Late-night talk shows (or what keeps me up at night)

Guest post by Rebecca Krefting

I’m a worrier. I worry that I will sleep walk and chug turpentine (it happens). I worry that I will throw myself off a cliff given the right opportunity (that’s a thing). I worry that my neighbor’s cat will give me poison ivy (that’s for real). And I worry about the state of late-night television in the coming years. Without Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s conservative alter ego, where are we headed, what can we expect, and where exactly will I find my nightly dose of satire?

Jon StewartJon Stewart’s run on The Daily Show ends next week. The last taping will be on August 6th, and millions will be tuning in for Stewart’s farewell show. Though the numbers are not in yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if viewer ratings rivaled David Letterman’s final show last May. Relatedly, in December 2014, after nine years and nearly 1,500 episodes, Stephen Colbert hung up his hook as conservative bombast on The Colbert Report. No doubt these changes in late-night talk show hosts will test viewers’ allegiance to the show versus its host, though there are plenty of examples of shows remaining successful with host changes, e.g., The View (boasting the highest turnover rates), The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (formerly hosted by Jay Leno), and The Daily Show (formerly hosted by Craig Kilborn).

Here’s one way these late-night talk shows might have reassured me, keeping my blood pressure within a normal range: Stop hiring only men (and mainly white men at that) as if being a dude is a requisite for the job. Of course, producers can argue that a familiar face will sustain good ratings—that’s why Colbert will succeed Letterman as host of The Late Show on CBS on September 8th. But Stewart’s replacement, South African comedian Trevor Noah, doesn’t quite fit the formula because not many people knew who he was prior to this monumental passing of the baton. You know who would fit the formula if it were just a ratings game? How about: Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, or Chelsea Handler? Janeane Garofalo would also make a terrific host for The Daily Show. She is known for her charged comedy, exhibiting a deft ability to critique the political machinery and a keen understanding of social inequalities. Plus, as the former cohost of Air America’s The Majority Report, she has the right kind of experience to maintain the careful balance of comedy and pointed social critique that Stewart so carefully cultivated. Now that’s a show I wouldn’t miss. Even newbie funny lady Grace Helbig, whose social media metrics were similar to Trevor Noah before he got this ridiculous promotion, would be a viable female candidate up to the challenge of replacing Stewart.

But we got Trevor Noah instead. The same guy who came under fire for some sexist tweets shortly after the announcement was made. I share stand-up comic Patton Oswalt’s views (and many others’) that comics have a right to free speech. And yes, I understand that social media is the new drawing board for testing material, a place where comics can flex their creative muscles.

However, I also live by the rule WWJD? (What Would Jon Do?), and I am pretty sure he wouldn’t have peddled such schlock.

I am not optimistic that The Daily Show on Noah’s watch will deliver the biting political commentary that it did under Jon. More likely, the show’s writers will adjust to Noah’s personality and comic personae, altering its deliverables and making it a new show with different content, as when Stewart replaced Kilborn many years ago.

Here’s what else I know: late-night talk shows, especially on cable channels, are going to pander to the widest audience possible. Colbert will make a terrific host for The Late Show—that is, if you enjoy a watered down version of the Colbert that stole my heart. With ingénue Noah as mouthpiece for The Daily Show and a network-friendly Colbert, someone hardly recognizable, I fret that real political satire (at least on television) is a thing of the past. And, with the 2016 elections looming, we need such voices more than ever.

kreftingRebecca Krefting is an assistant professor in American Studies and the director of the Media and Film Studies Program at Skidmore College. Besides being a worrier, she is the author of All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents. Follow her on Twitter: @beckrefting.