After four seasons and 600 episodes of topical, fast-paced humor, Comedy Central’s social media-infused panel show @midnight is coming to an end tonight. Whether you’re a hardcore fan, an occasional viewer, or a greenhorn whose first exposure was hearing the news, the loss of the Chris Hardwick-hosted faux game show is significant. Nothing else on television today has done as much to showcase the humor and improvisational abilities of stand-up comics and comedic actors. In fact, nothing else in the modern peak TV era has replicated what The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson did for comedy.
Comedians with little to no fame sometimes found success following a chance appearance on Carson’s Tonight Show, a career lineage that sometimes still occurs thanks to modern late-night shows. “That’s great,” you’re probably thinking, “but how does a shuttered panel show’s comedy output compare to Carson’s rich stand-up history?” It’s a fair question, especially since @midnight never featured anyone of Roseanne Barr or Jerry Seinfeld’s stature, but that’s the point. They never would have garnered such fame if it weren’t for their Tonight Show stand-up performances. Likewise, many of today’s greatest, funniest comics owe their success to @midnight and its closest relative, Chelsea Lately.
The Influence of Chelsea Handler
“I started doing Chelsea Lately in 2009,” recalls Hardwick. “At the time, it was the only place that catered to hardcore comedy audiences. I was also on G4 at the time, but it was a very niche channel, so it didn’t really help me sell a lot of tickets whenever I went on the road to tour comedy clubs. But going on Handler’s show was great, because stand-up fans watched it in droves. Those appearances actually helped with my ticket sales. It was the only show at the time that featured a roundtable of comedians and made sure the audience knew who they were.”
By the time Chelsea Lately closed its doors in 2014, when Handler left E! for Netflix, @midnight already had a short first season in the can and was in the middle of filming its massive 299-episode second season. Yet Handler’s late night talk and panel show’s influence on the latter was undeniable. Aside from Hardwick, many of the same comics — from big names like Bob Saget to newcomers like People of Earth‘s Alice Wetterlund — would appear on both programs. According to the 45-year-old host, that was his plan all along.
“I wanted to be involved in something that helped comedians and helped comedy,” he says. “The great thing about it is, whenever a comic is on television doing comedy, they’re usually burning through their own material. There really aren’t a lot of shows anymore on which comedians can pop up. As many channels as there are, even the talk shows today don’t really feature comedians as often as they used to.
Executive producer Thomas Lennon, who hosted the @midnight pilot (then titled Tweeterdome) before it was reformatted for Hardwick, agrees. “To come up with 10 minutes of stuff can take you months to write,” he explains. “With @midnight, we wanted to give our panelists a safe place where they could improvise and avoid burning through their material as much as possible. It’s a very safe place. It’s an amazing place to see people write jokes on their feet.”
Chelsea Lately alum Ron Funches, whose early spots on @midnight quickly turned him into a fan favorite, backs this up. “It’s kind of like what Chelsea Lately was for comedians back when it was on the air,” he says. “That’s what @midnight became for us, especially since it’s such a great tool to introduce a new audience to your style of humor. It lets them learn about your sense of humor, but without you necessarily having to burn through your material in the process. I could just show viewers my stance on certain topical subjects, which was great since I don’t really do topical material too much.”