Recapping the Year in Late Night
The field of late night television is more crowded than ever. Beyond the main five network hosts, the crowd of cable hosts is growing larger and larger, and streaming services are beginning to dip into the pool as well (does it count as a late night show if it doesn’t have a fixed time slot?). With so many options to choose from, it’s hard to know which of these shows are worth your time, and which of them can be comfortably ignored. With that in mind, let’s look at every late night show that aired in 2017 and examine which ones stood out and which ones could never quite find their footing.
Network TV Division
5. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
We can’t talk about Jimmy Fallon in 2017 without talking about what happened in September 2016. He still hasn’t come back from that infamous tousle of then-candidate Donald Trump’s hair, and maybe he never will. Colbert has passed him in the ratings, and Kimmel is poised to do the same. It’s no coincidence that of the three, he’s the only one not talking about politics on a nightly basis, and he’s suffering as a result. In the Trump era, being apolitical is basically unfeasible, and when the notion exists that you helped normalize him, that problem will only be compounded. To be fair, Fallon has responded to this a little bit; in a recent show, he brought out comedian Yamaneika Saunders to discuss the role black women played in defeating Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race. Also, it’s been encouraging to see the presence of people like Julio Torres, Patti Harrison, and Jo Firestone, who have done their part to bring the show — at least partially — out of its mainstream comedy bubble. Still, it feels like for the most part, Fallon is lost in a world where his schtick just isn’t enough anymore. Tune in any given night, and you’ll see the same silly games with celebrities as always. If Fallon wants to regain his king of late night title, he’s going to need to evolve in 2018, and it remains to be seen if he has that in him.
4. The Late Late Show with James Corden
This show got off to a fast start when it debuted in 2015; Corden was charismatic from day one, and the show had a fun look and vibe. And, of course, there was Reggie Watts. It seemed like the perfect formula, but if we’re being honest, things have stagnated a bit. “Carpool Karaoke” has blown up to something bigger than the show, much like “Lip Sync Battle” did for Fallon, but it feels like the premise has been taken to its limit, and they’re just seeing how many musicians they can do it with before they’ve gone through their rolodex. Elsewhere, we get a lot of the same celebrity schmoozing silliness that defines Fallon. It’s an endless string of rap battles and musical numbers, and it’s not as fun as it was a few years ago. To his credit, Corden is a bit more willing to talk about politics than Fallon, but even when he gets political, it still manages to lead him to a musical number. The show can still be vibrant on its best nights, but like Fallon, it needs to stop running the same gags into the ground.
3. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
This was the most difficult show to place when putting this together. On one hand, Colbert’s CBS program has clearly found its footing, and Colbert has won over audiences with his continued takedowns of Trump. At the same time, compared to the brilliance of The Colbert Report, seeing Colbert comment as his true self has been a tad disappointing. In a bit mocking Trump for his ties to Russia, Colbert joked that Trump’s mouth was Vladimir Putin’s “cock holster,” which was needlessly homophobic, and more than a little disappointing from someone usually so sharp. Elsewhere, he commented that Trump isn’t the symptom, “he is the disease” when referring to Trump’s attack on Mika Brzezinski, which lacked his usual perception. Trump seems a lot more like the outcome of years of a rotting political culture than anything else, but Colbert seems to think everything was mostly fine until he showed up and started wreaking havoc. Essentially, Stephen Colbert has found his place on network TV, but he’s still a poor substitute for the greatness that was “Stephen Colbert.”
2. Late Night with Seth Meyers
When Seth Meyers took over for Jimmy Fallon in 2014, I wondered how his show would ever gain an identity. Sure, he was solid delivering punchlines on Update, but would that be enough? Luckily, Meyers’s show has evolved considerably over the course of its run, and he’s become one of the more adroit political commentators in the game. His “A Closer Look” segments give a precise, funny look at whatever Trump is up to on any given day and have become a signature segment. Even better is “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” where Meyers slyly comments on being yet another straight white guy late night host by having writers Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel tell jokes that he can’t get away with. Four years ago, we wondered if Meyers would be able to stake a place for himself in late night. Now, it’s impossible to imagine it without him.
1. Jimmy Kimmel Live
Kimmel has been on the air longer than any network TV host, and yet this feels like a breakout year. For a long time, his show has been quietly better-than-you-might-think, but not quite appointment television. That changed this year when he entered the healthcare debate. His infant son, Billy, was saved by an operation that many people wouldn’t have been able to afford. Following this, Kimmel became incensed by the greed and cruelty of Republican politicians who wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Had he only mentioned this once, it still would have been a big deal, but Kimmel kept the fight going throughout the year. It reached another level when Senator Bill Cassidy promised he wouldn’t support any bill that didn’t pass the “Jimmy Kimmel Test,” then promptly went back on that. Kimmel held his feet to the fire, and had no problem calling him a liar. Late night was political everywhere in 2017 (even a little bit on Fallon), but with Kimmel, it went beyond just making fun of Trump. Kimmel’s rage was real, and personal, and his fight resonated more than any given Trump takedown anywhere else. Kimmel’s show had the most impact of any network late night show, and for that, he easily earns the top spot.
6. Real Time with Bill Maher
As bad as Fallon’s year was, he had nothing on Maher, who proved himself to be the worst decision maker in the game by far. First, he brought professional asshole Milo Yiannopoulos on the show. Now, he was castigated by many for even giving the alt-right twerp a platform, but what I found more irksome was that he declined to challenge Milo on any of his bullshit and instead marveled at how much common ground they had. It took Larry Wilmore — who absolutely should still have a TV show — to do Maher’s dirty work. Then, he said the n-word in a joke that wouldn’t have even been funny at a time when it was still considered “okay” for white comics to do so. Then, he tried to apologize for it and came off as condescending to the black guests he was supposed to be apologizing to. So, how is Maher still a “liberal?” Uh, well, he says Trump is bad, and he whines about Sanders voters who went for Stein in the general. That’s pretty much it. Why is he still on the air? I’m with Chance on this one.
5. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah
Noah has gradually gotten more charismatic since taking over for Jon Stewart in 2015, and on a given night, his show is perfectly enjoyable. That being said, out of all the shows I wrote about for this list, this was the hardest show to think of anything especially memorable from. A lot of it was perfunctory Trump takedowns, often performed quite well, but not adding anything new to the conversation. That being said, one strong recent moment was when he addressed Trump’s “Pocahontas” slur against Elizabeth Warren, noting that while Trump is being racist when he says that, it also refers to a very real problem with Warren: her history of falsely claiming Native American heritage. One of the biggest problems with late night these days is that it’s so unabashedly liberal that you rarely see Democrats being called out for their flaws (this is a big reason to miss Jon Stewart). This was the rare moment where Noah truly stood out. Hopefully, he’ll be willing to take more stands like this going forward. As for the correspondents, the show took a blow when Jordan Klepper left for The Opposition, but Michelle Wolf has been a very welcome presence giving the show a strong feminist edge with bits like her great takes on the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the all-male women’s health panel in Congress. It would not be surprising if she became the next star to break out of The Daily Show.
4. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
For better or worse, Bee has pretty much become the leader of #TheResistance in late night. I mean, it’s obvious that every host hates Trump and wishes Hillary Clinton were president right now, but no one will let you know just how much they feel that way more than Bee. This can be good and bad, depending on what aspect you look at it from. Take this segment from the December 6th show, where she argues that the presence of sexually abusive men in journalism has worked against Clinton throughout her career. It’s a worthy point, but the clips she plays to support this are all over the place. We see women criticizing her right along with the men in question, and while some of the critiques of Clinton are obviously gendered and sexist (any use of “shrill” to describe her should be thrown right in the trash), they are put right next to critiques of her being robotic, which seems far less problematic when we consider that John Kerry, Al Gore, and Mitt Romney have all been critiqued the same way. Wouldn’t the segment have worked better if it had just focused on established abusers saying outwardly sexist things? Elsewhere, her special Not the White Correspondents’ Dinner was quite enjoyable and had the appropriate amount of rage for a nation that was just getting used to Donald Trump being its president. In Jon Stewart’s absence, Bee has become the main source of righteous anger in late night. It’s worth noting that she’s often at her best when she dishes it out to her fellow liberals, like when she criticized their calls for Trump’s impeachment instead of focusing on specific, practical issues.
I mean…it’s Conan. He’s been around forever, and while his TBS show will never be as good as Late Night with Conan O’Brien (because NBC owns the rights to all of its best segments — RIP Masturbating Bear), you can still find plenty to like in an average episode. We know the monologue will consist of his usual self-deprecating antics, and he’ll probably have a clever ad-lib after a joke bombs. That being said, some special consideration should be given to his inspired week of shows at the Apollo Theater, particularly a hilarious segment where he works behind the counter at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem. It was the type of fun, unrehearsed bit that made Late Night so much fun. Much of Conan’s best work has come when he’s traveled the world, and that held true this year, as trips to Israel and Mexico brought plenty of great moments. Conan will never return to what he was at his absolute peak, but he’s still one of the most charming personalities in the game, and every once in awhile, his show will do something that reminds us why we fell in love with him in the first place.
2. The President Show
I wasn’t sure about including The President Show because it diverges so much from the typical late night format, but it is simply too good not to be mentioned. By hosting the show in character as Donald Trump, Anthony Atamanuik is able to comment on the absurdity of him actually being president in a way that no other show really can. In one of the show’s best segments, he storms the office of Brad Sherman, the congressman who has filed impeachment papers against Trump. Watching congressmen and journalists talk to the character as though he actually is Trump somehow never stops being hilarious, and Atamanuik’s impression of Trump is easily the best in the game. The show is brilliantly surreal, and through its glorious weirdness, it does an impeccable job of capturing just how fucked up the current political moment is.
1. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Oliver won the Emmy this year, and he completely deserved it. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of doing only one show a week and having the freedom of being on HBO (although neither of those things help Bill Maher), but Oliver’s show simply provides more detail and information than any show on the air. For four seasons now, Oliver has been able to give thorough summaries of serious political issues that leave viewers far more informed than they were when they came in. This matters because just saying that the Republicans are bad only gets you so far. Some of Oliver’s best moments in 2017 were his exploration of Confederate imagery and a deep dive into the oddly intriguing career of Alex Jones. Oliver may preach to the choir as much as anyone else, but no one looks deeper into serious topics than he does, and he manages to make it all quite funny. For that, he stands out above everyone else in the cable late night scene.
These are the shows that came on late in the year and are too new to be fully evaluated. First off, The Opposition with Jordan Klepper is a generally spot-on parody of Alex Jones and the combination of conspiracy theories and far-right politics that define the alt-right. If there’s a problem with this show, it’s that so far it seems a little too similar to The Colbert Report. It’s obvious that Colbert is a huge influence on Klepper, and while that’s a great thing, it sometimes feels like he’s struggling to establish his own identity. That being said, Citizen Journalists Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp have been standouts, and it would be great to see more of them. Elsewhere, Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America dares to take an optimistic look at life in the Trump era, and provided some incredibly thoughtful commentary on the disturbing revelations about Louis C.K. Robin Thede’s The Rundown has finally given a voice to black women in late night TV and delivered a standout piece with their look at Russian hackers infiltrating black communities. All three shows are off to excellent starts and could go on to have a serious impact. Every new show here makes me very optimistic about the future of late night industry.