A previous version of this story first appeared in TheWrap Magazine Fall TV issue.
The more things change, the more they stay the same — particularly in late-night TV.
The premieres of Stephen Colbert as host of CBS’ “The Late Show” Sept. 8 and Trevor Noah 20 days later at Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” end a nearly two-year game of musical chairs in the post-11 p.m. hours — with some players losing or giving up their seats, others moving up in the ranks and still others appearing out of nowhere to snag primo positions. What hasn’t changed much is the content. Late-night TV is out with the old and in with the new when it comes to sets and marquees, but the core of the late-night show since the 1950s–guy, suit, desk–is still going strong.
Rewind to January of 2014: Jay Leno was still (also, again) the host of NBC’s “Tonight Show,” David Letterman hadn’t yet announced his “Late Show” retirement and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” was just a year removed from its old 12:05 a.m. time slot. Also, Jimmy Fallon hosted NBC’s “Late Night,” Craig Ferguson was doing weird stuff on “The Late Late Show” and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were a powerful 1-2 punch over on Comedy Central. Even Chelsea Handler still had a TV show — remember that?
Fast-forward to today. Leno appears to have really, truly retired from late night, and replacement Fallon has been dominant in his new gig. Letterman has vanished, and Colbert’s name is now on the marquee at the Ed Sullivan Theater. Seth Meyers moved over from “Saturday Night Live” to take Fallon’s old post and British import James Corden has claimed the “The Late Late Show” across the dial. Stewart has handed the “Daily Show” baton to equally unknown Trevor Noah, a young South African comic even more obscure in the U.S. than Corden. Handler is now over at Netflix with a multi-project deal. Larry Wilmore has inherited Colbert’s old timeslot.
Oh, and Conan O’Brien is still hanging in there on TBS.
So yeah, late night is still hosted primarily by middle-aged guys. And the shows follow the same format as they always have: monologue, desk bit, first guest, second guest, musical guest, good night. Late-night beats are so stagnant that Meyers’ moving his opening jokes from standing to seated was actually treated as news within the industry.
“The look and feel of that kind of set design has been a part of the television landscape, going back to the beginning of late-night television,” CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler told TheWrap. “At 11:30, 12:30 at night, it’s the end of the day, and there’s something comforting about it.”
Of course, while Fallon’s “Tonight Show” is similar to Leno’s, it’s also different. Fallon has made the talk show into a game show of sorts, coercing top celebrities to participate in seemingly devolved moments of play, including charades and lip sync competitions. The format has paid dividends in both ratings and in online views–the old and new benchmarks for late-night success.
Fallon’s digital success was preceded by Kimmel’s. The ABC host was the first to treat YouTube as a serious platform through which to reach audiences. Corden, with his own recurring set pieces such as “Car Pool Karaoke,” has used digital to successfully introduce himself to American audiences. Colbert paved the path to his “Late Show” debut with a series of videos designed to go viral — a strategy that culminated with a surprise takeover of a Michigan public-access TV show, a post-linear comedy mic drop that messed with the fundamentals of how and why content is shared to awesome effect.
At Colbert’s old home, Comedy Central, “The Daily Show” is being retooled with the digital-media revolution in mind.
“When the show was created, it was reflective of a 24-hour news cycle,” Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless told TheWrap. “Now we and the show want to reflect the news cycle as it exists today. You can’t do that with just a half-hour show or repurposing the stuff we do at night to other platforms.”
To that end, “The Daily Show” will create regular, dedicated content for digital. CBS, on the back of its success introducing audiences to “the real Stephen Colbert” through snackable video, plans to produce plenty of digital-only material under the Late Show banner. In that way, they can capitalize on Colbert’s outsize social media presence — an area where Letterman never ventured.
But the reality is that no network, broadcast or cable, blew up its late-night block when presented with the chance to do so. That’s because, despite the proliferation of late-night shows, the format still works. CBS expects Colbert to deliver a younger audience than Letterman did and provide robust competition to Fallon.
Noah has a chance to drive Comedy Central’s 11 p.m. audience younger. Kimmel’s move to 11:30 made ABC competitive with younger demos in that hour. Fallon built on Leno’s No. 1 status. Even O’Brien, whose audience at TBS is far from what it was during his broadcast days, was locked up by the cable network last year in a deal that will keep his show there through 2018.
And the new wave of hosts has youth on its side, with Colbert, 51, and Wilmore, 53, passing now for elder statesman and the rest in their 30s and 40s. So now that the dust has settled after two years of late-night upheaval, we can expect these men, these suits and these desks to keep a tried-and-true format looking as venerable and as familiar as ever.