By Linda Ong, CEO and Founder, TruthCo.
If you’re like me, you should plan on getting less sleep this fall. Not since the Jay Leno-David Letterman wars in the early 1990s has the late night talk genre been such a spectator sport. New entrants like Stephen Colbert (The Late Show, CBS), Trevor Noah (The Daily Show, Comedy Central) and recently anointed hosts like Grace Helbig (The Grace Helbig Show, E!), Samantha Bee (Full Frontal, TBS) and Larry Wilmore (The Nightly Show, Comedy Central) will go head-to-talking head against stalwarts like the Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel) and James Corden, Seth Myers and Conan O’Brien. Plus, at some point, Chelsea Handler will add her own vodka-fueled take on this old school format.
What gives? For decades, the after hours talk format largely remained unchanged from the times when Jack Paar sat on a stool and Steve Allen tinkled the keys on a piano. We’ve seen similar variations on the desk/couch/chair set and just as many snappy sidekicks. But the essential role of the show stayed the same: to hang on to the audience, lulling them to sleep, ensuring the network would be pre-set for the all-important morning show.
But something’s changed: Somewhere along the way, late talk hosts became important in framing our societal views. We started looking to comedians like Jon Stewart and his fake news team at Daily Show to help us process the partisan divide that Fox News proudly promoted as “Fair & Balanced.” Is it coincidental – or causal – that the ascendance of Stewart and his show paralleled the decline in consumer appetite for traditional news?
Here’s where late night has shifted in recent years:
News and late night talk have become culturally conflated.
Amid the mess of l’affaire Brian Williams, rumors floated that Stewart might take over NBC’s vaunted evening news anchor chair. That’s notable, as is the fact that no one was outraged.
Since the 2008 Wall Street collapse, our trust in all institutions (government, banks, the Catholic church, the music industry, real estate, etc.) has eroded. The influence of Millennials, who as a group tend to blame those entrenched systems for the collapse itself, emboldens us to seek new authorities and build new, better ways of making progress. Late night talk is to traditional news what Airbnb is to hotels: a sexier, more user-friendly and efficient way to achieve the very same goal.
Late night talk hosts are our cultural first responders.
By the time we tune in, we already know most of the headlines. What we don’t always know is how to feel about them. In a chaotic world, comedic commentators alert us to what’s important and help us understand why.
Today, they’re the truth-tellers in our society.
Comedy has long been a proven tool for dealing with difficult issues. Our late night hosts use it to skewer hypocrisy and megalomaniacs on our behalf, exposing a lack of sanity or expressing uncontainable outrage. By diffusing heat, we can laugh at our condition, instead of feeling despondent about it.
It’s not just the fake news guys.
Tonight Show‘s Jimmy Fallon can be credited with perhaps the most truthful invention in late night. By using games and stunts, Fallon gave us our first view of megastars caught off-guard and not spewing their publicist’s talking points. Sure, it was beer pong, but it felt like hanging out with these folks as they really are, because they seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves. They let us see, by way of a lip sync battle, what we believe to be their true selves.
But wait: Is it all too much?
Of course, an embarrassment of late night riches could be bad for everyone, and bad for business. But today’s culture values sharply formed perspectives conveyed by highly individual voices. Each of these shows and their hosts must refine their own skills and shape their own art like a signal calling for like-minded viewers. Sense and sensibility will win the new late night wars. Anything generic or noted to death will have a tough time getting a laugh.
I’d love to hear which late night talk shows you’re most looking forward to seeing. Tweet me @lindaong100 and look out for TruthCo’s study, Talking Late, examining late night television, coming soon.
Linda Ong is CEO of semiotic branding and cultural insights company, TruthCo., analyzing the current landscape to deliver actionable recommendations that keep entertainment brands and their offerings relevant. Connect with TruthCo. at www.truthco.net or on Twitter @TeamTruthCo.