The late-night ‘recession’ is here. And it will hit underrepresented voices hardest
The night before the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade last month, Samantha Bee delivered an impassioned call to arms on her late-night show, “Full Frontal.”
“We have to raise hell in our cities, in Washington, in every restaurant Justice Alito eats at for the rest of his life,” she said in the monologue, recorded in her backyard rather than in her studio because she had tested positive for the coronavirus a few days earlier. “Because if Republicans have made our lives hell, it’s time to return the favor.”
It turned out to be the last segment the show would ever film. On Monday, Bee released a statement saying that “Full Frontal” would not be returning to TBS in the fall. She praised the show’s creative team for “boldly using political satire to entertain, inform and empower viewers, while embracing critically underrepresented stories, particularly about women” and noted her own role in “paving the way for female voices in what has traditionally been, and continues to be, a male-dominated landscape.”
In its own statement, TBS described the cancellation as a “difficult, business-based decision” and part of a larger shift in programming strategy at the network, a subsidiary of the recently merged Warner Bros. Discovery.
The news that Bee — the only female host in late night when her weekly show launched in 2016 — would no longer have a weekly TV platform represented a symbolic blow at a moment of intense anger and despair for many American women.
In the movie “Late Night,” which opened in limited release Friday, Mindy Kaling plays Molly Patel, a woman plucked from obscurity to help revitalize a long-running but creatively stagnant late-night show.
And it arrived on the heels of another disappointing development: “Desus & Mero” would not be returning to Showtime for a fifth season because hosts Desus Nice and the Kid Mero — a.k.a. Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez — had decided to end their creative partnership. Bronx natives who rose to comedy stardom via social media while working unglamorous day jobs, the duo had arguably the strongest brand in late night, to borrow their catchphrase, and easily the most distinctive.
Rather than following the “Daily Show” formula of graphics-heavy political monologues, “Desus & Mero” was fueled by the crackling banter between its garrulous hosts, who welcomed guests including Barack Obama and filmed on a set resembling the interior of a New York City bodega. Peppered with in-jokes and hyper-specific cultural references, the show brought a sorely neglected Black and Latino perspective to a genre that remains overwhelmingly white and forged a passionate fan base dubbed the Bodega Hive. (Neither the hosts nor members of the show’s creative team were available for comment.)
With the unceremonious ends of “Full Frontal” and “Desus & Mero,” it’s clear that late-night TV, which proliferated rapidly during the Donald Trump years as cable networks and streaming services raced to tap into an appetite for fresh satirical voices, is in a moment of contraction.
Last year, NBC canceled “A Little Late With Lilly Singh” after two seasons, and “Conan” ended its decadelong run on TBS with little fanfare. In April, James Corden announced he would be stepping down from “The Late Late Show” in 2023; the network is reportedly considering replacing him with a panel of hosts.
A spate of short-lived late-night shows have launched over the past half-decade, only to be swiftly canceled. Even a veteran like Jon Stewart, who redefined the genre during his 16-year tenure on “The Daily Show,” has failed to gain much traction with his talk show return, “The Problem With Jon Stewart” for Apple TV+.
Among the problems facing the genre are the hangover among viewers who grew tired of the remote, audience-free late-night programming of the early pandemic and never came back; exhaustion with a news cycle dominated by COVID variants, violent insurrection, inflation, school shootings and climate catastrophe; and long-term changes in viewing habits and merger mania across the industry. It all adds up to what Alison Camillo, executive producer of “Full Frontal,” half-jokingly describes as a late-night “recession.”
And, like a real-life economic slowdown, it’s likely to hit women and people of color first — even as, somehow, “Real Time With Bill Maher” remains on the air.
“The thing that’s the most frustrating to me is that I feel like, the world is not all white men, but for some reason, we’ve chosen to give white men the loudest voice in the room,” said Camillo.
The last time late night was in such turmoil was in 2014-15, when elder statesmen Stewart, Jay Leno, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson all stepped down from their long-running shows within a period of less than two years. An unprecedented succession frenzy saw a bunch of white male hosts replaced by ... a bunch of other white men, with the exception of Trevor Noah at “The Daily Show.”
Podcast favorites turned cable late-night hosts known as Desus Nice and the Kid Mero had just sat down for a freewheeling lunch in Pasadena last month when a New York City emergency started blowing up on their phones.
But the moment also coincided with a creative renaissance in the hidebound late-night format. Cable networks and streaming services looking to compete in a cluttered environment saw opportunity in relatively inexpensive topical comedy that was primed to go viral on social media, particularly with Trump in the White House.
“Full Frontal” premiered on TBS in 2016, just as that year’s bitterly contentious presidential race was getting underway. Amid #MeToo and the Women’s March, the show was perfectly primed to capture the political zeitgeist, and it often highlighted issues, like parental leave and reproductive rights, with particular relevance for women. Along with “Desus & Mero,” it had the most gender-balanced writing staff in late night.
“It was so electric. You could immediately feel we had something,” said Camillo.
“Full Frontal” lasted seven seasons, a comparatively robust lifespan in the fickle world of late-night TV. During its run, at least a dozen comparable shows — many hosted by women or people of color — came and went.
On Netflix, “Chelsea,” a much-hyped talk show with Chelsea Handler, lasted for two seasons and has since been partly removed from the service. “The Break,” hosted by “Daily Show” alum (and controversial critic of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ eye makeup) Michelle Wolf, lasted just one season. The platform’s most successful endeavor of its kind, “Patriot Act,” hosted by Indian American comedian Hasan Minhaj, won a Peabody Award and was praised for its coverage of international issues often neglected by the American media — but it, too, was canceled by 2020, a tacit admission that shows riffing on the day’s headlines don’t really work on a service designed for binge-watching. (Netflix has instead leaned into buzzy, often controversial comedy specials.)
Shows elsewhere followed a similar trajectory. In 2017, writer and comedian Robin Thede became the only woman of color at the time to host a late-night show with “The Rundown” on BET, but it was canceled after a single season. “Busy Tonight,” hosted by actor Busy Philipps, lasted seven months on E! before it got the ax in May 2019. (In a viral moment from one of her final episodes, Philipps spoke candidly about her decision to have an abortion as a teenager.)
That most of these shows aired on networks without a foothold is not a surprise.
Dating back to the late 1980s and 1990s, when Joan Rivers and Arsenio Hall launched talk shows on the then-up-and-coming Fox network, women and people of color have mostly been relegated to newer platforms and lesser time slots.
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Lilly Singh, a queer YouTube star of Asian descent, was on NBC at 1:35 a.m. “Desus & Mero” was on Showtime, a well-established premium network with a track record for award-winning dramas but less experience in late-night comedy. Bee’s show aired on TBS, better known for baseball games and reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” than cutting-edge feminist commentary.
When shows air on networks without a long history in late night, they are uniquely susceptible to changes in programming strategy and the whims of new leadership.
“We were doing something nobody else was doing, so every time we got picked up for another season, it was a celebration,” said Camillo. While TBS gave them broad creative control over the content of “Full Frontal,” and stood by the show after Bee made controversial comments about Ivanka Trump, financial support dwindled noticeably once parent company WarnerMedia merged with Discovery. When Brett Weitz, general manager of TBS, TNT and TruTV and a champion of the show, was ousted in May, the writing appeared to be on the wall, Camillo said.
Bee’s departure leaves Amber Ruffin, host of “The Amber Ruffin Show” on Peacock, and Ziwe Fumudoh, host of “Ziwe” on Showtime, as the only women with late-night (or adjacent) shows on TV, and neither airs more than once a week. (The first season of “Ziwe” consisted of just six episodes.)
For Camillo, it’s yet another sign that progress, which once seemed secure, is now being rolled back — reminiscent of an era, she said, “when women were using coat hangers for abortions and Johnny Carson was the only game in town.”
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