this week in late night

The Death of the Late-Night Snarker

Michelle Wolf on The Break. Photo: Cara Howe/Netflix/Cara Howe/Netflix

The era of the Late Night Meanie is over. Gone are the days when we’d line up for our nightly hate fuck from David Letterman. Maybe the world is too cruel to sustain nightly acerbic wit, but the acid-tongued comic is no longer the prototypical late-night host. The format is dominated by happy, smiling Jameses. And next fall will see several actors known for their cheery dispositions take over the late-night scene. Hasan Minhaj, Busy Philipps, Jerry O’Connell, and Niecy Nash (with a pilot in the works) are in; Michelle Wolf, Joel McHale, and Robin Thede are out. And Conan O’Brien is stuck in the middle.

Conan is slimming down to a half hour next season, which means no musical guests. O’Brien will also be creating more digital content, as well as signing deals with stand-ups to create their own digital material. More than any other late-night host (even Mr. Carpool Karaoke himself), O’Brien understands that the difference between a network late-night host and a successful YouTuber is getting smaller and smaller. YouTubers, like talk-show hosts, have to spew content on a near-daily basis to stay relevant. They have to fake immediate chumminess with total strangers for the sake of their brands. They have to stay abreast of, and even participate in, the latest trends. Who can forget Trisha Paytas’s mukbang videos, or when Jimmy Kimmel interviewed the man who was hit by a car doing the “In My Feelings” challenge? The answer is: a lot of people, and that’s fine, because everybody has to get up and do the same thing all over again tomorrow.

Conan moving to a half-hour format is the right move for him. As he casually mentioned while interviewing 50 Cent this week, Conan has been doing late-night television for 25 years. It’s gotten harder for him to disguise his disdain for the parts of the job he finds irrelevant. Conan still shines when riffing with Andy Richter or while playing the straight man in an absurd sketch, but he reads the monologues with the desultory tone of a sad bird. Swans are only supposed to sing once before they die, but Conan does it four nights a week. It’s rough. No one has looked more bored with touching their nipples.

Back in the day, late-night TV was dominated by somewhat detached father figures who knew magic tricks, then, thanks to Letterman laying the groundwork, Jon Stewart and Conan opened the door for the snarky and smart. But now snark feels mean and smart feels pyrrhic. News commentary shows abound, but I hear more people talk about the impassioned pleas of Rachel Maddow than the somewhat removed perspective of Trevor Noah.

The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale wasn’t a news show, but it was very, very snarky. It was essentially The Soup 2.0, which seemed like a great idea at the time. In interviews, McHale mentioned being excited to work with Netflix because the gloves could finally come off. But the direction TJMSWJM was punching never quite worked. Make fun of the Kardashians all you want, but one episode of the show also made fun of high-school morning news announcements. Who was that for? There were many funny bits on TJMSWJM, but they never got the sour taste of cyberbullying out of my mouth.

The Break, on the other hand, was unimpeachable. Lots of comedians boast of being equal-opportunity offenders, but Michelle Wolf actually does it. The Break went after Trump, but also the lazy conventions of anti-Trump outrage comedy. The sketch about predator auteurs took aim not only at the hack horniness of men like Woody Allen, but the prestige-fetishizing idiots that still watch his work. It’s really hard to address “both sides” without making some truly dumb false equivalencies, and The Break deftly avoided it. She never backed down about her White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech. If anything, she went harder, doing a mini-roast on The Break and comparing ICE to ISIS. And sometimes things were just silly, like the first episode’s sketch about an Alexa that eats lunch meat for some reason.

The Break was a truly remarkable show that was just beginning to settle into its POV. But Netflix, in their infinite wisdom, turned away from it in favor of fat-suit-based content and doing another season of Master of None “whenever Aziz is ready.” The cancellation of The Break and The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale is just one example of how Netflix mismanages its attempts at late night. Somehow more galling to me than The Break’s cancellation is the fact that it doesn’t have its own YouTube channel. The Break and Joel McHale clips all reside on Netflix’s channel. As late-night host and YouTuber become the same profession, not having every sketch as a shareable video hobbles your product at the gate.

So what’s next? Hasan Minhaj’s show is coming soon, so it’s not like the Daily Show diaspora is over. But most of the talk shows coming out next fall have nothing to do with political humor. They aren’t even helmed by writers. They’re actors, and ones known for being enthusiastic, emotional, and agreeable. Busy Philipps has been a presence in media since Freaks and Geeks, but her E! show is a direct consequence of her Instagram Story fame. Jerry O’Connell parlayed his Housewife stanning into a Bravo show. And Niecy Nash is just a fun hang. I’m excited to see what they can do in the genre. I don’t necessarily want to see fewer trenchant political analyses in my comedy, but I do want more fun hangs. We could all use more fun hangs.

The Death of the Late-Night Snarker