2020 has been an incredibly tough year but the world of late-night has been both a constant source of entertainment for viewers and a shining case study for how to make television during a global pandemic.
The genre has proved tenacious, resilient and funny in the face of a devastating health crisis, adapting to shooting from home, while also preparing for a hotly contested Presidential election.
Deadline has taken a look at the highlights of the year below, exploring the main themes and subjects of the past twelve months, and spoken to the showrunners, as well as a few of the hosts, about how they coped this year and what they’re looking forward to in 2021.
“2020 wasn’t short on challenges: We had a global pandemic, a batshit election season, and story after story of racial injustice in this country,” The Daily Show with Trevor Noah showrunner Jen Flanz told Deadline. “I’m in constant awe of our team for pulling together and figuring out how to make a show in a way we’d never done before and never in our wildest dreams imagined doing.”
Desus Nice, otherwise known as Daniel Baker, co-host of Desus & Mero, told Deadline, “To say 2020 has been a wild year is a understatement but having our show be one of the voices narrating this time has been so fulfilling. Knowing that we brought some laughs to people going through just one of weirdest times in history, I’m proud of that.”
His partner The Kid Mero, otherwise known as Joel Martinez, added that making the show in the pandemic was initially hard from a tech standpoint and praised the show’s crew. “Once we hit the groove, though, we were off to the races and it felt great to have some kind of structure to the day. Also, knowing that you are bring people a brief moment of respite in the garbage fire inside a shit storm that was 2020 is wild satisfying, not gonna lie,” he told Deadline.
Late Night host Seth Meyers, similarly, praised his writing staff for managing to “maintain the quality of their work remotely”.
Rob Crabbe, Executive Producer of The Late Late Show with James Corden, highlighted the “resilience” of his staff. “In a tumultuous year on so many levels, we’re proudest of the resiliency of our staff and crew to continue to push through and make a broad variety show, from HomeFest in James’ garage, then back to the studio, with most people still working from home,” he told Deadline.
Jamie Granet-Bederman was promoted to co-showrunner of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon last month, having worked with the host for 11 years. “I couldn’t be prouder of The Tonight Show team for making some great comedy during a very difficult and challenging time in the world. It is not lost on us how lucky we are. So, if making our show has helped anyone’s day become a little bit better, then that’s enough for us,” she said.
Even in the middle of the pandemic, it’s been an eventful year behind the scenes. Conan O’Brien decided to step back from the nightly game after 28 years and The Daily Show expanded to 45 minutes, with plans to lengthen it even further. There’s new entrants planned for 2021 including show from Sam Jay, on HBO, Desus & Mero writer Ziwe, on Showtime, and Charlamagne Tha God, on Comedy Central, and new faces in charge of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Tonight Show and A Little Late with Lilly Singh.
There’s still an interesting battle on the ratings front. The Late Show once again comfortably won the year in total viewers from September 2019 to September 2020, according to Nielsen, but in viewers aged 18-49, competition was much closer. The Late Show and The Tonight Show were essentially tied with a 0.4 rating, while Jimmy Kimmel Live! was only narrowly behind with a 0.3.
What’s next? With a vaccine starting to be rolled out, there’s a hope that at some point during 2021, audiences will be able to return. The election of Joe Biden will also have an impact on late-night, in particular room for silliness and non-Trump content.
Seth Meyers told Deadline, “The most fun I had was the Pee-Wee Hermaning of the show this summer when a talking sea captain painting, voiced by Will Forte, became my defacto sidekick. It was a reminder what a tonic silliness and stupidity can be. It would be nice if 2021 would have more space for that,” he told Deadline.
“For 2021, I hope for a semblance of normalcy,” said The Kid Mero. “My hope for the show is that we continue to prove we’re the number one show in late night, innovating in the space and pushing sh*t forward.”
“As far as 2021, I’m looking forward to taking everything we learned during the pandemic and using those tools to keep growing the show. Continuing to have illustrious guests, more on-location shoots, once it’s safe, but mostly, I can’t wait to have a live studio audience again. I miss our fans,” added Desus Nice.
“I’m looking forward to having more time to cover the stories that speak to our staff and our audience instead of just chasing the news cycle,” added The Daily Show’s Flanz. “If we can manage to touch on criminal justice reform, gun control, reproductive rights… the list is endless. But whatever we cover, as long as we bring comfort, joy and laughs to our audience and have fun while we’re doing it, there’s a glimmer of hope for 2021.”
The Late Late Show’s Crabbe said, “We’re hopeful to get back to some semblance of normalcy in 2021, or at the very least seeing everyone’s masked faces in person, from six feet away.”
BEFORE IT ALL STARTED (PRE-PANDEMIC)
Do you remember the time before Covid-19? The first two months of the year started with such optimism.
The Late Late Show with James Corden was certainly one of the shows that was in the swing of things before the virus. The CBS show, which along with The Tonight Show is arguably more of a variety show than the other nightly shows, had a number of breakout moments in January and February. In fact, eight of its top ten most-watch clips on YouTube are from the start of the year. This includes Carpool Karaoke segments featuring K-Pop stars BTS, which has had nearly 70M online views and Justin Bieber, which has over 50M views, as well as a faux apology after ‘revelations’ that the Brit wasn’t always driving the car.
In terms of before times, CBS sister show The Late Show had Jim Carrey leading a New Orleans-style parade through the crowd before sitting down to talk Trump and Sonic The Hedgehog, The Tonight Show’s Fallon rapped the history of Will Smith with Will Smith, Seth Meyers went day drinking with the Jonas brothers, and The Daily Show’s Desi Lydic went to Arizona to explain the state’s rejection of daylight-saving time.
WORKING FROM HOME
Then in March, the late-night felt the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The shows first started shooting without audiences before moving to completely virtual operations, beginning online before transitioning back to linear TV. It was a novelty at first, with the viewers musing about Trevor Noah’s hoodies on The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert opening his show from his bathtub and Jimmy Fallon’s children becoming the breakout stars of The Tonight Show.
But it soon became a ‘normal’ part of late-night television. There was the informative with the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci and Governor Andrew Cuomo giving interviews, where on The Daily Show they have recorded nearly 50M online views, and Samuel L. Jackson reading a curse-laden poem designed to encourage people to “stay the f**k at home” on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Then there was the entertaining and the sweet. Colbert breaking down in tears when Dolly Parton sang Bury Me Beneath the Willow, Kimmel’s sweet tribute to Fred Willard and John Mulaney talking ghosts with Meyers before joining Late Night’s writing staff.
On the weekly side, TBS’ Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver similarly left their studios. Bee took her show to the woods outside of her house, while Oliver transitioned to a “blank white void full of sad facts”. Bee spent much of the summer campaigning to help save the United States Postal Service, while Oliver became obsessed with Adam Driver and started a feud with the city of Danbury in Connecticut over a sewage plant.
The Brit, who won the late-night Emmy for the fifth time in a row, said all variety shows were very “fortunate” to be able to work during the pandemic. “I don’t take that lightly, we’re incredibly lucky to be able to do that and it’s only because of our staff and how hard they have worked. None of us are technically gifted, when my staff set up our studio had to lean across Zoom as if I was a passenger on a plane with a pilot that has just passed out,” he added.
By late summer most of the hosts were back in the studio; The Tonight Show was back first on July 13 with Fallon returning to 30 Rock with sketches such as a fake ad for Masculine Man Masks and an ’80s throwback called I Like Your Style, that he was unable to perform at home. CBS’ The Late Show and The Late Late Show followed in August, Late Night with Seth Meyers returned September 8 and Jimmy Kimmel, fresh from a summer off, headed back to the El Capitan on September 21 after hosting the Emmys.
It’s clear that despite the current situation, which prevents studio audiences and limits in-studio guests and sketches, the hosts are happy to be back and they are figuring out new ways to entertain. Case in point, was Corden’s week of drive-in concerts from Alicia Keys, who also returned to the studio for a particularly gruesome segment of Spill Your Guts.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
The murder of George Floyd in May was a pivotal moment for America and his death, the subsequent protests and the widespread calls for change were all treated with the importance they deserved by the late-night hosts. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah delivered a powerful commentary in an 18-minute monologue, where he addressed the killing and the protests, calling out the police in America for “looting Black bodies.”
The Daily Show’s Flanz said that Comedy Central show, which has raised over $3M to support racial justice as well as those affected by the pandemic, didn’t shy away from tough subjects. “Trevor and the show took it on with passion that was infectious throughout our now-virtual office. The conversations we had with each other became the ones we ended up having with our audience,” she said.
Stephen Colbert asked “what kind of nation do we want to live in”, Jimmy Kimmel highlighted the “loop we get stuck in” and called out Trump for his threat to shoot protestors, James Corden eschewed his Three Things To Cheer You Up segment for a call for change at the highest level, Seth Meyers said Trump’s response was “like a cross between a brutal military dictator and a racist grandpa shuffling around the nursing home with his robe on backwards” and Conan O’Brien said he was “sickened by the needless killing of a Black man named George Floyd, but it doesn’t feel right to talk about my feelings of sadness and anger”.
Jimmy Fallon began his first Tonight Show episode after the murder addressing a clip of him appearing in Black face to play Chris Rock on a 2000 SNL sketch. He apologized and said he was “horrified” but that despite being advised to stay quiet, said that “the silence is the biggest crime that white guys like me and the rest of us are doing” before discussing race with NAACP boss Derrick Johnson.
The predominantly white (and male) late-night hosts leant heavily on their colleagues during these times.
Amber Ruffin, a writer on Late Night with Seth Meyers and now host of her own Peacock show, was arguably one of the breakout stars of the summer for her frank discussions of race. Following Floyd’s killing, she took over the top of the NBC to detail her own run ins with police. “The cops have pulled a gun on me. The cops have followed me to my own home. Every black person I know has a few stories like that,” she said in June.
The Late Show with James Corden bandleader Reggie Watts similarly told emotional stories of experiencing racism on the CBS show. “I feel like there’s a pressure, if you’re of color, you’ve got to represent your whole crew,” he said. Late Show writer Olivia Harewood also helped Corden through his feelings of guilt about white privilege. “What white privilege means is that your skin color didn’t make your life more challenging. Having that privilege means you don’t need to deal with things like being racially profiled or getting unfairly turned down for a mortgage loan because of your skin color or being a minority at your workplace so you have to explain privilege to people you work with,” she said.
DONALD TRUMP: A PUNCHLINE
Late-night has become intensely political over the last four years and none more so than this year, with a particularly virulent election cycle. The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University found that in September around 97% of the jokes on The Tonight Show and The Late Show were about Trump, his family or administration. This amounted to 455 jokes about Trump compared to 14 about Joe Biden.
From his handling of Covid-19, to his absurd claims and the behaviour of those around him, such as Rudy Guilani, late-night writers have been kept busy by the former host of the Celebrity Apprentice.
Colbert has gone hard at Trump since 2016 and admitted that he cried when he was defeated by Joe Biden. “During the last four years, we’ve occasionally talked about this administration – when it was appropriate,” Colbert said earlier this month. “But now that it’s about to be over, the president’s team is leaving it all out on the field after they burned down the stadium. I’m just in awe at the sheer majesty of their stupidity.”
It would be quicker to the list the late-night episodes where the hosts didn’t take Trump to task for one thing or another; Meyers’ A Closer Look segment has been on fire over the last nine months, Kimmel has been viciously funny, Noah has dissected his misogyny and racism and Fallon, generally not one to insult, has been aggressively political (and has improved his Trump impression).
But, for me, the standout late-night Trump moment of 2020 was Corden’s parody of Paul McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed (above) after the President contracted Covid-19.
OBAMA HEADS TO LATE-NIGHT PROMISED LAND
President Barack Obama was the first sitting President to appear on late-night television when he went on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He’s also shown himself to be a fan of sillier end of the medium with previous skits such as Slow Jamming The News. Towards the end of the year, he became almost a constant presence on late-night as he promoted his memoir A Promised Land. The former Commander-in-Chief was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where he revealed what he missed about the job while failing at wastepaper basketball, on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where he was asked whether he made love to his wife Michelle after the raid on Osama Bin Laden, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, revealing how he handled flirtations from Madonna, and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, where he expanded on recent comments on the Defund the Police movement.
But it was his appearance on Showtime’s Desus & Mero that stood out to me. He was serious when he needed to be, but he also appeared to enjoy the gregarious nature of the hosts with sports slams (particularly about the Knicks) and talking up his own hoops ability. He also talked about the controversy surrounding him wearing a tan suit, a topic that led to the best line of the night with The Kid Mero dubbing Obama the “illest Remax realty salesman in Carbondale, Michigan”.
Roll on 2021.