Late-night shows are hot again: What that could mean ahead of November

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From Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” return to President Biden chatting it up with Seth Meyers, late-night TV is riding a wave of buzz — and the surge of interest could affect how the 2024 White House hopefuls dip their toes in the after-hours broadcast waters.

Comedy Central has touted record ratings for Stewart’s highly anticipated Monday night “Daily Show” hosting duties, which started earlier this month. His second episode hosting the faux news program netted 1.3 million total viewers, marking the most-watched episode of “The Daily Show” since the final time Stewart hosted in 2015.

“Certainly there’s a new energy coming out of late-night right now,” said Geoffrey Baym, a media studies professor at Temple University and author of “From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.” Stewart, Baym said, is “a welcome voice that’s been missing for a long time.”

Fox News has also highlighted its late-night offering “Gutfeld!” as a ratings juggernaut in recent weeks, netting more than 2 million viewers earlier this month. The cable news network’s show, hosted by comedian Greg Gutfeld, has been the top-rated late-night program for several quarters running.

In addition to the eyes on Stewart and Gutfeld, viewers also saw John Oliver return to his show this month, heading back to HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” for its 11th season on the heels of his latest Emmy Award for outstanding writing for a variety series.

“Late-night is having a moment right now,” said A.J. Katz, the editor in chief of the new site, which launched this week.

“The format was losing a little bit of momentum, but I think with the return of Jon Stewart and this election coming up, and Biden and [former President Trump], whatever you think of them, they can say outlandish things and that makes life easier for writers on these shows,” Katz said.

“So there’s just going to be a lot to talk about right now,” he added.

That talk this week largely revolved around Biden’s appearance on on “Late Night” to help Meyers celebrate his 10th anniversary as the face of the NBC show. Sporting a pair of sunglasses to mimic the “Dark Brandon” meme, Biden deployed a one-liner to address a question about his age and threw some zingers Trump’s way.

After Meyers said with a grin that he was in the possession of classified information that indicated that Biden was 81 years old, the president replied: “Who the hell told you that? That’s classified!”

Biden also said of Trump, “He’s about as old as I am, but he can’t remember his wife’s name.”

But it wasn’t all wisecracks and knee slappers — Biden addressed the Israel-Hamas war and accused Trump of “inviting [Russian President] Vladimir Putin to invade Western countries” in a reference to a conversation the ex-president said he had with a foreign leader of NATO in which he said he wouldn’t defend alliance members who didn’t pay up at least 2 percent of their economic input.

Biden also elicited some criticism with his “Late Night” appearance: Variety’s Daniel D’Addario said the commander in chief “seemed a beat behind in catching the joke each time” during one of his few extended TV interviews.

Politicians often see late-night television shows as a good platform to “show off their personality, to show people who they are in a more free-flowing setting,” Katz said.

Plus, the former senior editor of Adweek’s TVNewser blog said, “A lot of the time these shows attract some of the younger audience, as opposed to cable news.”

“As someone who covered cable and broadcast news for several years, your average viewer is going to be 65-plus a lot of the time, whereas with late-night, your linear viewer is still in their 40s, and 50s and 60s as well,” Katz said.

“You’re reaching a different audience,” he said, noting that viral segments and YouTube clips of interviews can reach millions of more eyes online.

But hitting the late-night circuit isn’t entirely hazard-free.

In 2021, Vice President Harris appeared on Comedy Central’s now-defunct weekly late-night show “Tha God’s Honest Truth” and raised eyebrows with a tense exchange with host Charlamagne Tha God after he asked her to name the country’s “real president.”

“It’s Joe Biden,” Harris, appearing agitated, told the host. “And don’t start talking like a Republican about asking whether or not he’s president.”

Katz said, “Sometimes you’re going to get tough questioning. These comics will have fun with you, they’ll joke around with you, but then out of the blue, they’ll fire something of a fastball, and you might not be prepared for it just because the conversation has been so casual up to that point.”

Generally speaking, Baym said, “The risk is [politicians] look silly and uncomfortable, and the jokes are too close to home — that they end up being the butt of the joke.”

But Baym predicted viewers should expect to see a lot more of Biden and his campaign’s surrogates dotting the late-night landscape ahead of November.

“I’m certain that Democrats are going to be trying to appear on these programs as much as they can. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Baym, a former TV producer, said.

While Biden may not be “particularly comfortable in that space,” he added, “he recognizes the utility of it.”

Although Meyers may be the first of multiple late-night appearances for Biden this year, it’s unlikely Trump will be racing to sit down with almost any of the time slot’s hosts.

Virtually every network TV late-night personality has been fiercely critical of Trump, including “The Late Show’s” Stephen Colbert, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and even NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, who typically doesn’t deliver as many politically charged punchlines on “The Tonight Show.”

Colbert had boycotted uttering Trump’s name on his CBS show for years, saying in 2021, “After the whole Jan. 6 thing — no, even before that. It was after [the 2020 election] when he did that whole ‘I won’ thing, I planned not to say the guy’s name again.”

The “Late Show” host eventually began mentioning Trump by name again late last year.

The hard feelings appear to be mutual. Trump has referred to the late-night host lineup as “low rated creeps” and “losers.”

“Remember when I told you that the poorly rated and not at all funny Late Night Talk Shows are nothing less than a major Campaign Contribution to the Radical Left Democrat Party,” Trump said in a social media post last year.

As president, Trump directed his staff to complain to ABC parent company Disney about Kimmel’s jokes that were focused on him, according to a Rolling Stone report last year.

Even if Trump wanted to stir the pot with a high-profile return as a late-night guest, some hosts have said he’s not welcome.

Despite Trump appearing as a “Late Show” guest in 2015, Colbert said in a 2019 interview that he wouldn’t invite the 45th president back on his show.

“The quick answer would be no because it would be hard for me to be properly respectful of the office,” Colbert said at the time.

Ever since then-Democratic White House hopeful Bill Clinton picked up his saxophone to play “Heartbreak Hotel” on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992, late-night shows have served as a buttoned-down, decidedly un-Washington-like platform for political candidates.

The shows give politicians “a friendly, supportive space to demonstrate their authenticity and to show that they have a sense of humor — that they’re not robots,” Baym said.

The professor credited Stewart with giving late-night shows a sharper political edge when the comic first took the reins of “The Daily Show” in 1999.

“I think more than anyone, Jon Stewart pushed what you could call the politicization of late-night, turning that space, taking the genre of late-night talk and interweaving it with quite serious political argument and political information,” he said.

While neither Biden nor Trump are likely to be lining up to play a musical instrument alongside today’s hosts, the shows could prove to be a platform the 2024 presidential campaigns see as worth staying up late for.

“It’s an exciting time to be in late-night,” Katz said.

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