Home LIFESTYLE Style News How Late Night Helped Make Sense (and Fun) of a Tumultuous 2017

How Late Night Helped Make Sense (and Fun) of a Tumultuous 2017

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It has been eventful year, to put it mildly—and nobody knows that better than the comedians trying to keep up with the news cycle as it lurches ever forward. But difficult as that job may be, the chaos has also led to a late-night renaissance.

As our weary nation trudges toward a new year, let’s look back at the genre’s most memorable moments from the last 12 months—a year that challenged every host to face a new reality, and their viewers’ ever-changing expectations.

January 10: Seth Meyers interviews Kellyanne Conway

Early in the year, the Late Night host set the standard for conducting tricky interviews in the age of Donald Trump. As some comedians learned during the campaign, sitting down with Trump and his colleagues can be a risky proposition for those unprepared to walk a fine line between maintaining access and holding their subjects accountable. Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon’s campaign-trail interviews with the future commander-in-chief were both widely panned for being toothless, while Jimmy Kimmel’s was merely uneventful—though at least he was game to try a little harder.

Meyers, on the other hand, came prepared when he sat down with Conway shortly before the inauguration—and, thanks to a twist of fate, he ended up speaking with her shortly after unverified reports suggesting that Russia had compromising information on Trump surfaced.

The highlight of the interview was Meyers disposition; both he and Conway treated one another with respect, but Meyers made it clear that he was not there to glad-hand. Instead, he got his biggest laughs when he called Conway out—politely, but unequivocally. Since then, other late-night hosts have welcomed controversial Trump-land figures to their shows—usually after their departure from the president’s orbit—including Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci. But Meyers’s Conway interview remains the most memorable—and the hardest hitting.

May 1: Jimmy Kimmel gets political

Stephen Colbert might have finally established long-term ratings dominance over Jimmy Fallon this year—but it’s arguably been an even bigger year for Kimmel, who has migrated toward the center of the late-night conversation thanks to a family emergency. In the spring, his son was born with a congenital heart defect. As a result, the ABC host found himself wading into somewhat unfamiliar territory: extended political monologues. Before, Kimmel was a prankish host happy to take shots at the president and his administration, but unlikely to really dig into policy. Since that first emotional monologue, Kimmel has become a vital voice in the fight for health care—even earning a nod from Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, who vowed that the health-care legislation he supported would have to pass “The Jimmy Kimmel Test.” (Cassidy subsequently broke that promise, and Kimmel was not pleased.)

Beyond health care, Kimmel has gradually, if somewhat reluctantly, become a more progressive figure in pop culture. He’s still typically reticent to wade into topics that don’t hit close to home—but due to that selective balance, when the comedian does decide to sound off, his words have a major impact. Case in point: his tearful monologue about the Las Vegas shooting this autumn, which generated more attention than any other post-tragedy late-night address.

May 1: Stephen Colbert finally pushes Trump too far

Though 2016 was the real turning point for Colbert, the CBS host also enjoyed some big moments this year—particularly when he finally delivered a monologue that angered Trump so much that the president couldn’t help but respond.

The joke came in May, after the president insulted Colbert’s CBS colleague John Dickerson during an interview. “John Dickerson has way too much dignity to trade insults with the president of the United States to his face,” Colbert noted in his monologue. “But I, sir, am no John Dickerson.”

What followed was a rapid-fire string of insults that ended, you might recall, with a lewd joke. The president tried to hit back at Colbert with an inaccurate ratings knock, but it was no use. Colbert’s only response? “I won.”

“Mr. Trump, there’s a lot you don’t understand,” the Late Show host said. “But I never thought one of those things would be show business. Don’t you know I’ve been trying for a year to get you to say my name? And you were very restrained. Admirably restrained! But now you did it. I won.

May 7: John Oliver rallies his fans to save net neutrality

As the F.C.C. plans to repeal net neutrality, it’s worth remembering that back in May, John Oliver rallied his viewers—for a second time—to defend it. The agency received 150,000 comments following the Last Week Tonight host’s segment—five times as many as it had received in the month prior to the piece. Oliver is not airing new episodes this month, so denizens of the Internet will have to rally themselves this time around.

Although Oliver, like many late-night hosts, has done plenty of solid work in keeping his viewers informed about the Trump administration, this segment in particular stands out as an exemplary performance. Oliver’s net-neutrality pieces speak to one of the HBO comedian’s strongest qualities: his ability to inspire passion even around the most arcane of subjects. Oliver’s explanations, always replete with humor and gimmicks like the creation of the Web site “gofccyourself.com,” help combat apathy. That might be why he and his viewers have seemingly managed to crash the F.C.C.’s website both times he addressed the subject.

June 20: Trevor Noah reacts to the Philando Castile verdict

In June, the police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile, Jeronimo Yanez, was found not guilty—and Trevor Noah, who had already established himself as late night’s most consistently insightful voice when it comes to police violence, delivered his most powerful monologue yet.

The Wednesday monologue—which remains one of Noah’s strongest since he took over The Daily Show from Jon Stewart—was stunning. It also followed several days of scorching Castile coverage. That Monday, the comedian had asked why the N.R.A. did not offer any response to Castile’s death, which happened after Castile disclosed that he was carrying a legal firearm in his car. On Tuesday, Noah released a Between-the-Scenes clip from that same monologue, in which he discussed his own experience with police as a black man in America. And then came the most emotional segment—in which Noah said, “When I watched this video, it broke me . . . it broke my heart into little pieces.”

“It’s one thing to have the system against you,” Noah continued. “The district attorneys, the police unions, the court. That’s one thing. But when a jury of your peers, your community, sees this evidence and decides that even this is self-defense, that is truly depressing. Because what they’re basically saying is, ‘In America, it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.’”

July: Late-night defends transgender military personnel

Hosts across all networks stepped up when the president proposed banning transgender service members from the military. Noah went deep, interviewing two transgender former service members about their experiences, while just about every host found their own ways to address the matter. Perhaps the most memorable was a James Corden parody of “L-O-V-E,” using the letters “L-G-B-T”—a lighthearted bit with topical bite. Similarly, Jimmy Fallon—who normally shies away from more politically charged subjects—offered his stage to transgender comedian Patti Harrison, who told her own jokes on the subject.

August: Late-night rallies around Charlottesville

As the nation reeled following the tragedy that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia—and Trump’s subsequent comment that there had been violence “on many sides”—Seth Meyers offered a typically well-composed and powerful message to the president: “You can stand for a nation, or you can stand for a hateful movement. You can’t do both. And if you don’t make the right choice, I am confident that the American voter will.” It was one of Meyers’s best episodes of the year, and more proof that while Colbert and Fallon might have better ratings, the Late Night host is actually the genre’s unsung hero.

Meyers’s network neighbor, Fallon, also had a striking response to Charlottesville. He got visibly emotional as he described watching the news about Charlottesville while his two young daughters played in another room. “As kids grow up, they need people to look up to,” Fallon said. “To show them what’s right and good. They need parents, and teachers, and they need leaders who appeal to the best in us. The fact that it took the president two days to come out and clearly denounce racists and white supremacists is shameful. And I think he finally spoke out because people everywhere stood up and said something. It’s important for everyone—especially white people—in this country to speak out against this. Ignoring it is just as bad as supporting it.”

It was an unusual moment on The Tonight Show—one Fallon has not really replicated since. But it spoke to the gravity of the moment that even he felt that Trump’s response could not go unchecked.

“We all need to stand against what is wrong, acknowledge that racism exists, and stand up for what is right and civil and kind—and to show the next generation that we haven’t forgotten how hard people have fought for human rights,” Fallon concluded. “We cannot do this. We can’t go backward.”

October 11: Samantha Bee calls out Harvey Weinstein

After a week of watching male late-night hosts struggle to figure out how to address the breaking news about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse allegations, Samantha Bee came after the disgraced producer with all the ferocity her longtime viewers expected.

“Listen up, creeps of Hollywood,” Bee said as she capped off a furious monologue. “We know who you are. Weinstein isn’t the only cool Democrat lurking in film-festival hotels waiting to play a jolly masturbation prank. Women talk to each other. And we talk to journalists. And we talk to lawyers. It’s 2017. We don’t have to put up with this shit. We are coming for you. Talk to every woman you work with like she has The New York Times on speed dial. Well, I guess it took the Times a little while to take care of business—O.K. Talk to every woman like she has me on speed dial. My show is only once a week. I’ve got some free time.”

October 12: Robin Thede premieres The Rundown on BET

October saw the premiere of two new talk shows headlined by women: Robin Thede’s The Rundown on BET and Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America on Hulu. (More on Silverman in just a minute.) Thede’s series, which takes a combined look at pop culture and politics, offers a fresh perspective in the still overwhelmingly white late-night arena. (Thede is, in fact, the only black woman to host her own late-night program.) Her premiere was rock solid, and the show has only improved from there.

Thede told Variety ahead of her premiere, “I’m going to be able to give a perspective that’s definitely not happening simply because I am a black woman, but I don’t want people to watch just because of that. If that’s the reason you tune in, that’s great, but the reason you’ll stay is because of what I’m saying,” she says. “The jokes will be pointed. The jokes will be sharp.” They have been.

November 21: Sarah Silverman opens up about Louis C.K.

Of all the Hollywood sexual misconduct stories to break, perhaps the most difficult for late-night hosts to grapple with has been Louis C.K. Which makes sense: as a fellow comedian, C.K. ran in similar circles to those of the hosts tasked with tackling the news of his abuses and served as a writer for Conan O‘Brien and David Letterman. That’s what makes it even more remarkable that Sarah Silverman, just weeks into her new gig as a talk-show host, offered perhaps the best response of all to the news—a clear-eyed look at both her friendship with C.K., and what his admission of misconduct meant.

“I hope it’s O.K. if I am at once very angry for the women he wronged and the culture that enabled it,” Silverman said in her monologue. “And also sad, because he’s my friend. But I believe with all my heart that this moment in time is essential.”

Silverman’s soul-searching moment emphasizes the shift that’s taken place across late night: a format originally designed for light comedy and softball interviews about upcoming movies has become something more complicated and serious. Alec Baldwin pinpointed the metamorphosis in a grumpy tweet apparently inspired by John Oliver’s recent, charged discussion with Dustin Hoffman, even though that sparring match did not take place on a late-night program: “Talk shows were once promotional pit stops for some blithe chitchat about movies, etc.,” Baldwin complained. “Now the likes of @iamjohnoliver and @StephenAtHome have flipped that and they are beginning to resemble grand juries.”

He’s not entirely wrong. But isn’t the current state of late night a tinge more exciting than the old status quo?

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Full ScreenPhotos:The New Faces of Late-Night Television
Conan O'Brien

Conan O’Brien

Photo: Photographs by Sam Jones.

John Oliver

John Oliver

Photo: Photographs by Sam Jones.

Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah

Photo: Photographs by Sam Jones.

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

Photo: Photographs by Sam Jones.

Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy Fallon

Photo: Photographs by Sam Jones.

Seth Meyers

Seth Meyers

Photo: Photographs by Sam Jones.

Photo: Photograph by Sam Jones.

Conan O'Brien

Conan O’Brien

Photographs by Sam Jones.

John Oliver

John Oliver

Photographs by Sam Jones.

Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah

Photographs by Sam Jones.

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

Photographs by Sam Jones.

Jimmy Kimmel

Jimmy Kimmel

Photographs by Sam Jones.

Larry Wilmore

Larry Wilmore

Photographs by Sam Jones.

James Corden

James Corden

Photographs by Sam Jones.

Bill Maher

Bill Maher

Photographs by Sam Jones.

Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy Fallon

Photographs by Sam Jones.

Seth Meyers

Seth Meyers

Photographs by Sam Jones.

Photograph by Sam Jones.

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