Late Night Talk Show Hosts

Trekking the Late Night Landscape

Success has an eery tendency to foster imitation (as they say, imitation is the sweetest form of flattery) and an area that is wrought with imitators (of each other and the early pioneers) is the network late night talk show landscape. The vaudeville format of these shows was popularized by the premier Tonight Show host and former definitive king of late night, Johnny Carson and pioneered by Ed Sullivan. The show has some unwavering staples such as the token male-comedian host, the goofy sidekick, the talented musical band (with a designated chatty leader), table-and-chair/sofa decor and visiting guests showcasing their talents (albeit nowadays these “talented guests” are mostly celebrities who drop by to promote their latest product offering). In so far, the episodic framework of these shows adheres to a singular formula as well: the host starts off with a monologue, sits down at his desk to continue with some more funny musings or, if we’re lucky there’s a gag/skit filmed with a guest celebrity (primarily intended for YouTube bait viewing), next the show’s guests are interviewed one by one (except Corden who opts for a group discussion format such as Graham Norton) and lastly, there is a musical guest. But even in this prism of seeming homogeneity, there are stark differences that become ever more evident as each host tackles the Trump issue.

The Two Jimmy’s

Both Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel are their network’s headliners (for NBC and ABC respectively) and so, they are the face of their network. These two, apart from being name-twins also share various other similarities: they have both mastered the art of the made-for-YouTube click baits and they remain consistently controversy-free. Fallon, uses his SNL-honed talent arsenal to sing, dance and compete with his guests for clickable clips while Kimmel uses his self-deprecating charm to entertain us with running gags such as his ongoing feud with Matt Damon and John Krasinksi. He also utilizes his supporting cast – Guillermo and Cousin Sal – as well as uninhibited celebrities (in his mean tweets gag) to shift the focus away from himself. On the other hand, Fallon thrives under the limelight appearing in every skit, competition, song, etc. But, whatever the approach, the outcome is the same: creating clickable content for the YouTube generation.

The two Jimmys also have their differences; Fallon boasted an impressive resumé in the entertainment industry prior to his Tonight Show hosting duties – appearing in movies and SNL – and since he is also younger than Kimmel, he is more in-the-know of trends which allows him to be lavish in his praise of his guests’ work. On the other hand, Kimmel, the self-proclaimed biggest fan of David Letterman, adopts a similar style as the veteran did, by approaching his gig as an outsider to the entertainment industry. He doesn’t opt for the effusive praise approach adopted by Fallon and wears an expression of surprise or confusion whenever a celebrity reveals an outlandish detail about themselves.

But, as affable and light-hearted as these guys are, they don’t seem to be offering pointed commentary on the ways of the world. They do manage to score high on ratings with Fallon upholding the top-spot of the historic Tonight Show with the highest ratings. But, the chink on Jimmy’s armor is starting to unravel. Even before his vanilla stance on Trump and the elections, there was speculation of his rowdy shenanigans, a substance abuse problem and then there was that issue about getting Trump elected but more on that below.

James Corden’s Musical Talents

Another interesting component of the network late-night landscape is British upstart, James Corden. I have to confess, I’m not Corden’s targeted audience – which includes mostly adolescents and college kids (who can stay up that late to watch his show), and I have never watched an entire episode, but I can presume that this Brit’s material is light and fluffy – and well, cute as he is. I don’t really understand the hoopla behind the car pool karaoke (he regularly beats out other full-time YouTube content creators to become the most-watched video on the site) either. But, of course, you won’t be watching his show for his take on politics and the trying issues plaguing our world. His show is filled with teen idols, he lends an ear to young adult problems and spoon-feeds them with fantastical realities filled with their favorite musical icons mostly.

And, here’s another thing to consider, he is the second-fiddle in his network’s lineup, playing a tertiary role to the inimitable Stephen Colbert, thus he doesn’t necessarily have to be on-the-nose with every issue. He is given free-reign to do break the chasm of the talk-show format and it’s nice to see someone young and effervescent as him lighting up the midnight airways.

The Political Commentaries: Colbert and Myers

Unlike Corden however, the second-fiddle, Seth Myers, who is the supporting cast to Jimmy Fallon at NBC, is taking a more vociferous approach. He is still a high-draw in the world of entertainment; he regularly hosts Game of Thrones comic-con discussion panels, White House Correspondents’ Dinners and still has an active role in SNL skits thus, he is quite literally all over the entertainment world. This affords him more room to be more political than say, Corden, even in his second-fiddle role, and he is with great aplomb. He is always true to his personality: an unapologetic Red Sox fan living in Yankee territory with sharp wit and a sardonic glare. At SNL, he used to helm the Weekly Update skit – a role that emboldened him to nail, with flawless perfection, the most anticipated bit on his own show, A Closer Look. He delivers political satire (like cable news talk hosts, Trevor Noah and John Oliver) with straight face humor – sometimes his jokes do fall flat and his analogies can get wayward at times but his unique take on the recent Trump idiosyncrasies is hugely refreshing. He is also an excellent interviewer, which came across especially when he was interviewing the reigning Queen of Bullshit herself, Kelly Anne Conway. But, Meyers is simply stating the facts. He is taking on interesting angles of the headlining news sure, but he isn’t convincingly asserting his own views. He doesn’t chastise as vehemently as another headliner.

That headliner is Mr. Stephen Colbert, formerly of The Colbert Report, a professional lambaster (sic.) of everything that is wrong in the world. This is a man with a gall unbridled by none, a maverick and biggest Tolkien fanboy in the planet. Inheriting the Ed Sullivan Theater and the David Letterman legacy, Colbert transitioned from cable to network television almost with an over-the-top set, a hugely talented jazz/blues band and an against-the-grain approach to the late-night landscape. It is not enough to state that out of the bunch of guys on the talk-show stratosphere, Stephen has the sharpest mind and the boldest mouth thus it might even be loftily claimed that he is the definitive voice of reason in America right now. He adheres to the sage Jon Stewart philosophy of calling bullshit out on bullshitocracy. So, similar to Meyers, Colbert is dishing out a healthy dosage of politics but unlike Corden and the Jimmys, he is making the most rousing comments pertinent to the dialogue without infuriating or alienating.

His live show on election night, as heartbreaking as it was to watch his sheer disbelief at the outcome, showed his patriotism to the country. His glasses, polished demeanor, Southern roots and devout Christian-ness, might paint him out to be a staunch traditionalist but he is a man capable of such organized thought and reason that he is in a state that America would be in if it were as progressive and well-rounded as he was. So Stephen, unlike the other network hosts is taking a stand, he is voicing his organized thoughts and we are the better for it. It’s not just his pointed monologues that are path-breaking but his whole show is an expression of his stand against the crap-slinging powers-that-be. He might bring on someone like Johnny Galecki, making the rounds to promote his latest Ring movie, but he will ask questions pertinent to the current status quo of the world. He will have a Dr. Phil on the show and ask him for some much-needed counseling and valuable words of advice for the nation. He brings on intellects such as tech billionaires or writer Elizabeth Gilbert (I can only dream of my own appearance on his show one day!) and even when the same product is being promoted around the talk-show world, he takes an interesting take on it in his own way. When Aziz Ansari was making the round promoting Master of None, Stephen invited Aziz’s father to gauge his take on his new found fame. A subtle defiance to the raging immigrant conversation at that time. By doing these things, Stephen is not focusing on click-bait content and it seems that he isn’t even worried about his Emmy snub or his second position at the ratings ladder, but instead, he is going out every weeknight and is providing us intelligent dialogue that we all need to hear for our sanity. With a prerogative like that, I can only imagine his Emmy win(s) and legendary status etched into history.

Like me, the people have responded to Colbert.  The saccharine goodness of the Jimmys and Cordens seem outdated now in this post-Trump world. Fallon’s comfortable seat at the top rung of the ratings ladder is starting to waiver as Colbert closes in. The world is calling out for bold libertines like Colbert to stand up and challenging the likes of incredulous crazies such as Stephen Miller. On another note, up here in the Great White North, a certain tech CEO has come under fire for not banning a certain online store that is selling offensive material on their platform and many cried foul. In this ever-divisive world, we are somehow being defined as those who stand up for their beliefs and call out wrongdoers or we’re condemned for inaction. But, in this ridiculous world, we cannot sit idly and normalize the crazy or allow hate to rampage and tear us apart. But, that’s just my opinion as well as the likes of Colbert and Stewart (I must be in good company then!).

Another interesting furor that arose recently was the controversy surrounding Fallon and Meyers who were both criticized for getting Trump elected. Meyers had roasted Trump at a White House Correspondent’s Dinner some years prior, joking about the absurdity of Trump running or being elected as President. It is presumed that that stinging insult had spurred him to run. Fallon, on the other hand, is currently being blamed for infamous tussling The Donald’s hair which is thought to have endeared Trump to voters and hence got him elected. Thus, when it comes to these highly influential people yielding significant forms of influence in the world, it is important like the said CEO to call bullshit out for what it is. Take a leaf out of Colbert’s page, guys. As Malala bravely preaches, “when the world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” We must not be afraid to voice that opinion. Won’t we be better off as a society if we taught each other our tricks? Is it too idealistic to think this way?

Sadia Sarwar is an upcoming author with plenty of opinions and rarefied tastes. Follow her on @sadiamhsarwar


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