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What Will Happen to Late Night Comedy?

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The future of American late night comedy is uncertain. Combination of media fragmentation, emergence of streaming services and ongoing Covid pandemic is impacting how, what and when we consume content.

Anyone in interested in late night comedy can check out Bill Carter’s produced CNN documentary, “The Story of Late Night” to understand the origin and evolvement of late night comedy on TV. This six-part series is a a historical deep dive into the origins of the genre that still resonates today as well as a love letter to the medium.

With that history lesson in mind, it makes for interesting discussion of the genre’s relevance in today’s world. Nearly every industry is experiencing seismic landscape shifts thanks technology and Covid. Late night comedy is no different as its also undergoing a transition sparked by cord-cutting which has greatly accelerated the decline of linear TV viewing.

That’s what makes Conan O'Brien’s recent announcement of him leaving his current self-titled TBS series really interesting. After 28 years of playing the late night game, he will now pivot to focus on a new variety show on HBO Max streaming service and his podcasting endeavors. His announcement represents the current dilemma that many industry veterans in front and behind the camera as well as many comedy fans discuss amongst themselves. Conan showrunner Jeff Ross told Deadline that he’s questioned the future of the genre and believes late-night shows are now “kind of dinosaurs in the business,” adding that linear networks are “just like death” due to lower ratings.

Remaining include broadcast talkers as well as handful of ad-supported and pay cable network shows like Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Other successful weekly shows on both basic and premium cable include TBS’ Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Real Time with Bill Maher and Showtime’s bi-weekly Desus & Mero.

Late night comedy may not even air in late night hours. Perhaps the genre will evolve to topical comedy format. As Hollywood recalibrate to fold digital streaming into its offering, it’s possible not a lot of new nightly shows will launch on cable in the future.

On the other hand, streaming services haven’t figured out how to make this genre successful on their platforms. Netflix tried with Chelsea Handler’s Chelsea or Hasan Minaj’s weekly topical that tackles and deep dives into one issue.

Arguably its most talked about the show in this arena is David Letterman’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, a longform interview show with guests such as Barack Obama and Kim Kardashian. The service, which prides itself on its watch-when-you-want offering, is unlikely to jump back into the more traditional topical talk space, instead focusing its attention elsewhere for the time being.

While the future is uncertain, one positive thing is that is that more diverse comedians are getting opportunities to showcase their talents. On streaming, Amber Ruffin is making arguably the closest thing to a nightly show, albeit weekly. The breakout star of Late Night with Seth Meyers records and airs her self-titled show on Fridays on Peacock. She is seven episodes into her run and hopes to be renewed for a second season in 2021. But it’s unclear, as it is with all streamers, how many people are tuning in. Ruffin told Deadline that even she isn’t told viewing figures by NBCU brass, largely so that she doesn’t spill the beans to press. Personally, I find it very difficult to believe that but that’s their stance.

Ruffin’s show sits alongside Larry Wilmore on the service, although the Black-ish exec producer has previously said his show would be done after its 11-episode run. “Is it going to get picked up? No,” he told the New York Times. “This is going to be done, and then we’ll sit down at the right time and say, ‘Is this something we want to do as a permanent thing?’”.

Streaming will figure out the late-night medium at some point — it’s the direction that television is heading towards and may yet entice a few more established faces like O’Brien over to help. Basic cable, however, is getting ready to say goodbye to one of its hall-of-famers.

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