Locating the Local in Late Night Television
Eric Forthun / University of Texas at Austin

Colbert hosting from home.
Stephen Colbert’s re-named A Late Show, filmed from the comfort of his home.

Most of our television series either look different or have disappeared off the air altogether in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world. Late night television is no exception, with programs no longer recording in front of audiences or filmed on location with large crews. Now, hosts perform monologues in bedrooms or in front of white curtains to an audience of maybe one, resembling a YouTube vlog more so than a television production. The silence from an absent studio audience is both surreal but also essential, speaking to the unprecedented nature of this pandemic.

Late night hosts such as Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and Trevor Noah have shifted the tenor and scope of their programs almost entirely toward President Trump’s criminally negligent response to COVID-19, his militaristic targeting of peaceful protests outside of the White House, and his cruel and racist dismissal of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and hundreds of other black Americans at the hands of police officers. On June 18th, even Jimmy Fallon popped into a Juneteenth BBQ hosted by the sketch comedy group Astronomy Club, where the group explained historical acts of racist violence as Fallon asked what he can do to help. The personal has always been political, but late night is now, more than ever, emphasizing that political action rather than humor is needed to address these issues.

Late night has often been understood as a broadly appealing genre that “reinforced the notion that political participation is pointless, parties and candidates are interchangeable, and democracy is futile.”[ (( Russell Peterson, Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008): 18. ))] Now, however, late night appears to be tapping into a cultural zeitgeist that directly asks for social and cultural change, even if it primarily comes from white male voices at the helms of these shows. Late night programming no longer acts as the escape from reality that Johnny Carson once made it out to be, who once remarked with Barbara Walters that comedians can’t take themselves too seriously because The Tonight Show is made to “amuse people, to make them laugh.”

Maybe we need to re-imagine what late night’s cultural function is. The genre has effectively been siloed in only two locations—Los Angeles and New York City—since Tonight’s launch on New York affiliate WNBT in 1954. After Tonight’s move to NBC’s network feed, almost every major late night show has recorded in LA and NYC, with The Tonight Show famously moving between the two after Johnny Carson moved the series to LA in 1972 (because he preferred to be closer to movie stars) and Jimmy Fallon moved it back to NYC in 2014. One of the largest absences in how we understand late night is how local and regional late night production can tell us more about the late night talk show’s cultural and industrial significance, particularly as a means of de-centering the whiteness and maleness so thoroughly embedded in the genre. Access remains the foundational issue as late night’s devaluation over the years resulted in few available recordings of pre-Carson programming.

Lilly Singh's late night show.
Lilly Singh, the first bisexual and first woman of color to host a broadcast late night series, on NBC at 1:35am.

Late night has so thoroughly been a misogynistic space, one where whiteness, hegemonic masculinity, and heterosexuality arguably act as the genre’s defining characteristics since Steve Allen launched the Tonight show. There have been notable recent exceptions, such as Trevor Noah and most recently Lilly Singh, but there were lackluster attempts in the wake of David Letterman and Jon Stewart’s retirements to reform late night’s representational politics with little systemic change (a topic I covered in a 2018 Flow piece). W. Kamau Bell noted in a 2014 TV Guide interview that, across traditional television platforms, when a host “isn’t great right away—and this is what usually separates white guys from the rest of us—he’ll get a chance to work out the kinks and get it right.”

When we turn to local programming, we can critically assess the intermingling of identity and industry, particularly with local affiliates and their consistent influence on national media production. One of the first instances was in 1991, when The Tonight Show moved back from 11:30pm to 11:35pm to appease NBC affiliates across the country, as there were threats from 20 to 30 affiliates to drop coverage since they wanted to air syndicated re-runs of popular programs like Cheers because the affiliates made full advertising revenue from those (unlike Carson’s show). Most famously, affiliates in early 2010 pressured NBC to move Jay Leno back to the 11:35pm slot after The Jay Leno Show began to flounder in ratings at 10pm and continuously hurt local affiliates’ news ratings—the biggest source of revenue for most local affiliates.

Just recently, local NBC affiliates expressed concern over late night staples such as The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers premiering early on NBCUniversal’s upcoming streaming service Peacock, as ratings will likely decline along with subsequent advertising revenue. A deal beneficial for both parties is needed, as Variety notes, since the network-affiliate relationship is so important that “Meyers in every broadcast features a coffee cup on his desk that nods to a specific NBC station.”

Understanding affiliates will prove helpful in re-situating late night’s industrial significance, but locating the late night talk show hosts outside of traditional media production will also enable us to re-evaluate the genre’s cultural meaning. Since much of late night television has focused on the individual agency of hosts, these histories have overwhelmingly perpetuated mythic “great white male” narratives that devalue and erase the contributions of marginalized groups. These histories have also valued national appeal and broadness as essential for success on late night programming, but there have been success stories elsewhere on local and regional late night productions.

Robin Byrd Show.
A grainy still from The Robin Byrd Show, one of the longest running late night series in U.S. history.

The most significant success story was former pornographic actress Robin Byrd’s eponymous show in New York. Through a leased access deal with Manhattan Cable Television, The Robin Byrd Show ran for over thirty years while looking and sounding completely different from The Tonight Show and other late night attempts by broadcast networks. The show often featured other adult film entertainers, nudity, and discussions of taboo topics such as sex toys and dental dams, all in front of either a red backdrop or in more intimate settings like a bedroom. Byrd starts off each show by asking the audience to “lie back,” “get comfortable,” and “snuggle up next to your loved ones. And if you don’t have a loved one, you always have me.” In an appearance on Joan Rivers’ daytime talk show in 1989 (just two years after Rivers’ own late night show was cancelled by Fox), Byrd remarked that her late night show was “adult entertainment” about “turning you on and tucking you in,” dramatically different words than Carson’s insistence for his show’s tameness because people fall asleep to his (oft-objectifying and insensitive) comedic bits on The Tonight Show. As a feminist, Byrd understood the political power of her platform and how it allowed her to speak to issues of deep concern for the sex workers and queer figures that frequently appeared on her show. Her identity and industrial positioning on a public access channel remain unique and worthy of deeper study.

Localizing late night also allows us to explore series such as The Mystery Hour, hosted by Jeff Houghton, to better understand regional specificity and the resilience of late night’s historical hegemony. The show is carried in seventeen different markets across the Midwest and South, including Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, and even Oregon. Filmed in Springfield, Missouri in front of five hundred people, its Midwestern sensibility is undoubtedly influenced by Carson’s similar self-presentation, as that folksiness has long been considered quintessentially American for white Americans. The show, unsurprisingly, is overwhelmingly white and includes field segments at Ozark Technical Community College and jokes about Silver Dollar City, a local amusement park. This regional specificity alludes to how late night could be interrogated with more attention to local and regional production, even as the show’s nichification of whiteness and perpetuation of Midwestern (read: white) sensibilities as innately tied to late night programming only reinforce the systemic exclusion of marginalized individuals at every level of late night’s production.

Ultimately, the hope is that further research on local and regional late night production will discover and amplify those voices who have intentionally been dismissed or ignored throughout late night’s history (or perhaps, allow us to directly address the historical links between whiteness and de-politicizing late night’s material) . If systemic changes continue to slowly but gradually occur, like in the instance of Jimmy Kimmel’s leave of absence potentially allowing for black women and other women of color to have opportunities guest hosting, then we might slowly be able to push back on late night’s hegemony in order to re-calibrate how we interpret and address late night’s cultural function.

Image Credits:

  1. Stephen Colbert’s re-named A Late Show, filmed from the comfort of his home. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Lilly Singh, the first bisexual and first woman of color to host a broadcast late night series, on NBC at 1:35am. (author’s screen grab)
  3. A grainy still from The Robin Byrd Show, one of the longest running late night series in U.S. history. (author’s screen grab)


Representation and Experimentation: The Women of Late-Night TV
Eric Forthun / University of Texas at Austin

The Women oF Late-Night

Figure 1: Women taking control of the male-dominated late-night landscape

“Late-night” is a complicated and often confusing term in television studies. As television in the post-network era has increasingly catered to fragmented and time-shifted viewing practices, late-night programming has dramatically shifted both aesthetically and industrially. Despite these supposed advancements, though, the genre continues to lag in its representation onscreen. Broadcast networks still exclusively have white male hosts. Cable channels and streaming services have become the outlets through which “experimentation” (read: deviation from the genre’s racial and gendered norms) occurs. Women are noticeably more present on non-broadcast late-night, but their programs are constantly qualified as niche or uncharacteristic of mainstream viewing interests.

In just the last year, Hulu launched I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman; BET debuted The Rundown with Robin Thede; and Netflix launched The Break with Michelle Wolf. Before that, TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee was the only late-night program hosted by a woman. While women are certainly not new to the late-night scene, their history has frequently been marked by deliberately sexist decision-making and rhetoric that re-articulates larger gendered dimensions in the comedy landscape. For instance, Joan Rivers was passed over for The Tonight Show despite her qualifications and ratings success as the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson – this largely stemmed from Carson’s almighty authority with NBC and the perception of an “unruly woman” such as Rivers being unfit for broadcast audiences. [ (( Summergrad, Sophie. “Can We Talk?: A Discussion of Gender Politics in the Late-Night Career of Joan Rivers.” (master’s thesis, Boston University, 2016): 45-46. ))] More contemporary examples of women on late-night paint female comics’ transition to the nighttime genre as failures, with black women often bearing an exceptional burden: Wanda Sykes had a short-lived hour-long series on Fox followed by a short-lived sitcom on the same network; Whoopi Goldberg had a 30-minute series in syndication that lasted for just over a year; and Mo’Nique had an hour-long talk-show on BET that was cancelled within a year of its premiere. These industrial “experiments” outside of the norm and their quick cancellations perpetuated historical notions of the expected late-night audience (white men) and further validated (however irrationally) the historical placement of women’s programming in the daytime.

The recent female forays into late-night programming are significant because they push back on numerous assumptions and accepted norms within the genre. They are each aesthetically and stylistically experimental, which is inherently linked to their unique industrial positioning on their respective channels and services. Notably, late-night television is no longer assumed to be a pure promotional vehicle as its broadcast exemplars still often showcase. Instead, the genre is now, first and foremost, a form of political satire and commentary, with women often at the forefront of those shifts. Stephen Colbert’s move to CBS signaled the genre’s more politically skewed bent, and Samantha Bee’s series doubled down by formatting each episode as an extended political dialogue about the week’s current events (undoubtedly influenced by her time as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart). Her series is more vulgar and has drawn considerable controversy, an issue that has similarly struck comediennes like Michelle Wolf at the 2018 Correspondents Dinner. Bee’s program eschews the traditional late-night desk in favor of a monologue-heavy style that often feels like a plea with audiences at home in contrast to traditional late-night fare. This has been popularized on other cable channels like HBO, where John Oliver’s weekly series has the host delivering news almost exclusively from a desk. Oliver’s program aesthetically links to news broadcasts (inspired by his time working with Jon Stewart), whereas Bee and Wolf’s programs visually associate themselves with stand-up, a historically maligned genre.

Michelle Wolf's monologue.

Figure 2: Michelle Wolf delivering her stand-up-like monologue

Late-night television looks considerably different on streaming services, with Wolf and Sarah Silverman acting as strong examples. Wolf’s series, as mentioned, aesthetically emulates a stand-up routine on multiple occasions. Each episode begins with the comedienne walking up to the camera and delivering a few one-liners before moving into the seemingly traditional late-night monologue. Wolf is the only late-night host to wield a microphone, an action that formally connects her monologue to stand-up. The connection does not end there, though. The director and cinematographer both capture wider angles that show Wolf’s full body maneuvering around the stage, much like a stand-up special’s visual style. This distinguishes the series visually from its other late-night counterparts, which generally cut off the monologist a little below the waist. While only a minor change, this aesthetic link is a visual marker that generally only emerges when stand-up comics perform at the end of various late-night episodes.

Both Wolf and Silverman also switch up the dynamics of the celebrity interview that usually occupies much of late-night’s format. Late-night has historically been rigidly segmented in structure: an opening monologue; then, a desk segment or two; finally, multiple celebrity interviews and a musical or stand-up performance to close out the program. Both of these comediennes place their “interviews” at the end of each episode, most notably mirroring the satirical series The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. However, the visual dynamics are much different. For Wolf, she either stands with her celebrity guest and engages in a visual stunt/prepared exchange, or she sits on a couch and delivers a scripted exchange with a fellow comic like Neal Brennan or Seth Meyers. Silverman, meanwhile, always sits on a couch for her interviews, asks guided questions, and occasionally crosses her legs or makes other visually informal decisions that are fitting for casual couch conversations at home. These are striking because these women are not reserving themselves to the desk as practically every other male late-night host does (Jimmy Fallon is a notable exception, although his celebrity interviews generally start at the desk before moving into his sketches or gags). This is only a small showcase for how female comics frequently re-negotiate the visual spaces afforded to them that have long been dictated by masculine practices and dynamics.

Despite more vulgarity and expressive openness from these women, not all women hosting late-night programs are aiming to be subversive. Busy Philipps, who recently received a series order for a late-night series on E! called Busy Tonight, points out that once-a-week late-night shows are usually “more politically bent.” [ (( Gardner, Chris. “How Busy Philipps Will ‘Bring Something Different’ to Late-Night with E! Series.” Hollywood Reporter, June 22, 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/rambling-reporter/busy-philipps-new-memoir-e-show-busy-tonight-summer-plans-daughters-birdie-cricket-1122088 ))] Her series, though, will be more entertainment and pop-culture focused, and she hopes that her series will air multiple nights a week to alleviate that political burden that some series face. This rhetoric falls in line with E!’s branding and harkens back to Chelsea Handler’s time on the channel before her shift to Netflix. Handler’s short-lived run on the streaming service is remarkable on two fronts: (1) Netflix’s current strategy to mass-produce content and rarely cancel programs means that the series was an industrial failure for the service, and (2) the series’ focus on celebrity interviews and promotion demonstrates how that formula does not easily translate to non-commercial services and their respective programming strategies.

Chelsea Handler's Netflix series.

Figure 3: Chelsea Handler’s more conventional Netflix late-night series

The temporality of late-night television is also an understudied area, and one that has seen considerable shifts just within the last year. Handler’s aforementioned Netflix series shifted from thirty to sixty minutes in its second season in an effort to cut down costs and decrease the number of episodes each week. Meanwhile, all of the currently airing female-hosted late-night series are half-hours, while the broadcast networks have hour-long slots for each of their hosts. In an interview with Vulture, Conan O’Brien (who has resided on TBS since 2011 after working on NBC’s late-night programming for almost two decades) commented on his series’ upcoming shift to the half-hour format by articulating that the change could shock him into coming up with new material. Importantly, his shift is not an industrial imperative but rather a creative spark; for most women aiming to host late-night, they are not afforded the privilege of changing their time slots in hopes of inspiring creativity. Full Frontal executive producer Jo Miller says that she would “kill” to have just a few more minutes in each episode, but she knows that is unlikely. Female hosts also struggle with diversity in on- and off-screen representation, a problem Robin Thede pointed out despite BET allowing her to make the show she wanted to make. The Rundown‘s recent cancellation further exemplifies how difficult it can be for women of color to receive the trust and time needed for a late-night series to prosper.

As broadcast networks increasingly move their content to online platforms like CBS All-Access or NBCUniversal’s now-defunct Seeso, the late-night format will likely continue to see considerable aesthetic and formal changes that complicate our previous understandings of the genre. This industrial trend and the concurrent movement toward more inclusive representation onscreen might signify a genre-altering shift in late-night, one hopefully led by all women.

Image Credits:
1. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee‘s take on late-night.
2. Author’s screengrab.
3. Author’s screengrab.

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