seth Meyers’ show when you know the whole thing will end up on YouTube or an embedded tweet the next day? Those viral moments matter more than ever. It’s no surprise Jimmy Fallon remains so popular online, even as his ratings now struggle in comparison to Stephen Colbert. Even then, the live audiences for these shows are smaller, nigh on minuscule compared to the golden days of late-night when such shows were true events.
It’s understandable why networks and services unused to the late-night culture would want to hop on that bandwagon. Right now, it feels like late-night is crucial, or at the very least close to those days where tuning in was a necessity. When you have a T.V. addict in the White House who seems more concerned with Colbert’s monologue than his daily briefing, it’s not hard to see why networks would want to cash in on that flash of cultural relevance. Playing to the serious crowd has also worked wonders for a previously floundering Colbert, whose monologues pull in millions of YouTube views, as do Seth Meyers’ Closer Looks. Trevor Noah can respond to a letter in his ad breaks and create a viral frenzy. Jimmy Kimmel’s heart-wrenching honesty about his family life hits harder than ever before. There is no current want or need for one guiding voice to preach to the choirs through the pulpit of late-night, but it’s easy to see why many would think that mentality still exists.
The glory of Peak T.V. means creators have the ability to appeal to more niche audiences, whose numbers are smaller but dedication to their fandom immense. A late-night host like Wolf, Thede or even Joel McHale (whose Netflix show was also recently cancelled) can, in theory, get specific with their approach and still bring in an eager audience. They don’t have to split themselves down the middle to appeal to all age, racial or political demographics like, say, Fallon. The issue seems to be that such a notion does not work in abstract. However, it’s also true that audiences are more impatient than ever. An old-school formula of nightly content or once a week scheduling may not appeal like it used to unless you grab everyone’s attention right out the gate.
Some late-night figures have been savvy enough to adapt their brand to suit the changing times. Conan O’Brien’s TBS show will soon be cut down from one hour to 30 minutes, losing musical guests, and more focus will be put on online content, an area they’ve proven to be highly successful in. Crucially, he’s also not especially political, so he’s never had to chase the wagon of being a proto-commentator or Voice of Reason like his network counterparts. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can often feel like late-night, and many other areas of entertainment, struggle with that conundrum: It would be wrong and frankly counter-productive to ignore politics altogether, but the sheer fatigue of keeping up with this era’s ridiculous news cycle may drive even the most ardent fans to turn off.
The American late-night conundrum is especially fascinating as a Brit, where we really only have three talk shows that fit this format: The Graham Norton Show, The Jonathan Ross Show, and The Last Leg. Each of these series are once a week affairs and never continuously throughout the year. Only one, The Last Leg, delves into politics in any way that could be compared to, say, Colbert or Noah. Mostly, British late-night is for interviewing celebrities in a loose and invitingly casual fashion. Even at its most socially driven - The Last Leg started as an after-show for the 2012 London Paralympic Games and evolved into a more traditional late-night series - the focus is by and large on being silly and making wildly famous people do silly things.
However, it’s not as easy for the U.S. late-night glut as taking on a new formula. The competition is bigger, the audiences different and the demands ever-changing: We want political commentators who can play daft children’s party games then give heartfelt interviews with the star of a CW show then embrace the fad of that second in a way that’ll appeal to kids on YouTube. We want variety as much as we want more of the same.
The upcoming bunch of late-night newbies seems determined to stick to those niches, for better or worse. Busy Philipps will be fizzy and celeb-focused while Jerry O’Connell will expand the lucrative Bravo brand cemented by Andy Cohen, and Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj is expected to ‘explore the modern cultural and political landscape with depth and sincerity’, according to its press release. They say there’s an audience for everything, but will any of them stick around long enough to ensure the longevity of late-night beyond its core foundations?
What’s your favourite late-night talk show? Do you even watch late-night these days?
Header Image Source: Netflix