Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and now Robin Thede. Late-night hosts who speak to us — and for us

The opening monologue of “The Rundown With Robin Thede” would have been unthinkable in the Jay Leno and David Lettermen era — if not for its politics then surely for its perspective.

Thede is a she, and she’s black, and her new BET show speaks to viewers historically excluded from the late-night demographic.

Among the news clips the comedian lampooned during her debut episode this month: a video displaying the difference in how police treat black and white motorists during traffic stops, and the mainstream media’s hysteria over an anti-Trump song by Eminem (a.k.a. Marshall Mathers). In one clip a TV anchor decries that the rapper labeled Trump a racist and asks what happened to civility?! “What happened to civility,” muses Thede, “President Trump! … I’m here for everything Marshall Luther King Jr. is saying right now.”

There goes Johnny, or at least the distance Carson and other hosts of yore put between their political leanings and their audiences.

While Carson, Letterman and Leno weighed in on current events, their shows were designed to take your mind off the world outside: celebrity interviews, plate-spinning acrobats, zoologists with their unpredictable animals, and the inevitable Charo cameo.

Now the news – and what hosts do with it – is what makes the show. Namely, what is their personal take, and does it speak for their audience?

Thede is the newest arrival in a crowded field of hosts— including Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Samantha Bee, James Corden and Seth Meyers — who are all trying to strike the right balance of comedy and commentary.

As more Americans feel as if their voices are going unheard, it’s late-night hosts – not D.C. representatives – who appear to be speaking truth to power and channeling the frustrations of an outraged electorate.

The ever-expanding late-night lineup (daily and weekly) also appeals to those who want their fire-hose feed of news filtered, distilled and recast as something more laugh-inducing than alarmist.

Want a whip-smart, researched take-down of the latest corporate maleficence, environmental mess or congress’ squandering of your tax dollars? John Oliver of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” is your avenging deconstructionist. If you like your British hosts more on the silly side, there’s always the playful antics of CBS’ James Corden and his “The Late Late Show.”

How about an outsider view of American race relations, from someone raised in an apartheid state? “The Daily Show’s” Trevor Noah on Comedy Central is the medium’s most astute observer.

For turning raw anger into laser-focused commentary, there’s Samantha Bee on TBS. The “Full Frontal” host is late-night TV’s other female voice, and often takes on women’s issues in her weekly show.

She recently covered film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment scandal, and ripped into the “I was raised in a different era” excuse he gave for his behavior.

“Oh, give me a break, White Cosby!,” she said. “Nobody asked for your ‘all about mea culpa.’ Don’t blame the ’60s and ’70s for your … decision-making. It’s serial sexual harassment, not a Monkees tattoo.”

While riffing on the news, Bee made the news (see, we’re writing about her here). It’s a circular event — journalism outlets cover a story, evening hosts comment on said story, host’s monologue becomes part of the next morning’s news cycle.

Bee, like Oliver and Colbert, are all alumni of the Jon Stewart-era “The Daily Show.”

Stewart popularized the casual talk show-meets-political satire format with his long run on the Comedy Central favorite from 1999 to 2015. Colbert then took that ethos to the broadcast networks when he joined CBS’ “The Late Show” after Letterman’s retirement.

There were questions about Colbert’s acerbic and odd sense of political comicality (his Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report” was a satire of right-wing hosts like former Fox News firebrand Bill O’Reilly) working on such a broad platform. Then a reality star ran for the White House and won.

Who better to explain the absurdity of modern politics than an absurdist like Colbert? The perfect host for imperfect times.

No wonder the ratings of late night’s court jester, Jimmy Fallon, are slipping. Once a leader of the pack, his clownish, prankster approach on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” is apparently no longer the best medicine for an agitated public.

It’s Conan O’Brien who best bridges the gap between old-school hosts and the Jon Stewart generation of personalities on his nightly TBS show. The wise-cracking host generally remains apolitical, letting his guests explain why American healthcare is a mess or why Trump can’t stop tweeting.

But even O’Brien isn’t immune to the foundation-rattling events of 2017.

The former “Tonight Show” host made news when he spoke emotionally about the Las Vegas shooting in a recent opening monologue.

“[There are] plenty of people more qualified than me who are reporting the tragic facts and asking how this could happen,” he said. “... I’ve been doing this job for more than 24 years, and when I began in 1993, occasions like this were extremely rare. For me, or any TV comedy host back then, to come out and need to address a mass shooting spree was practically unheard of. But over the last decade, things have changed. Now, today, when I came into work, my head writer was standing in my office with a sheaf of papers. And he said, ‘Here are the remarks you made after the Sandy Hook shootings and the Pulse nightclub attacks in Orlando. You might want to look at them to see what you might want to say tonight.’ And that, that struck me. How could there be a file of mass shooting remarks for a late-night host? When did that become normal? When did this become a ritual? And what does it say about us that it has?”

Common sense, and maybe even a little nation-healing, go a long way now in a format once meant for diversionary laughs: enter Jimmy Kimmel.

The ABC host emerged as the heart and soul of late night after he spoke of his newborn’s heart surgery, delivering a teary plea to the president and Congress to consider the other lives like his son’s they might affect with their repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Now Kimmel is as much comedic host as therapist and social advocate.

He leaves the scathing criticism and wonkier observation to Meyers. The NBC “Late Night” host — and former “Saturday Night Live” head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor — has emerged in recent months as the guy who’s willing to let loose on American policy and the president.

Where are the conservative voices?

Not on late-night TV, at least in any substantial way, unless Bill Maher’s ideological flip-floppery on HBO’s “Real Time” in the name of ratings counts.

Comedy Central newcomer Jordan Klepper does satirize the hard-right media à la Info Wars/Alex Jones on his new show “The Opposition With Jordan Klepper,” which airs after “The Daily Show.”

"I'm sick of this,” he said, in character, of the reported flap between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the president. “Trump has done everything for these people. He picked them seemingly at random for positions of great importance, and now they're calling Trump a moron? Then I'm calling moron a compliment! What, you think 'nasty women' are the only ones who can turn insults into a rallying cry?" And he ripped his shirt open to reveal a “… Moron” T-shirt underneath.

So it wasn’t a Superman logo, but Klepper can’t be all things to all people. That’s why there’s Thede and Colbert and Kimmel and….

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

@lorraineali

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