Friday, March 11, 2016

No more late-night TV for me

Well, that's not entirely true: I might still tune into reruns of Good Eats, or catch up on primetime shows when it's more convenient to watch.

But I'm done with traditional late-night talk shows.

I've never watched Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel. Fallon I've heard enough about to be completely uninterested: he's the consummate nice guy whose show has no edges whatsoever. Kimmel I might like but I suspect that he doesn't venture outside the late-night formula, thus he isn't worth my time. Conan O'Brien's high-strung shtick rubs me the wrong way. James Corden's round-table format is different but not interesting enough to hold my attention. Seth Meyers apparently is doing some quality political satire but not enough of it to make his show compelling.

Now, the hosts I know a lot better.

Larry Wilmore: I like Wilmore. He's smart, he's invested in the stories he chooses and he brings a black man's perspective to the issues, which means that occasionally he discusses them in ways that don't occur to his white cohorts. The trouble is the format of his show. He has interesting things to say, and he occasionally elicits interesting remarks from his guests, but the half-hour (more like 22 minutes) he's allotted means his monologue (including correspondent bits, if any) and guest segment are both short. The result is that everything said is superficial and feels rushed. I'd really like for him either to have the show to himself, or to make the panel discussion the full show so that his guests have a chance to say more than a few words.

The other thing about Wilmore is, he can get a little whiny. Getting exasperated with stupidity is part of his shtick, of course, but when he looks at the camera with a sad and confused face and asks "Why????", or laments, "No, no, NO, [name of whoever he's talking about]!", it can grate. He can drop the hammer on his targets and be as cutting as anyone who has ever come out of The Daily Show, but for whatever reason he doesn't go there often. Maybe he needs a foil: he seemed to be more consistently funny when he interacted with Jon Stewart.

Wilmore is perhaps the only late-night host I'll continue to check out when I have a moment. I hope he'll find a way to make his show as concentrated a dose of satire as The Daily Show or The Colbert Report because that seems to be his aim.

Stephen Colbert: Colbert is a hell of a talented man, and a very nice one, too. The thing is, in The Late Show he seems to be perfectly happy to give us a typical network late-night talk show. It's primarily a stop for celebrities on promotional tours, while non-celebrity guests never get enough time to say much of interest. Moreover, interviews have always been the least interesting part of Colbert's shows. The Colbert Report was concentrated, deeply satisfying satire. It was also exhilarating performance art: we kept wondering, "How long can he keep up his character? Will he fall off the high wire tonight?" (He did fall a few times and it was hilarious as he invariably burst out laughing at himself, then improvised a hilarious self-deprecating aside.) On The Late Show the satire has been severely cut back and the little that remains is not worth enduring the rest of the show. And while the performance art of the Report was not for everyone, one underrated side effect was that his character gave him a distinct point of view that made interviews more entertaining. Lacking that strong POV, his Late Show interviews have been generally no better than workmanlike, and occasionally they've veered into sycophantic territory.

He said he ended the Report because he had done everything with the character that he could. He probably also felt, like Jon Stewart, that for his own mental health he needed to get out of the toxic business of turning the nation's political idiocies into humor. It was all the more necessary for him since unlike Stewart, he doesn't see himself as primarily a political comedian: politics is simply one source of grist for his daily grind. I get all that, and I wish him well. I just won't be watching the result of that grind any more: it isn't nutritious enough for me.

Craig Ferguson: I loved his quirky sense of humor on The Late Late Show so I had high hopes for Join or Die, his new show for the History Channel. In retrospect I should have known my hopes were misplaced: I liked best his monologues, but Join or Die is a panel discussion show he moderates. He's funny, his guests can be funny or informative (not both, at least in the first few episodes), but like The Nightly Show there's just not enough time for more than an unsatisfyingly superficial gloss of the subject. In the end it's neither funny enough nor informative enough to go out of my way to watch.

Samantha Bee: The first episode of Full Frontal was brilliant and I've heard nothing to make me think subsequent episodes are any less than that. Bee was never one of my favorite Daily Show correspondents: rightly or wrongly, I had the impression she relied too much on being goofy. Even when she was interacting with Jon Stewart, when a correspondent could be expected to bring the hammer down since Stewart generally played the clueless foil, she seldom did, in contrast to, say, Jessica Williams. On Full Frontal Bee still gulls unwary interviewees, but she also draws the morals in no uncertain terms. It's fantastic.

John Oliver: I can't add anything to the praise that has been heaped on Last Week Tonight. It and Oliver are absolutely the gold standard for satire and insightful comedy today. Oh, and crucially, the show is never less than hilarious. (At least, that's true for the episodes I've seen: I don't subscribe to HBO.)

Bee and Oliver (and their staffs) only have to produce one show a week, undoubtedly contributing to their higher quality. It might help, too, that they aren't truly part of "late night", since their shows air before 11 PM.

Like others, I was sorry that HBO snatched Oliver away before Jon Stewart stepped down. Oliver was Stewart's obvious successor and would have kept The Daily Show firing on all cylinders. As it happens, Last Week Tonight has broken new ground and is the show we didn't know we needed (very badly), so it's just as well Oliver didn't stay. But what about his old stomping grounds, The Daily Show?

Trevor Noah: I gave him the benefit of the doubt for his first few months. When I was disappointed with how he was handling the show, it was with the understanding that he was still relatively new at the job. Even later, when I mentioned how badly Jon Stewart upstaged him without even trying — and as a guest — I tried to cut Noah a break in my own mind.

I only realized in retrospect that by the time Stewart was a guest, I had already written Noah off. The evidence: I haven't watched The Daily Show since that early December episode.

Noah's a gracious and, I suppose, polished host. He keeps the show moving. But where Stewart was the show's engine, Noah is a hood ornament.

Being an outsider can give you a perspective insiders lack. It seems Comedy Central hoped Noah's "outsider" status would allow him to make smart, unique and funny critiques of the U.S. It often does, after all. To varying degrees, Larry Wilmore, Samantha Bee and John Oliver are outsiders who have brought fresh slants to their shows.

Admittedly, Bee, Wilmore, and Oliver are stylistically closer to one another (and to Stewart) than to Noah: they're highly expressive — some would say "histrionic" — while Noah is decidedly buttoned-down and soft-spoken. However, what makes the other three successful satirists is not that they sometimes yell at the camera, but that they put their insights in service of a strong sense of outrage. Like Stewart, they're passionate about their stories. Noah isn't.

If Noah wanted to steer the show in a different direction that would be one thing, but by all appearances he wants to keep it running as before. However, the show he was bequeathed needs a beating heart. Noah is not, and shows no sign of becoming, that heart. He is a bemused observer. He isn't impassioned about anything: quite the contrary, he's cool to a fault. His detachment is a very bad match for satire. Stewart's observations carried weight because the audience knew how much he cared. Delivering similar material, Noah's glib geniality makes him look superficial and smug. Far from trusting him, I don't even like him.

So that's that. (Oh, wait: does Carson Daly still have a show? Oops.)

Postscript: I had finished the foregoing by the time I found that The Hollywood Reporter's resident TV critics, Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg, had penned a back-and-forth on how late-night is handling the election.

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