Over at Buzzfeed, Adam B. Vary is absolutely right to suggest that, as the late-night television lineup seems poised for another reshuffle as NBC’s relationship with Jay Leno deteroirates, it would be awfully nice if the networks considered candidates for the positions about to be opened up who aren’t the interchangeable white men who have largely dominated those time slots since time immemorial, or at least since Johnny Carson. And I think it’s worth making a larger point in conjunction with his argument: it’s going to be disappointing if the spaces opened up by Leno’s canning and subsequent reshuffling produce not just the same faces, but the same formats, particularly given the waves of experimentation that have been taking place outside of the major networks for years.
There’s the political model, which started in its current incarnation over at Comedy Central. Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert may not hail from exactly the same schools of comedy as David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, and Jay Leno, but they’re marked by the same general demographics. It’s what they’ve done behind the desks on their respective sets that’s different. While Stewart and Colbert take on a wide array of topics, they’re doing so not from a general interest perspective but from carefully honed political ones. Their business model aims for ferocious loyalty among a segment of the population they’ve chosen to pursue specifically, rather than pulling from across the political spectrum as a whole. It’s worldview, rather than schtick that’s the initial selling point, Stewart’s righteousness and Colbert’s gleeful satire rather than signature bits like David Letterman’s top ten lists or Jimmy Fallon’s rapport with his musical guests, though of course Stewart and Colbert sold those, too. FX has subsequently taken a step beyond the innovation that Colbert and Stewart represented with Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, the intensely political African-American comic who honed his act in the Bay Area stand-up scene before moving to late-night, where he’s ditched the suits and the presumption of white dudeness, and brought along correspondents who don’t look much like the men in ties who largely dominate Stewart and Colbert’s shows, too, like lesbian comic Janine Brito.
And Bell isn’t the only person of color in late night in recent years, nor is Brito the only woman or only non-straight person. Vary called out George Lopez’s TBS show, cancelled when Conan O’Brien moved to the network, as an example of innovation both with hosts and format. T.J. Holmes is attempting to make a go of it on BET. And Arsenio Hall is rolling out a new late-night talk show that will be distributed through CBS syndication sometime later this fall. Wanda Skyes had her shot at late-night hosting in 2010. Chelsea Handler and Kathy Griffin have hosted late-night talk shows, if not the conventional late-night variety standards. And over at Bravo, Andy Cohen has built a successful franchise out of his Watch What Happens Live recap show, which features Bravo talent as well as other guests, and is known for a boozy, playful atmosphere—one of his bits of schtick is to have visitors play games with Cohen as a way of loosening them up. The fact that show has worked is one of the reasons we’ve seen things like The Talking Dead on AMC: as is the case with political shows, other niche late-night programming that lets fans process ideas they’re intensely interested in has become a viable alternative to the general interest show. But these alternative experiments in late night programming seem to be off in their own world, rather than acting as a farm team for the existing business model, which means that diversity of format as well as of hosts is off percolating elsewhere, rather than rising to the networks.
Laura Bennett is right, of course, that the internet and the possibility of content going viral has had an enormous influence on the way late night shows structure their bits—it’s almost a reverse response to Daniel Tosh’s clip shows, where the late night hosts want to manufacture the videos that go huge, rather than discuss and drive traffic to someone else’se work. Jimmy Fallon’s recruitment of The Roots was probably the biggest staffing innovation in recent years, a reason to come for the house band rather than just the host, and in keeping with Fallon’s determination to be a musical tastemaker, rather than simply responding to musical trends. It makes sense that late night hosts would want to be drivers of the culture, active aggregators and curators, rather than simply party hosts riding the hot new trend—you’ve got a better argument that audiences should tune in during the time slot if they might witness the emergence of Odd Future on the national stage, rather than if your’e going to interview Tyler The Creator six months after he emerges onto the national consciousness. But I’m curious to see what different kinds of hosts would choose to elevate if given the chance, and curious for someone who’s going to offer a new way to stage those debuts. Suits, desks, and white guys are all fine on their own. But they aren’t the only way to do things.