2017 was a year of transition for late-night television. While going viral and crafting shareable moments remained important, some of late night’s hosts shifted to become more critical, politically engaged voices. A few struggled with the changes while others have flourished, and several members of the old guard showed why they continued to enjoy success.
While President Trump remained an unavoidable topic, some the year’s most memorable moments, selected below, didn’t involve The White House. Late night provided distraction and comfort in a year that was harder than most for many people. These moments capture that at its best.
Conan: “Conan Drives With Tom Cruise”
Conan took a jab at his competition in this interview with Tom Cruise, churning out a brilliant piece of comedy in the process. Taking cues from Jimmy Fallon’s viral games and James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, Conan hops behind the wheel of a car with Tom Cruise to drive around London. And that’s it. He doesn’t have any questions to ask, no games to play, and no destination to get to. Cruise becomes increasingly perplexed throughout and eventually realizes that he’s there against his will. The brilliant “less is more” approach helped show why Conan is still valuable to late night TV.
Much has been said about Jimmy Kimmel’s emotional statements following the shootings in Las Vegas and the health scare with his infant son. The host used his status and platform to speak out, becoming a focal point in the ongoing debate over healthcare and gun control in the United States. He established himself as a trustworthy voice that spoke from a genuine place, an element that’s often seemed missing from late night following Jon Stewart’s departure.
Jimmy Fallon’s return following the sudden passing of his mother was already emotional thanks to the host’s tearful opening. It was a moment of reality that we don’t normally see from Fallon as he shared a personal story about his mother squeezing his hand to say “I love you.” This moment would come back later in the show during Taylor Swift’s performance of “New Year’s Day,” when she worked the personal moment into the song. It was a surprise to everyone, including Fallon, and turned an emotional night into a loving tribute.
The Late Show – Stephen Colbert Visits Donald Trump’s Russian Hotel Room
Among late-night hosts, Stephen Colbert has benefitted the most from Donald Trump winning the presidency. The Late Show has seen a bump ratings due to Colbert’s ongoing criticism of the president, partly connected to the never-ending stream of news coming from The White House. Due to the continued interest in Trump and the ongoing Russia investigation, Colbert traveled to Russia for segments and ended up checking into the very hotel room connected to Trump’s alleged “pee-pee tape.” While the entire week was interesting, the hotel room proved to be the main event and returned Colbert to his comfort zone after a year of uncertainty.
Late Night With Seth Meyers: “Leslie Jones and Seth Return To Watch Game of Thrones”
While Seth Meyers targeted the president nightly throughout 2017, some of his strongest moments came when he strayed away from politics. A standout: his second live viewing of Game Of Thrones with SNL cast member Leslie Jones. Her reactions and running commentary made the initial offering noteworthy and the second installment only improved on that. It helped that they covered “The Spoils Of War,” one of the more action-packed episodes from Game Of Thrones seventh season, and that it included an appearance by Conleth Hill in character as Lord Varys.
The Late Late Show With James Corden – Live 4D Performance Of Thor: Ragnarok
2017 was a weaker year for James Corden. The Late Late Show host was still riding high from a memorable 2016 thanks to Carpool Karaoke. His 2017 kicked off with hosting the Grammy Awards in February, but his late-night show didn’t reach the heights of the prior year. While he made headlines with Katy Perry and her rivalry with Taylor Swift, his most memorable came when the entire cast of Thor: Ragnarok burst into a screening to act out the film live for the audience. It showed off Corden’s strengths and self-deprecating humor, gave Chris Hemsworth and the rest of the cast another reason to cut loose, and balanced entertainment with promotion in a novel, welcome way.
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee: “The Not The White House Correspondents’ Dinner”
Samantha Bee took advantage of the turmoil created by the president and his first White House Correspondents’ Dinner to launch her own special in its shadow. It was bold, fun, and far more memorable than anything that happened at the official dinner. Bee also didn’t hesitate to let her insults cut deeper than anything that would happen with the president in the room. On top of the biting commentary, the show also brought back Will Ferrell to play President George W. Bush. As the only woman in late night, Bee didn’t hesitate to swing for the fences and show she belonged.
The Daily Show: “Bill O’Reilly Gets The Boot”
The turmoil from the sexual harassment scandals that swallowed Fox News led to the end of an era for the cable news giant. Not only did it lose its leader Roger Ailes to scandal (Ailes would later die in May), longtime host Bill O’Reilly soon followed for similar reasons. It provided a unique opportunity for Trevor Noah at The Daily Show to address his own show’s connection to Fox News and also usher in that new era by saying goodbye to the old one. Noah and his correspondents gave O’Reilly the send-off he didn’t get from Fox News, all in fine Daily Show fashion, dredging up every horrible moment, outrageous statement, and embarrassing blunder.
Last Week Tonight – John Oliver’s Warren G. Harding Wax Figure Stars In Its Own Biopic
The closure of Gettysburg’s Hall of Presidents wax museum presented a unique opportunity to many in late night. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and MSNBC personality Rachel Maddow all sent bids to get their hands on one president from the defunct collection. But it was John Oliver who took it to the next level, dropping $13,700 on five presidential wax figures, including Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, William Henry Harrison, and Warren G. Harding. Harding would become the unlikely star of the show thanks to a biopic about the 29th president’s life complete with a star-studded cast. Anna Kendrick, Laura Linney, Campbell Scott, James Cromwell, and Michael McKean all joined in to act alongside the wax Harding, helping to create a something magical out of something completely ridiculous. Even better, it seems to be getting a sequel starring Tom Hanks once the show returns in the new year.