Film, News & Commentary

The new (but relative) diversity of late night American TV hosts

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The rise of Last Week Tonight has significantly simplified the life of the 20-something part-time political activist who wants all their Facebook friends to know exactly how they feel about pharmaceutical reps. But John Oliver’s stardom is important for other reasons as well. His emergence on the American late night scene in mid-2014 signalled the start of a period of dramatic change in an area of television that for decades previous had been owned by a set of middle-aged, white, American voices.

Obviously Oliver doesn’t un-tick many of those boxes, but he has lead a new wave of increasingly diverse late night talent. Since the premiere of Last Week Tonight less than two years ago Larry Wilmore has followed the now well-worn career path out of The Daily Show to carve out his own late night niche with The Nightly Show, while fellow The Daily Show alumni Stephen Colbert moves on from The Colbert Report to the Late Show, which many presumed would have to be pried from the cold, dead fingers of David Letterman.

Trevor Noah — known to roughly half the internet as a strident anti-Semite and sexist, and to the other half as a paragon of misunderstood virtue — has been given the unimaginable task of replacing Jon Stewart at The Daily Show. James Corden, noted English person, has taken up residence at The Late Late Show. Perhaps most interestingly next month Neil deGrasse Tyson —  the man Dr Karl might like to be — will launch his own late night show on National Geographic, devoted to science, naturally.

It seems then that while the American entertainment industry is ready for Englishmen, a South African, and a black, Ivy League – educated astrophysicist in an embroidered waistcoat to have his own show –letting a woman through the door is still a step too far.

While most of these are entirely new shows and most of the old names in late night TV remain unmoved — Conan O’Brien will likely die on his set and be eaten by Andy Richter —  it is an undeniably significant moment for American television. It signals a desire by at least some part of the American entertainment industry to have a more diverse range of voices in a space that does more to drive the direction of public discourse than it is generally given credit for.

John Oliver has come to prominence at a time when more people than ever are distrustful not only of politicians but of traditional news media. After years of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report struggling with the balance between comedy and journalism, Oliver has managed to bridge the gap between the two forms. In doing so he has achieved the best of both worlds, the credibility and moral integrity of a late night TV host, combined with the kind of painstaking research and reasoned argument that once earned journalists trust.

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John Oliver

Oliver, by virtue of not being American by birth, has the distance from American society necessary to see the problems clearly and without bias, and also to be perceived by most of the American population as being without bias, political allegiance or an agenda. Noah is well placed to bring the same perspective to The Daily Show. In a less obvious and perhaps more depressing way deGrasse Tyson and Wilmore are also voices from the fringe in American pop culture. Advocating for scientific and minority voices respectively, they offer a critique of American society that is outside the mainstream, but presented in a format that is the very bedrock of US pop culture.

Late night TV is one of the founding fathers of television. The Tonight Show began in 1954, with a total of 11,461 episodes at time of writing. Its primary directive is to entertain and amuse, but it has also featured interviews with every president since Carter (with the exception of Bush Senior), and shown the American people a more human side to their political leadership. The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Last Week Tonight have in turn tried to extend that function and hold politicians and the media to account. John Stewart has been a constant thorn in the side of anyone saying anything even vaguely silly in the vicinity of a camera for more than 2500 nights.

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Trevor Noah on Jay Leno

Oliver, Noah and deGrasse Tyson are the next logical step. Where Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert got people interested in politics at a macro level Oliver has pushed much harder on individual causes and used the internet as a tool to mobilise his loyal fan base in a way that the Comedy Central crowd never really attempted. Hopefully, Noah will bring some of that 21st century strategy to The Daily Show, while deGrasse Tyson seems set to continue his life’s work of trying to elevate science to a position of respect and prominence that it probably last occupied during the space race, at a time when such an effort is more important than it has ever been.

America undoubtedly needs this new wave of TV crusaders, but you need only consider the importance of shows like The Project, Clarke and Dawe, Mad As Hell and The Roast to Australia’s political landscape to see why these kinds of changes are important to us as well. Australian TV entertainment has imitated the American model for decades, and our appreciation for the late night format goes back to the Graham Kennedy era.

In recent times however it has been hard to find an Australian example that, like Kennedy, took something American and made it our own by perfecting it. While Rove had reasonably long-lived success the iterations with a political edge always seem to struggle, possibly because of the lack of job security (The Roast is now at The Guardian, Mad as Hell is no more).

I’ve written before about the need for more and better political satire in Australia, but more importantly we need where the powerful are interrogated n a way that has mass appeal. We need a The Project with teeth, Clarke and Dawe for those outside the latte belt or The Roast with… actually The Roast is great and it’s confusing why it hasn’t been given a better run. Only time will tell for Charlie Pickering and The Weekly on the ABC, but he would do well to follow the example of those across the Pacific who are going boldly where many have gone before, but doing something new and purposeful with it.

[box]Main image: Neil deGrasse Tyson, author, astrophysicist, lecturer and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, speaks onstage during the National Geographic Channel Special Programming Announcement at the 2015 Winter Television Critics Association on January 7, 2015 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)[/box]

4 responses to “The new (but relative) diversity of late night American TV hosts

  1. What a great article! I religiously watch John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report.” They all have uniquely different ways of presenting news and each meritous in their own right.

    I must admit though, I was surprised by Noah’s choice to head up the “Daily Show.” I am a big fan of Noah’s comedy standup but admittedly was concerned his style wouldn’t translate to a predominantly American audience – although I welcome the diversity. I was hoping to see a female take the chair – specifically Tina Fey or Amy Poehler. I think it’s quite disappointing that the late night news slot hasn’t embraced female hosts, it’s well overdue in my opinion.

  2. Is there anything more revolting that political satire/propaganda? Watching John Stewart and John Oliver slurping the butts of the Democrats while demonising the Republicans makes me want to vomit. When there is a show that treats both ‘sides’ of politics with the equal contempt they deserve then I might watch. The last thing that Australia needs is more of this. The ABC are now slipping clips of Mad As Hell into news bulletins! No surprise to see Shaun Micallef awarded by the Vic Labor Government with a juicy NGO post last week.

  3. Quote: “Since the premiere of Last Week Tonight less than two years ago….”

    Actually for the next few days it is still less than a year since the premiere of Last Week Tonight. It premiered April 27, 2014 (American time) – and while checking that, I see that today is John Oliver’s birthday (our time).

  4. Charlie Pickering’s ‘The Weekly” (at least last weeks version) was waaaaay too derivative of LWT and Daily Show. Admittedly Charlie’s comic style is not that different from those of Oliver and Stewart so a bit of similarity was to be expected but if the Weekly wants to avoid being dismissed as a LWT-lite/clone then it’s going to have to work on developing points of difference. Mad as Hell had it’s own distinctive style, yet covered pretty much the same ground.

    Oh dear Bob, looks like you’ve stumbled into the adults conversation….

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