The Lost Art of the Unscripted Late Night Interview

Earlier this year, before Donald Trump was even inaugurated, Kellyanne Conway sat down with Seth Meyers on Late Night and tried to explain why Donald Trump hadn’t yet held a press conference since the election. “The president-elect has been very busy,” she said. When Meyers pointed out that every modern president-elect had been able to find time for a press conference earlier, she said, “Well, they haven’t had—” when Meyers cut her off: “They haven’t had to meet with Kanye.”

The interview was surprising, but not for any political reasons. Viewers were used to Meyers’ jokes about Trump and Conway’s elusive answers. What was unusual, though, was watching a late night host make a guest feel uncomfortable, and forcing her to talk about things she didn’t want to talk about. The interview was strange, tense, and riveting. As a result, it went viral in a way that interviews almost never do today.

The late night talk show interview—traditionally the backbone of those shows—seems to be disappearing, despite the proliferation of late night comedy. John Oliver and Samantha Bee rarely do interviews, and never in studio. Trevor Noah still conducts interviews, but Comedy Central doesn’t bother putting them on YouTube. Even on the more traditional talk shows—meaning the five network shows, plus Conan—the interviews are the least crucial part of any episode. Even when an “interview” does succeed, it’s usually a veteran comedian like Bill Burr, Kristen Wiig, or Norm Macdonald doing prepared material, not an actual conversation. For most guests, the interviews themselves are just filler in between karaoke and “Closer Looks.” When the interviews do get attention, it’s usually for something bad, like Jimmy Fallon tousling Donald Trump’s hair or Bill Maher using the N-word

But why? It may be the very proliferation of hosts that has led to the decline of the interview. With so many hosts competing for guests and audience eyeballs, nobody wants to risk alienating people. As a result, the playful niceness embodied by Fallon, but also seen in Meyers, Stephen Colbert, and James Corden, is what dominates on these shows. And while this niceness makes them all likable, it makes for boring interviews. Indeed, the biggest flaw with late night interviews now is that the hosts are simply too nice.

“It does seem like, in 2017, the model for the network host is: Be likable above all else,” says Jason Zinoman, comedy critic for The New York Times and author of the recent Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night. David Letterman, of course, was never concerned about likability. He was famous for being unimpressed by fame and celebrity, and unwilling to fake it, as Zinoman details in his book: “He almost seemed resentful that he had to talk to these people…And then he would have these really confrontational interviews, with Cher, or Mickey Rooney.”

And those confrontations often led to memorable interviews that didn’t follow an obvious script. Whether he was making Paris Hilton talk about prison or refusing to let Vince Vaughn deny his public relationship with Jennifer Aniston, Letterman’s willingness to make guests squirm led to funny moments. And while Letterman was unique, his influence on the genre was clear. Not so long ago, Jon Stewart was laying into pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Jim Cramer, Craig Ferguson was tearing up his index cards, and Colbert was in character as “Stephen Colbert” trying to “nail” guests on The Colbert Report. Each of them had their own style, but they all cared less about making the guest and the audience comfortable than they did about conducting an entertaining interview.

Now, though, hosts seem reluctant to put anyone on edge. With so many choices, guests don’t have to sit down with anyone who makes them look bad, and so they never do. After all, it wasn’t just that Fallon had Trump on The Tonight Show after the candidate had spent over a year vilifying minorities, but that the interview was a “softball.” Similarly, early Colbert’s interviews with tech CEOs often felt like infomercials for those companies. Nowadays, interviews with actual conflict are rare.

As Zinoman says about Letterman’s early days at NBC, such conflict was risky. “There was a price to be paid. If you talk to people who worked on production: It was hard to book guests on that show.” Unsurprisingly, Conway hasn’t been back to late night since her January interview with Meyers.

Not that the current crop of hosts is nice solely as a ploy to book guests. By almost all accounts, these hosts are actually nice guys. Fallon told The New York Times that he has no interest in being mean. Colbert is famously friendly, as are Meyers and Corden. Jimmy Kimmel has more of an edge, but even he has embraced more of a “nice guy” persona in recent years. And surely nice guys are capable of good interviews.

But here, too, late night hosts face increased competition, particularly from a new foe: podcasts. A late night viewer twenty, or even ten years ago rarely saw celebrities being interviewed for more than a few minutes; now such opportunities are everywhere. Comedians can have long, relaxed chats with Marc Maron, Pete Holmes, or Jerry Seinfeld. Serious actors can do a roundtable with The Hollywood Reporter where they talk about their craft and tell funny stories.

“Podcasts have shown that freewheeling, long form, spontaneous conversations can find a big audience,” says Zinoman. But he points out that their length gives them an advantage over traditional talk show interviews. “Sometimes the really interesting thing won’t happen until the third hour. You’re never going to have that on a one-hour talk show.”

So late night hosts are stuck in a bind. With so few opportunities to stand out, they now seem to rush through the interviews, rarely attempting to do anything but set up the pre-arranged anecdotes and prepared bits. This can work when the guest is a seasoned performer like Will Ferrell or Kate McKinnon, but for most guests the interviews are simply a chore to get through before lip syncing or rap battling.

The few conversations that are more spontaneous may show how the form can be saved. Right now, the best interviews tend to occur when the guest and host are already friends. In those cases, the host doesn’t have to worry about making the guest look good, and so they can just talk. When Seth Meyers talks to Amy Poehler, for example, the conversation feels natural and the jokes don’t feel forced. In their discussion about why Daniel Day-Lewis quit acting, they seem like they’re actually having fun and not just racing through prepared material.

Unfortunately, hosts cannot exclusively interview people they’ve worked with in the past, but there is still hope. James Corden has replaced the traditional one-on-one interview with a Graham Norton-esque panel. While this format varies wildly depending on the makeup and chemistry of the panel, the group conversation often creates genuinely spontaneous moments, like when Kumail Nanjiani said his interview alongside Riz Ahmed “looks like a panel on colonialism, by the way.”

That comment also hints at another way to improve interviews: by diversifying the voices in the late night world. It’s so rare to see two Muslims on a show like this, so watching them joke about Islamophobia is memorable. It’s similarly rare to see conversations on these shows between two women, or two African-Americans, or any pairing that doesn’t include at least one white guy. But as Chelsea Handler and, for his brief stint, Larry Wilmore have shown, those interviews can stand out when they happen.

For most of the current crop of hosts, though, a more concerted effort to include different voices is necessary to improve the “talk” part of the talk show. One way to do it is to include guests that the hosts are less concerned with offending. Colbert tried this to some extent by booking guests like Jeb Bush and Elon Musk early in his run at The Late Show, but either because he was still getting used to doing interviews as himself (given the reappearance of his Comedy Central alter ego in recent monologues, it would also be intriguing to see “Stephen Colbert” conduct interviews on CBS) or because he was worried about accusations of liberal bias, he was reluctant to be critical of the politicians or executives he had on the show. But examples like Meyers with Conway, or Samantha Bee’s chat with Glenn Beck, show that these interviews only work when hosts aren’t afraid of being critical. Trevor Noah’s interview with Tomi Lahren, for instance, showed the kind of attention that debates with conservatives can get, but it also illustrated the risks of being excessively friendly to a guest.

Ultimately, for any interview to be successful, it needs to risk alienating some people. In a medium resistant to change that prioritizes likability, this is difficult. It’s far easier to just keep the interviews short and spend more time cracking eggs on your head. But in a crowded late night field, a host whose interviews become more spontaneous and worth sharing on social media would immediately have a leg up on his or her competitors. The “talk” part of talk shows shouldn’t be feared—it should be embraced.

John Schneider is a writer and comedian who lives in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.

The Lost Art of the Unscripted Late Night Interview