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It's late. You can't sleep. The TV beckons. But … what's on?
Pretty much everything.
Most of the TV industry shut down in early March, then two weeks ago, late night started back up. A sputtering start, but also quirky, fun, weird and inarguably watchable.
. Gone are the pliable audiences that laugh at anything; the bespoke suits; the bespoke guests; the whole glitzy-glam whiz-bang package that makes late night one of the wonders of the modern TV age.
Gone also are the bands and — as Dorothy said to the Scarecrow — I think I miss them most of all.
Nevertheless, we need to laugh more than ever, and late night TV has answered the call. But before you head to that TV, with your head full of misgivings after another day in quarantine, let's take a trip together through this strange new land of unshaven hosts, their adorable broods, and beautiful abodes, and their home (or barn) offices.
"A Late Show with Stephen Colbert" (CBS)
Yes, this is now "a '' show as opposed to "the" show because "the'' would presume something more substantial. Colbert himself perfectly captured the surreality by observing that "it almost entirely but not completely doesn't feel like a show." Exactly. I think. By nature if not by profession, Colbert is an egghead — an intellectual who keenly feels the absurdity and tragedy of the world as it normally is, more acutely as it is right now. He's too smart to fake-laugh his way through a late night show when the world is on fire. That ambivalence is inescapable here. He seems only genuinely happy when his dog, Fanny, jumps into his arms. Moreover, Colbert works best with studio audiences in the subzero Ed Sullivan Theater, feeding off the energy, and off the energy of his band, Jon Batiste and Stay Human. Batiste, in fact, remotely joined Colbert recently as a reminder of what's been missing — that energy.
"Jimmy Kimmel Live" (ABC)
"Welcome to the longest and worst staycation of all time." Funny. Also true. Among the Big Three, Kimmel has best figured out this solo late night staycation gig because he's basically doing the same show as before, albeit in a vacuum (or room with a fake backdrop; also funny). Kimmel doesn't require audience affirmation because his material doesn't, and rarely did before. His monologue remains the rat-a-tat joke machine that spins off the news of the day. It barely paused for studio audience acknowledgment before anyway. His show was always built conspicuously for the audience at home, which makes these at-home editions seem so effortless (and watchable) for the most part.
"Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" (NBC)
Originating from his barn with his ridiculously adorable little girls who are now among late night TV's most welcome diversions, Fallon's at-home editions are otherwise pretty much a mess. Watch Jimmy read his monologue off a sheet of paper! Watch Jimmy struggle with guests via a Zoom remote!
Watch Jimmy try to get guests! Each of the late night shows, in fact, have been struggling with that because there are so few guests who have anything to sell. A few — like Adam Sandler — arrive in support of various charities. More than the other late nighters, Fallon needs support, like his brilliant houseband, the Roots, or his production staff.
What we've been getting these past few weeks is Fallon Raw — the slacker with tousled hair, and a vast reservoir of native charm. But native charm only gets you (and us) so far. The major asset, in fact, is his wife, the film producer Nancy Juvonen, whom we've been getting to know in the ongoing "Ask the Fallons" segment. She's funny, smart and interesting. Is there a post-COVID show entitled "Tonight Starring Nancy and Jimmy" in the works?
"Late Night with Seth Meyers" (NBC)
"Late Night" is the go-to-show for purging — that emotional venting you'd otherwise be doing by yourself into the mirror or to your husband/wife and kids which would make this never-ending day-camp even more never-ending. As before, Meyers' favorite piñata is President Donald Trump, so Trumpists best steer a wide berth. But for what it does — which, by the way, is what Jon Stewart's "Daily Show'' once did — "Late Night" does exceedingly well. It's a scorching nightly takedown that pauses for neither breath nor the applause that will never come. Not that it's needed either. Seth Unleashed, with an untouched copy of "The Thorn Birds'' by his side, is both brutal and hilarious.
"Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" (AKA, temporarily, "Little Show in the Big Woods) (TBS)
In contrast to the other hosts, Bee has been originating her weekly show from the woods, which seems just about right if we're looking for metaphors. A tree blasted by lightning lies behind her — another apt metaphor. Like the pre-COVID show, Bee's lost-in-the-woods edition is animated by injustice, propelled by fury, steeped in cynicism. It's got the right balance because she also keeps the focus sharp and relevant, with a recent edition about how COVID is "affecting the ladies." In a whole lot of ways, some not entirely apparent, each one urgent.
"The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah" (Comedy Central)
Both "Daily" and Noah are thriving in this strange New World because they've so fully embraced the strangeness. "Daily" was always the unique late night Frankenstein show of part news/part comedy/part commentary, but Noah has pushed the news to the front, with some memorable interviews (Bill Gates, Dr. Anthony Fauci) and monologues. Yes, President Trump comes in for a basting here too but not even remotely like "Late Night." Meanwhile Noah has pulled the correspondents back into the show too — like a recent tutorial on how to make face masks (which turned out to be a scheme to destroy the host's annoying T-shirts).
Conan O'Brien's show already was a scaled-down version of its former self, so both show and host have slid effortlessly into this new at-home genre. O'Brien's guest interviews — much like his terrific podcast "Conan Needs a Friend'' — are mostly about Conan, but that's plenty. Watching these is like eavesdropping on someone else's FaceTime chat, with the same level of technical savoir-faire, but they work because the host's persona always was built on self-deprecation. His laugh — raspy, screechy., infective — completes the package. A fun one.
"Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" (HBO)
You almost wouldn't even know Oliver's show now originates from a man cave in his home because the old one seemed to originate from the same man cave, albeit better lit. As always, these are terrific, the targets fat (But sometimes a little too easy — like the recent one on the "news" media, or specifically One America News Network.)
"Desus & Mero" (Showtime)
The Bodega Boys (Desus Nice — Daniel Baker — and The Kid Mero — Joel Martinez) have been co-home-hosting since late March, on Mondays and Thursdays but the results are somewhat mixed. The obvious reason is that they feed on each other, and now are separated by a split screen. A producer off-screen, Julia Young, asks questions, offers prompts, supplies laughs which seems like a good idea until you realize they have always laughed at their own jokes anyway. Nevertheless, this show is still one of those weird, quite possibly, necessary in-the-time-of-COVID diversions. You tend to laugh too even if you don't have a clue why.
("Late Late Show with James Corden" and "A Little Late with Lilly Singh" are still in repeat; a shame.)