During his nearly four years in office, President Trump has influenced the country in innumerable political, economic and social ways. His effect also has been deep in the realm of late-night television. Trump’s presence in the White House supercharged the popularity of some hosts (such as Colbert), marginalized others (including rival Jimmy Fallon) and gave rise to an entirely new class of voices.
But with Joe Biden now the president-elect, that age will come to an end, leading to new and largely unknown terrain.
Interviews with nine veterans of late-night television, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sector’s competitiveness, suggest that the coming period will bring new power players and a much different tone to one of the entertainment industry’s most closely watched products.
“I see a lot changing,” said Daniel Kellison, a longtime late-night producer who has worked with Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman. “Many people have turned to late night as a relief from stressful news, and the question is whether they will still do that if the news is less stressful.”
The shows, Kellison said, could also pivot to less political material as they reduce their current role of bulwark against the administration. Which shows will benefit — and whether Americans will still watch — remains highly unclear.
As it has often been during divisive times, late-night television during the Trump years has been a cultural force, both amplifying American absurdities and offering reassurances about them. The question it now confronts is a kind of Hollywood version of the uncertainty facing political activists: Will a return to Washington normalcy reset the shows? Or has something permanently shifted?
Before Trump, “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” was struggling to keep up with NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Then Trump ascended, and everything changed.
During the 2016 primary season, Colbert had just begun working with Chris Licht, a producer with an extensive journalism background. As Trump emerged, the pair decided to go anti-Trump and serve liberal comfort food at a time when most entertainment entities were still playing it safe. Colbert ultimately would even engage with Trump after the president threw digs at Colbert, saying that he has “no talent” and that there is “nothing funny about what he says.”
Colbert’s numbers quickly rose. Shortly after the inauguration, Colbert was regularly beating Fallon in the total-viewer weekly average, which he had rarely done before. Meanwhile, the lighter-minded Fallon, who had famously tousled Trump’s hair during the 2016 campaign, faded, dropping behind “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” which had previously been running third among the 11:30 p.m. shows. Fallon’s subsequent attempts to mock Trump were seen as artificial and didn’t ignite a resurgence.
Colbert now draws an average of 2.95 million viewers within the first three days of each episode’s airing, according to Nielsen, nearly twice as many as Fallon’s 1.5 million and also well ahead of Kimmel’s 1.7 million. The numbers reversed years of NBC trouncing CBS, dating to the epic battles between NBC’s Jay Leno and CBS’s Letterman in the 1990s, routinely won by Leno.
Late-night TV in the modern era has remained key to the networks’ finances, especially because Colbert and Fallon began their 11:30 rivalry in the mid-2010s and advertising for the first time rocketed past half a billion dollars annually. The battle is not the same as the Leno-Letterman days, with far smaller overall viewership numbers. Still, digital impressions have gained in importance, and Colbert’s ability to routinely grab millions of YouTube views with his anti-Trump bits strongly appeals to Madison Avenue, especially compared with Fallon.
But experts say the comeback could be reversed as late night settles into a more Barack Obama-like dynamic, in which the jokes about the president are less barbed or skipped entirely, favoring Fallon.
One person close to Colbert who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he had not sought permission from the host to talk to reporters, said the election result left Colbert not just personally but professionally happy.
“Stephen is eager to flex new muscles. He can do so much. Going on about Trump every night is not how he wants to spend any more years of his prime,” the person said.
Relevancy questions also surround other personalities who’ve benefited from Trump. The president’s flair for headlines deepened appetites for the news-based comedy of “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” (launched on the eve of the 2016 New Hampshire primary); the socially conscious humor of “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” one of the longest-serving hosts of color; and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” which under Trump hit its stride as a deep-dive, fact-check forum, winning four Emmys in each year dating to 2017.
But Steve Bodow, a former head writer and executive producer of “The Daily Show,” where many of the personalities worked, thinks the Biden era could help these programs creatively.
“I feel confident saying most writers of late night will not only be politically and patriotically happier, but they’ll be comedically happier,” said Bodow, who also served as showrunner for Netflix’s recently canceled “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” a political talk show from the Indian comic who is Muslim. “The thing about Trump is there’s nothing new there; there’s just not that much to chew off the bone. It can be utterly exhausting.”
That frustration bubbled out last week when a lead writer for Fallon, Rebecca Drysdale, quit while saying she was worn down by anti-Trump comedy. (Fallon will enter the post-Trump era with a larger reset: a new showrunner, announced last week.)
Insiders say the feel of these shows will be significantly different in another way. Although Obama aides often appeared on late night, Trump staff members mostly opted out, sticking to friendlier Fox News.
“We’ll see a lot more White House people on the shows,” said Hillary Kun, a longtime co-executive producer of “The Daily Show.”
Kun, an executive at the Atlantic, said this could give the shows more gravitas. “It’s always a shift in tone when you have someone in the seat,” she said. The producer said she did not see a de-emphasizing of politics in the Biden age but a swing toward rebuffing the forces attacking him, such as the current Trump-led bid to challenge the results, an opposition-to-the-opposition role late night has played before.
“After Obama’s election, there was all this concern that Jon would have nothing to talk about,”said Kun, referring to Jon Stewart, the former “Daily Show” host known for holding George W. Bush’s feet to the fire. Instead, she said it sometimes became about going after “some of the people who were making unfair attacks” on Obama. The tea party movement, she noted, sprang up just several months after Obama’s inauguration.
The Trump era also gave rise to several new series, hosted by people of color, that frequently counteracted Trump’s racial politics, including Peacock’s “Wilmore” and “The Amber Ruffin Show,” Netflix’s recently canceled Minhaj series and NBC’s “A Little Late With Lily Singh.” Some insiders say the shows could need to recalibrate their direction without Trump in the White House. “Wilmore” host Larry Wilmore and Peacock have committed to only 11 episodes, ending a few weeks after the election.
Established hosts will face their own immediate decisions. Last week, after it became clear that Biden would win, Colbert doubled down on the anti-Trump remarks, in his viral monologue calling the president a “sad, frightened fraud.”
At the same moment, across the dial, Fallon offered a less pointed recurring bit about a young Trump threatening litigation against his grandmother for giving him an unwanted birthday gift.
“Lawyer up, Nana,” Fallon’s mouth said several times, as his eyes said he was happy never to tell the joke again.