Sometimes you need a bit. Just a bit to liven things up and take the focus away from always looking at the same darn thing. By “bit” I mean something like “Amber Says What” on Late Night with Seth Meyers, or “Drunk Donald Trump” on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Late-night chat shows always have “bits” that recur with varying frequency. Some are beloved and some are flops never to be seen again. They exist in the template for late-night TV, which still has considerable durability. Even on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, a show without commercial interruption and with huge creative freedom, there is always what amounts to regular “bits.” The typical Oliver episode opens with a monologue-like recap of a few of the week’s news items and goes to a “bit”, a video compilation, usually of some silliness on local TV news.
But then there’s Netflix. As in so many other content arenas Netflix is changing the very definition of newsy-funny chat shows. So far, Netflix has tried such shows featuring Chelsea Handler, Joel McHale and Michelle Wolf. All three have since been cancelled. It also has the less newsy but chatty Norm Macdonald has a Show and My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman. Those two are examples of the new talk format, which can be watched at any time and aren’t irrelevant after another news cycle. Both have had lukewarm receptions and are little discussed after an initial media fuss.
Netflix’s Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj (new episodes stream Sundays) is the latest foray into the newsy-funny genre. And it’s fascinating since it both fails and succeeds.
Minhaj, a former “correspondent” on The Daily Show had a first-rate stand-up special called Homecoming King, which began streaming on Netflix last year. He is the first Indian-American performer to be host of a TV news/comedy show and that’s hugely significant. It’s part of the show’s success. In one episode, centred entirely on the issue of Saudi Arabia, he viewed political shifts within Saudi Arabia not as an American but as an Indian-American Muslim.
In another episode devoted entirely to the issue of affirmative-action, and mostly about a lawsuit filed against Harvard University by an anti-affirmative-action group, his personal perspective and insight was invaluable. Also, as someone not long out of college, it was unique. And it was funny. The episode about Saudi Arabia wasn’t funny at all. In fact the impact was a wearying sense of being badgered and browbeaten. It seriously needed a pause and a “bit” about something else in the news or the host’s personal life.
That’s the core issue here, as Netflix attempts its own redefinition of existing TV genres – it is either abandoning the chat-show template or it doesn’t grasp why the template exists and functions well.
On Minhaj’s show, he is standing on a brightly lit stage talking at a studio audience and the camera on one single topic. But there is almost no sense of the audience actually being here. There is zero warmth between performer and viewer in the old-fashioned sense. That’s something achieved by showing the audience to the viewer and making the viewers feel they are part of it. And, about 20 minutes in with Minhaj, you can feel like you’re in church listening to a sermon. Minhaj is young, clever and articulate, and he can be hilarious in flashes. But, using a format that is neither a stand-up routine or chat show, some crucial element of connectivity gets lost.
In one of the handful of shows so far, Minhaj joked that what he’s doing is “a woke TED Talk.” It’s a funny line, but it also reveals the weakness of what he and others are doing: They’re preaching to the converted. Sometimes Oliver leans toward the same kind of lecturing, hectoring style. No matter how valuable the information he delivers, it can come in an irritating predictable pattern. It’s information followed by a penis joke, followed by information, followed by self-deprecating wisecrack about Oliver being a homely English guy. Samantha Bee has her own version of this format and it is just as wearying as Oliver’s.
It’s stating the obvious to say that the current crop of news-funny chat shows reflects the political divide in the United States. Nobody is watching Oliver or Bee to be persuaded about an issue while being entertained. People watch to have their existing views validated. If there are a few laughs, that’s a bonus.
For all its surface innovation, Netflix is missing an opportunity here. The true innovation would be to use the traditional chat-show format (of host, monologue, band, audience interaction, guests on the couch) but employ hosts who aren’t middle-aged, male and white. Take the orthodox format but give it the injection that comes with youth and diversity. And don’t forget funny “bits.” Less lecturing, please.