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"If any network had a chance to put Tina Fey in that job, they’d throw every man overboard": Bill Carter surveys the late-night landscape

Salon speaks to "The War for Late Night" author Bill Carter about "The Daily Show," Colbert, Fallon and more


Scott Timberg
October 3, 2015 3:00AM (UTC)

In the last few weeks, Stephen Colbert has taken over “The Late Show” from David Letterman, and Trevor Noah has inherited Jon Stewart’s perch on “The Daily Show.” Other “Daily Show” alums – Larry Wilmore, John Oliver – now have their own programs. And with the 2016 political race in motion, political issues are at the center of late night in what may be an unprecedented degree.

It all adds up to the most attention and expectation around late-night television in years.

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To make sense of the big picture, we spoke to Bill Carter, the former New York Times television writer who now contributes to CNN, the Hollywood Reporter and Sirius XM. He’s also the author of “The Late Shift” and “The War for Late Night.”

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Late-night television seems to be in a pretty significant period of transition these days, with the arrival of Colbert and Noah. How does this seem to be working out? Do audiences seem to be responding? Do the shows seem to be as lively as they used to be?

Well, it’s pretty early. Most guys get a boost of publicity when they first start out. There was a tremendous amount around Colbert’s arrival; he got a nice launch, and he’s done alright since then. I think Jimmy Fallon, who’s been the dominant guy for a year and a half or so, has been very shrewd in how he’s loaded up his show to thwart what momentum Colbert has. Fallon had a brilliant show the second night of Colbert — it looked like it took months, with Ellen DeGeneres and Justin Timberlake; they really pulled out all the stops. You could see that he was making his move to say, no, I’m not going to stand on the sidelines.

As for Trevor Noah, he got a lot of people excited because he’s new and fresh, and he came out with a very smooth show. I think people are really excited to give him a chance. He’s got a tall, tall [order] to replace Stewart. It’s a challenge to replace Letterman, but let’s face it, Letterman was at the end of his career – Stewart could have gone another 10 years. So that’s a taller order.

It still seemed like Stewart had something to offer. And the change in temperament, change in nationality, and change in generation when you bring Trevor Noah in ...

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No question. And they’re emphasizing that generational change when they bring Trevor Noah in. They’re going for millennials – they’re openly saying that. I think it’s a little risky. That show has always had a pretty broad and serious audience of regular adults.

Temperament is a good word: Jon brought an edge. He was angry about certain things.

One note I’d give Trevor Noah early on: Don’t laugh at your own jokes so much. Personally, I don’t think that plays well.

We’ve been talking partly about hosts who discuss politics on late night. John Oliver does, too. How does the current discussion of politics on late night compare to the way it worked out 10, 20 years ago?

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It’s way, way more intense. Twenty years ago, it would be highly rare to have politicians on. Ten years ago, the more prominent [pols] would come on near the end of the presidential race. You wouldn’t see the more marginal candidates weaving their way through. Late night shows were not that interested in political candidates: They didn’t bring in audiences, they weren’t entertainment, they weren’t funny.

Now I think they’re very interested. The same celebrities are everywhere, and you can’t stand out that much [hosting] celebrities. So it is exciting to book a politician, especially Trump, who’s a celebrity and a politician, and he drives numbers. But they’re interested in Chris Christie, and Biden, and Hillary, of course, and even second-tier people.

Colbert seems to be heavily concentrating on that kind of guest, and not just politicians. He’s also bringing on CEOs of tech companies and people with other causes, such as Malala, the Muslim teenager who won the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s not a typical late-night guest. Colbert’s trying to stand out that way.

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There might be a risk; in late night, you can have some of that. But I do think people want lighter entertainment before they go to bed. They don’t want to see “Meet the Press.” John Kerry was on last night, deep into Syria and bombing… Those guys are on CNN all day, talking about that.

Back to “The Daily Show.” We’ve heard that the host job was offered to Amy Schumer and Amy Poehler. But there’s still no major late-night program hosted by a woman. Is that because of the demographics of late night – because it’s still mostly a male audience – or network politics? Or is it something that could easily flip in the next year or two?

I’ve been on the record saying that as soon as Jon [Stewart] left and someone asked me who they should hire, I said Amy Schumer, instantly. She’s the biggest comic star out there.

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In the past there probably was a more male audience; I don’t think that’s true anymore. I think if any network had a chance to put Tina Fey in that job, they’d throw every man overboard. She is a home-run, classic, perfect host. So it’s not that they don’t think they’d be great.

But it’s a different sort of lifestyle to do this; you have to change your life. People have criticized me for saying this, but it’s true: If you’re Tina Fey, and you have two little kids at home, I don’t think you want to do this job. It’s a different kind of role. I talk to these guys all the time – [especially] the Jimmys – their lives are defined by this job, especially the five-nights-a-week guys. So I think there’s some reluctance, on a lifestyle basis, by some of the hugely talented women to do this. There are other women who could do it. I think Amy [Schumer] is single, so she could do it. But her career is going through the roof right now, and maybe she thinks it would be limiting.

The reach for the unknown – which happened with James Corden – wouldn’t happen with a woman; they’d be afraid to do that.

There’s a sense among some people that Conan O’Brien has dropped off the map a bit, that his talents are being wasted. How has his show on TBS worked out for him and his admirers?

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Conan has always had a fantastic following among young people, and I think he’s retained a lot of that. But there’s no question that going off to TBS put certain limits on his reach. Not on his talent – he’s still really talented, and a very funny guy.

But there’s no question that when you have a cable channel – unlike Comedy Central, which has a lot of shows, from “South Park” to “Key and Peele” to “Inside Amy Schumer”… On TBS they’ve not had an original show work on prime time for a long time; they’re not bringing in an audience with their other shows to let them know, “Conan’s got Will Ferrell tonight.”

He’s not enough on the radar, but it has nothing to do with his talent. His monologues are consistently fantastically well-written. Unfortunately he did not get to do what would have been advantageous to him when he left NBC – to join Comedy Central or Fox. If he had, he’d be as hot as he ever was.

How healthy does the late night landscape seem to be these day? Does it seem lively, well-rounded, or is there something missing?

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I think it’s doing more than it’s ever done. There’s a huge amount of talent there – the talent level is way up high. Because they’re trying to expand their audience through the Internet, they’re doing things with video that are occasionally extremely ambitious. And very creative.

Fallon has set the [standard] for this: The show is bigger, broader, more variety elements, the range of elements. That guy is a fantastic sketch comedian, brilliant using music, he’s a fantastic impressionist, he does all these things that have to be rehearsed, he did a barbershop quartet thing… Do you know how much time it takes to do that? A relentless pace, high energy.

The jury is still out on a few things. I don’t know if Trevor Noah will measure up to Jon Stewart. But you throw John Oliver in… And I think James Corden is fantastic, he brings in a lot of those elements: singing, dancing, Broadway-style entertainment. And he’s funny.

So with all these shows, if you can’t find something to like, I don’t know what to say.

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Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Amy Schumer Editor's Picks Jimmy Fallon Late Night Television Stephen Colbert Trevor Noah

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