When the late-night hosts returned from the American Thanksgiving break on Monday, everything seemed strangely low-key. It had been a quiet weekend in U.S. politics, by the standards of the Trump period. The results of the presidential election were being steadily certified and there, right there, was a glimpse of the future.
The boring Biden years are looming and Kimmel, Colbert and Trevor Noah, and their writing teams know it. Energized for years by Donald Trump, his antics and the ceaseless roil of scandals, allegations, rumours and innuendo, the late-night arena might be a bare cupboard for a while. Who’s the lame duck now: Is it Trump or the late-night hosts?
It was particularly interesting to note that The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, perhaps already seeing the cupboard bare, rolled out some outtakes from last week’s appearance by Barack Obama. It was a good chat, with Obama being as charming and thoughtful as ever, but it was like watching an episode from last week, all over again.
Jimmy Kimmel did have sport with Trump’s strange and fractious appearance on TV on Thanksgiving, sitting at that oddly small desk, and fuming at reporters. There was footage of Trump snarling at a reporter who asked a reasonable question about conceding the election when the Electoral College certifies the results. “Don’t talk to me that way,” Trump snapped. “I’m the President of the United States. Don’t ever talk to the President that way!” Kimmel’s cheery response was, “Sitting at a tiny desk screaming, ‘Don’t ever talk to the President that way!’ This is how I want to remember him.”
On The Daily Show, Trevor Noah listed a number of strange and troubling acts by the Trump administration as it prepares to wind down. These include adding questions to the civics-test portion of the process for U.S. citizenship and approving various methods for death-sentence execution, including the use of a firing squad. This was a good topic and filled with genuinely distressing detail. But Noah didn’t do much with it, meandering into the “Did ya ever notice?” style of bland stand-up comedians.
All three weighed in on Joe Biden injuring his foot while playing with his dog. Kimmel joked that Trump is jealous: “He’s just jealous because Biden has a dog and all he has is Mike Pence.” But it was tame stuff and perhaps a taste of the future. Without Trump as a focus, it’s a matter of wisecracking about Biden being, well, old, and prone to injury when doing things that shouldn’t be dangerous or injury-inducing.
This is now a pivotal moment for the late-night gang. Many of the shows became defined by their reaction to Trump. This is, in part, because the arrival of Trump coincided with major shifts in the late-night landscape. When Trump arrived on the political scene, Jimmy Fallon was in his early days as host of The Tonight Show on NBC and Fallon’s previous job on Late Night was taken by Seth Meyers.
In September, 2015, Colbert took over The Late Show on CBS from David Letterman, and Colbert was soon labouring hard to find a groove as Trump entered politics. Also on CBS around that time James Corden took over The Late Late Show. And there was another debut in September that year, as Noah began his time on The Daily Show, following in Jon Stewart’s footsteps. In early 2016, former Daily Show figure Samantha Bee launched Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on TBS.
Every one of those figures has had their cranny in late-night characterized by Trump. Fallon’s cheerful, showbiz-obsessed and non-political approach didn’t match the occasion, and Colbert rose to first in the ratings, boosted by his seething and exasperated response to Trump. Fallon now goes toe-to-tie with Kimmel for second place, Kimmel having found his strongest voice in his heartfelt but furious response to the Trump administrations attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Meyers, the most astute and cerebral of them all, found his groove in his lacerating “A Closer Look” segments aimed at Trump’s actions.
In the late-night firmament, change comes slowly. Hosts stay for years and the ratings rarely shift significantly. Now all those shows face a dilemma – how to fill the yawning gap left by the Trump period? In another year, the late-night landscape might look very different.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.