New York — A presidential campaign is beginning without late-night television hosts who helped us laugh through past ones, both a cultural loss and an opportunity for new voices.
David Letterman is gone, taking his unmatched ability to have serious conversations with public figures and not skimp on humor. Jay Leno’s rat-a-tat pace of one-liners is history. Jon Stewart exits next month, along with a research team that allowed him to bust politicians and journalists for hypocrisy.
Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Larry Wilmore and Kate McKinnon are the most likely comic stars to emerge for Decision 2016.
“As much as it’s sad to see Jon leave and have Letterman and Leno gone, it’s not like the new class coming in will be doing plate spinners,” said Rory Albanese, executive producer of “The Nightly Show” with Wilmore on Comedy Central.
A recent sign of the new landscape came when Jimmy Fallon invited Jeb Bush on NBC’s “Tonight” show to slow-jam the news, the comic slipping in titillating jokes about the presidential family name. Fallon seemed overeager during the ensuing interview, the conversation rarely straying beyond biography points like how the Republican met his Mexico-born wife.
Similarly, President Barack Obama was asked to participate in a signature comic routine on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” this spring, reading mean tweets posted about him online. Kimmel used his interview to ask Obama about the day-to-day life of a president, including whether he drove, went to the dentist or sneaked into the White House kitchen for a late-night snack.
Fallon and Kimmel host the two most popular programs on late-night TV now. While their broadly comic shows don’t ignore public affairs, that’s not in either host’s wheelhouse.
“I don’t think there’s a particular comfort factor there,” said Bill Carter, author of books on late-night television including “The Late Shift.” ‘’But in fairness to Fallon, there wasn’t for Letterman when he got started, either.”
That leaves a path for Letterman’s replacement. Colbert, who will compete in the same time slot with Fallon and Kimmel starting in September, hasn’t talked much about the new show other than saying he won’t be playing a character like he did on Comedy Central. His adeptness at topical material was evident on “The Colbert Report,” and his interest obvious in how he couldn’t resist the comic fodder of Donald Trump’s campaign announcement last month. Colbert released a video on the “Late Show” website that nailed the surreal randomness of Trump’s speech.
“So much of this is about whether the host is passionate about it, if they really want to do it,” Albanese said. “Because if it’s not coming from their gut … it can feel kind of empty.”
Meyers has emphasized politics on “Late Night” since Vice President Joe Biden showed up for the debut. Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders and Carly Fiorina have appeared for interviews. Meyers is trying to do more comic pieces responding to the day’s news, said Mike Shoemaker, “Late Night” executive producer.
Meyers admired Letterman’s ability to make an interview feel unscripted. His appearance with Cruz showed the host’s ability to stand toe-to-toe with a political guest for a substantive conversation with some laugh lines. When the Texas Republican talked about his Senate filibuster on Obama’s health care law, Meyers shot back, “How’d it go?” and earned a brief glare from Cruz. He asked Cruz his response to Sen. John McCain calling him a “wacko bird” and about his opposition to gay marriage.
Research is the key to making sure these interviews go well, Meyers said.
“You have to know their positions,” he said. “The one thing I’ve found when you’re talking to a political guest, be they Republican or Democrat, if you don’t cut them off, they’ll talk the whole time.”
Meyers will replay a political interview in his mind and brood over something he wished he’d said more than he ever would for a movie star. He wants viewers to come away liking, or at least knowing more about, his political guests. In one sense, the appearances are auditions, since he wants politicians to view his NBC show as a desirable destination.
“If you do really good stuff with politicians, ultimately other politicians will find out,” he said. “At the end of the day, they do like attention, so it’s not like it’s the hardest sell on earth. I mean, they go on C-SPAN.”
Stewart’s take on a day’s events will be missed more than his interviews. “What you got from both of these guys was a very specific and unique point of view you could rely upon,” Albanese said. “You would say, ‘I can’t wait to hear what Jon Stewart is going to say about this, or what Letterman is going to say.’”
Stewart’s replacement, Trevor Noah, is expected to keep the DNA of “The Daily Show.” But as a South African not steeped in American politics, the perspective is sure to be different.
Tina Fey, with her dead-on Sarah Palin impersonation, was the comic star of the 2008 presidential campaign. “Saturday Night Live” has another winner with McKinnon, whose portrayal of a cravenly ambitious Hillary Clinton holds great promise for the next year.
Wilmore has increased his topical content following the January debut of “The Nightly Show.” His ongoing “unblackening” segment showcases an unburdened president as his term winds down. Wilmore is encouraging candidates to join him for interviews over soul food, as he did with Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee.
“We were very conscious of not doing ‘The Daily Show’ after ‘The Daily Show,’” said Albanese, who worked with Stewart before joining Wilmore. “But with Jon leaving and the political landscape heating up, for us it makes much more logical sense for us to be covering this stuff. The thing we’ll bring to it is that Larry’s perspective is different. He’s looking at the world through a different prism.”
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