Surfing the Spectrum Of Late-Night Talk Shows


It’s the end of a long day. You’ve gotten enough New York Times news alerts today to paint an accurate enough picture of the world falling apart. Now all you want to do is curl up on the couch and watch TV before bed. It’s after 11 p.m., so network TV is dominated by late-night talk shows. Which one do you watch? Do you want a recap of this week’s political developments packaged in a comprehensive satire? A 20-minute analysis of topics you never think of or read about in the regular news cycle? Or do you just want to take a break from politics for an hour and enjoy some good jokes about other silly stuff in the news? Navigating the minefield of politically-charged talk shows can be difficult, so here is a handy diagram of the different ends of the spectrum and what’s between.


Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

HBO’s critically-acclaimed weekly talk show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver from former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver returned Feb. 18 with the serious vigor and downright absurdity that has been sorely needed.  Nowhere else on basic or premium cable can one find an 18-minute exposé on the proper disposing of nuclear waste followed by the trailer for a fake biopic about Warren G. Harding made with a former museum’s wax sculpture of the 29th president.   

However ever since Donald Trump became president, there has been a slight shift from far-reaching, big-picture topics to actually covering the last week of politics. But that only consists of the first five to ten minutes when Oliver updates on stories around the world, which has been part of the show’s playbook for a while, just not the go-to call. Oliver himself has even addressed these fears in an interview shortly after Trump’s inauguration when he said that the staff of Last Week Tonight is “very anxious not to make it all Trump all the time, just both on a level of interest and on the level of what the human soul can sustain.”

As a loyal viewer since the show’s premiere, I have no fears of it straying from its time-tested formula. Even though the main story of the Season 5 premiere was on Trump’s relationship with the world, it was merely a cathartic release by the writers on all that has happened since Season 4 ended in November. They had to get it out and now they’re back to business as usual.

If you want a quick and humorous recap of the week’s events at home and abroad, including some stories you might have missed, followed by a meticulously researched think piece on an underreported problem that will mess up your mind until next week’s episode, I recommend Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.


Late Night with Seth Meyers

From behind his desk on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" to behind his desk on Late Night with Seth Meyers, I’m pretty sure Seth Meyers doesn’t have a bottom half. What he does have is the keen sense to stay behind his desk, rather than do a walkout monologue like everybody else. He keeps the same style we came to love from him on “Update,” sitting like a real-ish newsman giving us some real-ish news.  And just like the skit, the show's focus is still on the news.

The show’s structure is fairly predictable, right down to the dialogue. Every time the camera zooms in on Meyers to start, he says the same thing, “how you guys doing tonight?” Then everybody screams and he retorts, “in that case let’s get to the news.”  From there he jumps right into some recent headlines. These are usually a grab-bag of big name political happenings and other wacky news clips, much like on “Update.”  What usually comes after the headlines/closest thing to a monologue in the show, is a segment called “A Closer Look.”  If there are five shows in a week, usually three of them will feature “A Closer Look” in which Meyers takes anywhere between seven to twelve minutes to, you guessed it, take “a closer look” at a developing story on the political stage.  

The segment has the in-depth research of a Last Week Tonight weekly recap but with Meyers' own brand of wit. Much of the material comes from clips and bites of politicians that Meyers uses to string together the story. Then at the end he takes one of the central bites and makes it the butt of the joke. A recent example is a segment from Feb. 8 about Trump’s request for a military parade and the inception of the Rob Porter scandal.

If you want snappy, catty quips about the developments you’ve been seeing all day packaged in a way that almost looks like news, I recommend Late Night with Seth Meyers.


The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Now if you are one of the people that just wants to step out of the political arena for only an hour a day and enjoy silly bits from a giggly-goof who still looks like a featured player on SNL despite being in his mid-forties, look no further than The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. In the entire spectrum of late-night talk-shows, there is no place safer from politics than The Tonight Show, as Fallon has even said himself in an interview:

“It's just not what I do. I think it would be weird for me to start doing it now. I don't really even care that much about politics. I've got to be honest. I love pop culture more than I love politics.”

Rather than choose sides in the daily fight between left and right, Fallon provides a haven for all of the viewers tired of the mud-slinging. Instead he spends his time chatting with guests and getting them involved in fun games and bits that make for great YouTube fodder, regardless of the lack of substance. Why listen to Seth Meyers prattle on about Trump’s latest faux pas or John Oliver dissect corporate consolidation for twenty-minutes when you can watch Fallon and WWE wrestler John Cena perform a holiday scene constructed entirely from Mad Libs? Or watch Fallon try to figure out whether or not Tina Fey really was mistaken for a prostitute or if Amy Poehler really did help Yoko Ono across the street in a game of “True Confessions.”

If you want ridiculous late-night hijinks with no political overtones from a guy who still hasn’t learned how to keep a straight face after 20 years on television, I recommend The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Of course there are more nightly talk shows than the three listed above, but these seem to run the gamut of the late-night landscape. If you want fairly non-partisan think pieces that that will change the way you look at the normal structures of society, and might even get you to take political action, Last Week Tonight is the way to go. If you’re looking for more timely, satirical summarizations of the day’s events and developing stories, look no further than Late Night with Seth Meyers. Or, if the thought of hearing the phrase “Today President Trump,” makes you want to throw your remote through your television, and you just want to watch A-list celebrities get into wacky shenanigans, check out The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The choice is yours, or you could always read a book.