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Politics in Trump Era Help Late-Night Comedy Dominate the Conversation

Variety logo Variety 6/19/2017 Daniel Holloway

When former FBI director James Comey testified before the Senate intelligence committee June 8, 10 television networks broke into regular programming with live coverage of what was expected to be a potentially historic news event. For the staff of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” it was just another day at the office.

“Early on when I got here, we did live shows, which really focused the ability of the writers to turn around quick comedy on things that just happened,” says Chris Licht, executive producer and showrunner of “The Late Show,” speaking by phone from his office at the Ed Sullivan Theater. “On a day like today, you’re flexing that muscle where you are having to quickly digest and not only write jokes but put into a broad context a news event that has just happened. We’re at a point now where we just say, ‘It’s live- show mode.’”

At “The Late Show” and across late-night television, there has been ample opportunity for live-show mode lately. In the President Trump era, the news cycle has been dominated and accelerated politics. Late-night staffs have had to adapt their way of working, as viewers have shifted toward shows that, like “The Late Show,” put politics front and center.

“Politics have changed the landscape of what’s been happening in the late-night field,” says Katz Media Group’s Stacey Lynn Schulman. “It’s brought a lot of attention back to ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and it’s also turned the Stephen Colbert show into a runaway hit.”

Since Jan. 30, CBS’ “The Late Show” has outperformed NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in total viewers every week that the two shows have aired original episodes. While critics have characterized Fallon as pandering and out of step with the political moment, Colbert has seen viewership surge even in Red America — a Katz analysis found Colbert’s May household ratings up year-over-year in all but five of the 23 Nielsen metered markets where Trump won a majority of the vote in November.

The upending of what had been Fallon’s viewership dominance over Colbert came as the latter began to draw raves for his skewering of Trump and the former drew criticism for a facile tone that wore thin with some viewers.

“Saturday Night Live,” meanwhile, has enjoyed its most watched season in 23 years thanks to regular guest appearances by stars such as Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy parodying the new White House order. On NBC’s “Late Night,” “SNL” alum Seth Meyers has drawn positive reviews for a newsy approach to political comedy that builds on his experience as former anchor of “Weekend Update.”

“We’ve been saying at work that we thought that the election was the World Series, and it turned out that the election was spring training,” Meyers says. He adds that his staff hadn’t been expecting to, post-election, do a show so driven by politics. “But like a lot of people, they’re more engaged in politics, so they’re more interested in doing this type of show. They start their day being predictive of the things we’re going to need and they start pulling clips and getting ready.”

But the current moment won’t last forever.

“There’s been no permanent period of politics in American history,” Meyers says. “The show will have to change at some point”

Joe Otterson contributed to this report.

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