TV

Can Late Night TV Survive The Loss Of Some Of Its Most Interesting Voices?

The late night TV desk, like the cockroach, will seemingly never die. Some hosts have tried to escape the desk, but it never seems to work out. Just ask Conan O’Brien, Desus, Mero, and now Samantha Bee, all hosts of late night shows that pushed against the norms and who no longer have shows (for various reasons). Is this evidence of some kind of curse or does it say something about the futility of trying to push an audience out of their comfort zone? I’m not sure, but the loss of those particular shows certainly makes late night less interesting and hints at an ominous future.

I don’t think desk shows are bad, by the way. Colbert, Kimmel, Seth, and Amber Ruffin do great things and showed immense creativity in surviving and thriving creatively during the pandemic. This is more a sorrow song for the lack of alternative options, the shows we’ve already lost, and what feels like a muted industry response.

Conan is gone now with the O’Brien deciding to leave TBS a little more than a year ago after 28 years of groundbreaking esoteric comedy that aimed for the light of silliness. This after a 2019 format change to lose the desk and give more time for conversation. Which was quickly followed by the pandemic, remote records, and then a stripped-down live model. At the time, the plan was for some kind of HBO Max series to follow, but we’re still waiting for more details on that. In the meantime, O’Brien seems to be having a blast growing his podcast network and its crown jewel, Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend. On that show, the longer form interviews are the whole meal as O’Brien gleefully indulges his want in having the kind of real, uncanned conversations that serve as a challenge within the structure of a late night show, even if you push the bounds of that structure.

As with Conan, the end of Desus & Mero does not appear to be due to network pressure, as far as we know. But who really does know? The palace intrigue of late night isn’t as on display as it was when that messy bitch Jay Leno was a part of the mix. Maybe this era will get its own Bill Carter (noted late night historian) book that exposes a bunch of secrets like the Leno/David Letterman wars and the Leno/O’Brien wars did. But for now, we go on face value alone, which is to say Daniel Baker aka Desus Nice and Joel Martinez aka The Kid Mero don’t want to be Desus AND Mero anymore. The brand is… broken, sad to say.

These talents leave behind their own legacy, not as lengthy as O’Brien’s, but one that demands a lot of respect. Desus & Mero modernized the idea of a late night talk show, bringing hip-hop culture into late night in an authentic way (a feat wonderfully memorialized by Uproxx hip-hop editor Aaron Williams) while also creating a comfortable space that allowed guests to let their shoulders rest and let the stories flow. The pair also brought a healthy disrespect for authority and institutions, including the institution of late night comedy and what it’s supposed to be. Same as Letterman (who blessed the show early in the middle of its Showtime run), O’Brien, Craig Ferguson, and Jon Stewart, who took a different kind of desk show with The Daily Show and turned it from a kind of news and pop culture Sportscenter clone to something that melded comedy and purpose.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee is, of course, from the Daily Show branch of the late night tree, with Bee playing a key role in that show’s potent run, but her just-canceled TBS show was a different thing, with a greater depth in its reporting and a unique perspective/tone. It might be a symptom of the different times each show existed in, but I saw Stewart as an idealist progressively made angrier by the world and his inability to change it despite being anointed as the most trusted name in news. And with Bee, I saw a realist and someone with no illusions about the shittiness of the world. Someone who just wanted to tell stories that mattered about forgotten people while punching up and getting under the skin of the people most responsible for that shittiness.

This is probably an unfair generalization, but it feels like Jon Stewart wanted (or wants, in his current Apple TV+ show) to fix the system, and Sam Bee recognized that we probably need a new one.

As I wrote yesterday, the timing for Bee’s cancelation couldn’t be worse. We can debate all the live long day the actual power of any of these more politically inclined shows, but it’s better to keep people engaged and motivated on issues that don’t get nearly enough steady attention. And Full Frontal kept people engaged and motivated better than any other late night show, all while making us laugh along the way.

That’s what we’ve lost in the last year — bold comics and fighters, all with their own portfolios of greatness and passionate fan bases. Over the last few years, however, we’ve also lost shows from an array of super interesting and skillful hosts in Hasan Minhaj, Wyatt Cenac, Larry Willmore, Lilly Singh, and Chelsea Handler. That’s a pretty jarring bit of evidence that we’re stuck in a moment where late night has become less interesting and seeing a pullback on the long-needed push for more diversity in late night. So this is much more than a stylistic problem, though both the lack of creative diversity and representation create a similar issue: a limit on who is going to be compelled to watch and/or talk about these shows because they don’t feel like they appeal to their tastes or speak to their perspectives. Cultural homogenization, in other words.

So, do TV bosses care about that or the loss of all this talent? We aren’t really seeing a swell of new shows and new talents that would lead you to assume that they do. Maybe the late night evolution of a near decade ago with its greater focus on YouTube and social relevancy was their last stand and they can’t stomach another change, this time toward a generation that’s more democratic in where it gets its comedy clips, turning to TikTok and even further from the idea of sitting on a couch at midnight watching television.

Maybe we’re in late night’s death spiral and we don’t even know it because we’re in a self-perpetuating cycle convinced that the outpouring of sad tweets and flowery show obituaries indicate the loss of these huge and valuable franchises when, in all actuality, number crunchers don’t seem to be sweating it despite that immense cultural relevance. But they should, everyone should, because of late night’s influence on culture and comedy through the years, but also because it just makes more sense from a business standpoint to create more product over only leaning on a shrinking collection of stalwarts.

Go to TikTok and recruit the next Lilly Singh. Mine The Daily Show (for the love of God, give Roy Wood Jr. a show!) and writer’s rooms to find the next Amber Ruffin. Make the Corden time slot into a comedy lab where you let talented performers play and maybe strike gold, ala the great Pally/Schwartz one-off. Take risks that, oh, by the way, will cost next to nothing, especially in comparison to the salaries of more established stars.

In 2016, I wrote an article here begging for a late night revolution that saw a greater commitment to leaving the studio and bringing in new voices (I also advocated for virtual interviews, whoops!), and while gains toward those ends have happened (and now largely been undone), this is the time to recommit and continue finding ways to break the mold. It certainly isn’t the time to sit on hands and do nothing, accepting that late night is doomed to be less interesting and less bold. After all, the solution to fading relevancy isn’t retreat, it’s attack. I just hope we see evidence of that in the near future.

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