Battle Royale: Late Night Talk Shows

By Corey Knapp

Your homework is done, your team just won, or your favorite primetime show closed with a cliffhanger.  What channel do you turn to next?  Or perhaps the better question-who do you turn to next?

The late night television spectrum has transformed and is once again fully stacked with talented personalities that can satisfy the entertainment taste buds of almost every viewer.  From broadcast networks to cable channels, whether live at 11pm, 11:35pm, midnight, 12:30am, or 4pm a week later on your DVR (*raises hand*), most of us probably have a talk show or six of choice.

And as the viewers, we are the hot commodities; those of us in the 18-34 demographic are the hottest of the hot. The quest for ratings revolves around these hosts’ desires and abilities to entertain us with each episode, YouTube video, and tweet.  As long as entertainment, not selling out for higher ratings, remains the goal, competition will push these programs to get better and better, and to the viewer will go the spoils.

As a television aficionado who watches (too) many of these shows, I offer my breakdown of where each one fits inside the ring of late night talk shows and hope you might want to join me in pressing “Record This Program.”

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The New Kid: The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

A couple of shows into his new role as host, it is clear how much of an influence Jon Stewart had and continues to have on Trevor Noah.  Some of his mannerisms and delivery are instant reminders of the legend for which he took over.  

But Noah has forged his own path in other avenues. His endearing demeanor comes through his smile even as he takes on the latest in the 2016 presidential campaign, and his interviews thus far have been very genuine.  While the South African’s cable TV ratings aren’t yet up to par with Stewart’s, he has outpaced his predecessor on the digital and diversity landscapes.  

Regardless of how his audience watches his show, as he said on his debut, Noah and the Daily Show news team will, “continue the war on bullshit.”  So far, so good.  

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Hollywood: Jimmy Kimmel Live

One of the numerous Jimmy’s in late night, Jimmy Kimmel represents the West Coast nightly.  From segments on Hollywood Boulevard and the Walk of Fame to outdoor concerts, the heart of this show and its host lies in Los Angeles.  As a result, Kimmel can usually trot out a star-studded lineup each week.  

The main structure of his show is solid, but he makes his splash through bits featuring his parking lot security guard Guillermo, harassing tourists with Cousin Sal, and making a fool out of everyone with elaborate Internet pranks and challenges.  

Game Night pregame specials during the NBA Finals provide plenty of fun and shenanigans.  However, it is his long-running ‘feud’ with Matt Damon and the now legendary segment “Mean Tweets” that make Jimmy Kimmel Live a steady voice in the late night conversation.    

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Mr. Consistency: Conan

By far the longest tenured host in the game, Conan O’Brien knows what works and sticks to it.  After getting absolutely shafted by NBC after the Jay Leno primetime debacle, Conan has fully embraced the cable television lifestyle in his 11pm timeslot on TBS, even naming his house band Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band.  

He carved out a nice little niche for himself and only on occasion does he break from it, which allows the viewer to have a pretty good idea of what to expect every night.  

His self-deprecating banter with announcer Andy Richter provides just the right amount of a feeling that they don’t care, which plays very well.  Fan Corrections is my favorite segment on the show, and Conan’s interviews find a good balance between personal stories and promotion.  

He excels when he takes his show on the road for a week, evidenced by when he had the entire Tabernacle in Atlanta doing the Tomahawk Chop when he visited for the Final Four a few years ago.  And you just cannot beat the string dance Conan does at the top of most shows!

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Bald Man On Campus: SportsCenter-SVP

Ah here’s the part where Corey tosses in some sports. I watch multiple episodes of SportsCenter everyday, but Scott Van Pelt’s new midnight version is a little different, in a good way.  Also, it’s the only one of any of these that I actually watch live.  So far, SVP has fluidly combined highlights, interviews, opinions, and arrays of segments that you won’t find on the 11pm or 1am editions of the show.  

Van Pelt is jovial while going through ‘Best Available Video”, “Winners’, and ‘Bad Beats’, in which he says, “we’re sitting down and having shots with the elephant in the room.”  Then, without missing a beat he can shift into a more serious tone and tell us how he really feels in ‘One Big Thing,’ like he did recently in support of Lamar Odom.  

There is calmness but directness in SVP’s delivery, which helps to bring him to the level of the viewer so that he and the audience can simply talk sports.  He would need only one word to describe that style, “useful.”      

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Broadway James: The Late Late Show with James Corden

James Corden, the Englishman who won the 2012 Best Actor Tony for his Broadway performance in “One Man, Two Guvnors,” has settled into the Late Late Show very nicely.  His show is probably the most unique of the bunch, led by himself and bandleader Reggie Watts.  

He has a desk but doesn’t sit behind it during interviews; he has all of the night’s guests on at the same time.  This format can yield a variety of outcomes, but Corden keeps things together by doing his best to spotlight each guest at separate times during the interview.  

Also, if a viewer only watches to see one specific guest, he or she has to watch the whole show instead of only a single segment (well played).  

Corden plays to his goofy side during bits where he works at local restaurants, acts out rapid-fire parts of Tom Hanks movies with Hanks, and then flashes his Broadway background during Carpool Karaoke segments, which are phenomenal!  As Corden continues to come into his own on the Late Late Show, his star quality will only grow.          

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The Late Bloomer: Late Night with Seth Meyers

This program is an enigma.  Seth Meyers is such a skilled comedian, former head writer at Saturday Night Live and co-host of “Weekend Update,” but early on he and his producers just could not figure this thing out.  It wasn’t for lack of trying; some of the problems were with the set and others had to do with content.  

The first guest chairs the show used were brutal to look at and probably worse in which to sit. I don’t know how they lasted more than one week. Then after a couple months they remodeled the whole set, switching the placement of the desk and 8G Band.  Fred Armisen was a great bandleader and sidekick, but almost every dialogue between them felt so staged and forced.  

Slowly but surely, Seth found his footing and got into a groove, and the show began to run more smoothly.  His interview skills were very raw and have made great strides, and maybe the final piece of the puzzle is that he found a home behind the desk. Opening the show with what he calls the ‘Deskalogue,’ Meyers appears so much more comfortable and in his element, which puts the show into a nice rhythm right from the get go.  Late Night looks like it finally has it together.  Better late than never, Seth.     

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The Challenger: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

We have arrived at the main event.  Stephen Colbert stepping into the Ed Sullivan Theatre following David Letterman’s retirement and taking over the Late Show came with lots of fanfare.  He has not disappointed in the least and poses the only legitimate threat to claim the late night belt.  

Colbert does the standard stand-up monologue and then goes into full Colbert Report mode, minus the character, firing shots from behind his second home, the C-shaped desk. Stuffing his face with Oreos while discussing Donald Trump was priceless!  

The writing is magnificent. Jon Batiste and Stay Human sound incredible with their funk and jazz grooves.  Colbert and Batiste have very strong chemistry given the show’s early stages.  And the new Late Show theme song, “Humanism,” is the best in the game.  My only qualm is that Colbert no longer does his own announcing after doing so during the first few weeks.  

Unequivocally, Colbert emerges as the best interviewer of all the hosts; he can get emotional with Joe Biden or quickly make a gay iPhone joke to Apple CEO Tim Cook. To put icing on the cake, the Colbert stage seems to bring the best out of Kendrick Lamar, who was unreal in the Colbert Report finale and crushed the second episode of The Late Show with/starring Stephen Colbert.  

Finally, the most intriguing aspect of this entire program is Colbert’s search for his own voice, completely distinct from that of his previous persona.  He has done so very openly and through humor, like in his segment ‘Who Am Me?’  Stephen Colbert is already one of the best, and once he finds himself for good, look out.         

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The Champ: The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey! Jimmy Fallon is the real deal and the one everybody is chasing.  Monologues, superlatives, pros and cons, and thank you notes showcase just the surface of his immense talent. Steve Higgins is a perfect announcer and companion, and The Legendary Roots Crew is the best band in late night.  

While I get my big laughs from Colbert’s writing, I laugh out loud at the back and forth between Fallon and Higgins and their actions during games and sketches. The only thing that Fallon can’t seem to do is keep himself in one piece (chipped a tooth and almost lost a finger this summer). Rarely is there a dull moment during a show, and the positive energy that Fallon exudes keeps the laughs going from start to finish; everything is “so great!”  Therefore, it’s no wonder that he’s all alone at the top of the ratings.  

If dominating the broadcast networks was not enough, Fallon’s hashtag game trends on Twitter weekly, and ‘history of rap’ collaborations, lip-sync battles, and ‘ew!’ become YouTube sensations as soon as they air.  He breaks the norm by having guests play various simple games, which not only brings the celebrities to a more relatable human level but also is extremely entertaining.  

Showing no signs of slowing down, The Tonight Show is primed to hold the number one spot in late night talk show ratings for the foreseeable future.  Only a herculean effort from The Late Show could knock it out for good.  

But that’s okay because there’s something for everyone in all of these shows, and we’re allowed to watch more than one!  For now, though, in the words of the immortal Stuart Scott, “It’s Jimmy Fallon’s world, and we’re all just paying rent.”

 

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