The Night Shift

New players to late-night scene scrap tried-and-true conventions, bring diversity
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The increasingly jammed late-night arena is getting another major player this summer, when David Spade steps onstage for a new 11:30 show on Comedy Central.

Though it doesn’t have a title or format settled just yet, this much we do know — while it leads out of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, Spade, who starred in Just Shoot Me!, Rules of Engagement and a batch of movies, will not touch on politics. He will dabble in all sorts of pop culture.

Busy Philipps of E!'s 'Busy Tonight'

Busy Philipps of E!'s 'Busy Tonight' 

Jonas Larsen, executive vice president and co-head of talent and development for Comedy Central, likens the Spade show to a “palate cleanser,” avoiding not only quips about President Donald Trump but many of late night’s typical conventions. “There is such a thing as too much political humor,” Larsen said. “Viewers will go to bed relatively happy. It’s fair to say, the show will probably not be locked into the current slate of late-night shows.”

While late night used to be the battleground of the broadcast networks, there is a vast range of players in the midnight game today, representing a range of platforms. Also on Comedy Central, The Jim Jefferies Show launched in summer 2017. Busy Tonight, hosted by Busy Philipps, premiered on E! in late October, the day before the debut of Nightly Pop, hosted by Morgan Stewart and Nina Parker. Desus & Mero began on Showtime Feb. 21, with the Bronx pair known as the Bodega Boys representing the network’s first weekly late-night talker. TNT has a pilot in the works for Naked With Niecy Nash.

Gary Levine, Showtime president of entertainment, said the premium network avoided late night for a long time, thinking, “Does the world need another guy behind another desk?” Desus & Mero, he added, “offered us a unique way into late night, and we took the plunge in a completely unique way.”

Stand Out By Standing Out

All the newer entrants are similarly intent on offering a unique proposition to viewers. Like the David Spade project, Busy Tonight delves into pop culture while avoiding politics. The show is also distinctive in that it has a woman host who essentially speaks directly to women, such as in impactful segments on the indignities of bra shopping and the high cost of hygienic products.

“It’s fun and light, counter to what everybody else is doing,” E! executive vice president of development and production Amy Introcaso-Davis said. “It is speaking to another audience than the Jimmys are, than the other shows are.”

Before launching, Philipps built her brand on Instagram, where she has a whopping 1.6 million followers. That has helped draw young viewers to Busy Tonight, which has an average viewer age in the mid-40s, Introcaso-Davis said, while the typical late night viewer is in their mid-50s.

Desus Nice and The Kid Mero hail from the Bronx and bring their trademark street-level perspective to their new show. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), another Bronx product, was the guest on the premiere. Desus likens Desus & Mero to an urban barbershop, where lively characters shout out whatever is on their mind. “There’s no suits, no house band, no monologue,” he said. “You come sit on the couch with us and discuss what happened today.”

White men long held down the host posts in late night, but that has changed. Samantha Bee recently marked three years of hosting Full Frontal on TBS. Trevor Noah hit his three-year mark atop The Daily Show in September. Busy Tonight seeks to build audience since shifting from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. in January.

“There are a lot of women in the daytime space,” said Caissie St. Onge, Busy Tonight executive producer and showrunner, “and it’s exciting to have a woman in the late-night space.”

In mid-March, NBC announced that Lilly Singh, an Indian-Canadian actress and YouTube star, will succeed Carson Daly as host of the nightly 1:30 a.m. program. A Little Late With Lilly Singh will debut in September.

Linda Ong, chief culture officer at Civic Entertainment Group, said Hasan Minhaj, who hosts the weekly Patriot Act on Netflix, is a good example of a less traditional viewpoint finding a strong niche in late night. “There are obviously more strides to be made, but it’s gotten better,” Ong said of diversity. “There’s a lot of room for people to be different.”

Ong would like to see more of the shows attempt to break up the tried-and-true format of late night, be it the band, the monologue or the celebrity guest talking up their new movie. “I think there’s still a lot of room for experimentation,” she said. “I don’t understand why there’s not.”

Hosts With the Mostess

To make their show stand out amidst so many competitors, late-night hosts are doing far more than just hosting the show. On April 26, Bee hosts the second “not-annual” Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C., with the special airing a day later, at the same time as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. James Corden, host of The Late Late Show on CBS, hosts competition series The World’s Best on that network, and also hosts Carpool Karaoke, a digital smash that gets an annual primetime special on CBS. (A Carpool Karaoke with Adele has 194 million views on YouTube.) Stephen Colbert and Chris Licht, executive producers of The Late Show, also executive produce Showtime’s Our Cartoon President.

Trevor Noah got raves for his book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Philipps brings viewers to Busy Tonight through her confessional videos on Instagram. “That authenticity is who Busy really is,” St. Onge said.

Conan O’Brien may be the busiest host in late night. He kicked off his half-hour Conan on TBS Jan. 22. Kevin Reilly, TBS and TNT president and chief creative officer of Turner Entertainment, called the show a “hub” in The New York Times, but not “the ultimate destination.”

Showtime's 'Desus & Mero'

Showtime's 'Desus & Mero'

O’Brien also hosts comedy tours, as well as a pair of podcasts — besides Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, he debuted Inside Conan: An Important Hollywood Podcast March 1. “With such a glut of great talent, you have to cut through it and do something different,” TBS and TNT general manager Brett Weitz said. “It’s not just being a late-night host.”

The more traditional late-night shows on broadcast are not exactly sitting back. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert saw ratings skyrocket after Donald Trump was elected president. For the first time, The Late Show inched ahead of NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in early March in viewers 18-49 season-to-date.

Jim Bell, former Today executive producer, moved to The Tonight Show in the fall, taking on the title of executive in charge and showrunner. Fallon’s program has seen ratings tick up since. NBC did not make Bell available for comment. The show turned five in February.

ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! takes the show to Las Vegas April 1-5.

Bedtime Battle

To be sure, not every late-night show is finding enough viewers to continue. For instance, The Rundown With Robin Thede lasted one season on BET. The Opposition With Jordan Klepper did not see a sophomore season on Comedy Central.

The streaming platforms, where shows don’t follow time-of-day schedules, have had a rough time in late night. Chelsea Handler-helmed Chelsea lasted two seasons on Netflix. Shows from Michelle Wolf and Joel McHale on Netflix lasted one. Comedians Norm Macdonald and Minhaj launched talk shows late last year on Netflix.

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Amazon and Hulu do not offer late-night-style talkers.

“The daypart itself is not as healthy as it used to be,” said Dave Smith, CEO/founder of consultancy SmithGeiger, who noted how subscription video-on-demand viewing cuts into both primetime and late-night audience. “It doesn’t necessarily make sense to launch a late-night show, but there’s always a chance that it breaks through.”

The 30-minute David Spade project will fill the slot previously held by Klepper. Spade described its content as “whatever is funny, whatever is stupid.” Larsen adds that, similar to the prevailing late-night mindset these days, Spade will extend the show brand on social platforms, and will take on whatever other projects to keep his face, name and brand in the pop culture bloodstream.

“We’re going to look at all those kinds of things as potential opportunities for David,” Larsen said.

While Spade may share some traits with traditional hosts, his new show won’t look a whole lot like those that came before it, as is the trend in late-night television. “I don’t think we see this as a traditional late-night setup,” Larsen said.

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