this week in late night

Is Late Night Really ‘Late Night’ If It’s Pretaped?

Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Photo: CBS

You know the philosophical problem, the ship of Theseus? The one where a famous ship is replaced, board by board, until it’s a matter of metaphysical debate as to whether or not it’s the same ship? Late night is the ship of Theseus: The hosts have changed, the writers have changed, and for the most part, it’s neither produced nor viewed late at night anymore. The ship has the same name, but it’s dry-docked and being used as a novelty restaurant. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I, for one, love restaurants shaped like dumb shit.

One significant change in the history of late night that has been on my mind this week is pretaping. Late-night hosts took a much-deserved vacation during the weeks surrounding Thanksgiving, and they’ve been handling it differently than their forebears would have. Busy Philipps and Stephen Colbert pretaped shows before and after Thanksgiving, respectively. Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers ran reruns. Both options would have been unthinkable a decade or so ago.

Late night used to be live. Really, really live. Steve Allen did an extra hour of The Tonight Show to cover both coasts from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Back in the day, if a host wanted to take time off, he’d have to find someone to replace him. Guest hosts were how the next line of late-night talent was introduced to the audience. Johnny Carson guest hosted for Jack Parr, and both Leno and Letterman guested for Carson. Guest hosts made sense in the pre-digital days. It still happens occasionally today. Jennifer Lawrence guested for Jimmy Kimmel, and Jordan Klepper filled in for Trevor Noah. But on the whole, it seems shows are finding it easier to bank content rather than try out new talent. The only guest hosts we got this week were on The Late Show, where different celebs interviewed Stephen Colbert. But does it even count as guest hosting if the real host is still there? Truth be told, I miss seeing Jon Stewart behind a desk. But he never seemed to really be steering the show. Colbert remained the soft control behind the throne.

There are ways to spot a pretaped segment. Celebrity cameos are hard to schedule, for example. Ariana Grande hurt her wrist taping a Carpool Karaoke back in August, but the segment didn’t air until Halloween. In fact, The Late Late Show broke up her Karaoke into two segments that aired weeks apart. Pretaped monologues rely on stories that don’t usually make the headlines. “A new study has found _____” or “Today is National ____ Day” are telltale signs of banked material. Last week, when Busy Philipps’s show was airing normally even though her physical form was on a Disney cruise, the monologue jokes were about Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving jokes can be planned in advance. Jokes about Rachel Bloom’s tweet have to be made in the moment.

But there are advantages to pretaping. You can snag those celebs, you can make animated segments, and you can travel to far-off lands. Conan aired its latest Without Borders episode on Wednesday, in Japan. The TBS show has been on hiatus, prepping for its sleek new form in 2019. Conan shines in these remote segments, and filming them far in advance lets O’Brien fly farther and farther afield. The bigger the culture clash, the more Conan’s abrasive personality comes into focus. Conan renting a fake family wouldn’t be nearly as funny without the language barrier making sure there can be conversations going on at different levels. If it was just Conan yelling at a family, that’s mean. But the family speaking Japanese to each other lets them get some power back.

The problem with late-night shows in a world with Twitter is that Twitter is always going to have natural advantages. Someone on Twitter will always be more timely, more incisive, and more uncensored. The Large Cow jokes I’ve seen online far outmatch both Corden and Jimmy Fallon’s attempts this week. TV’s advantage lies in production values. Famous people saying things expensively — that is what mainstream media is for. Pretapes are a tool that can be used well or poorly, but they are only going to get more common as online media continues to dominate in timeliness and shock value. Do we lose something in immediacy? Yes. But we more than make up for it in Ariana Grande and trips to Japan.

Is Late Night Really ‘Late Night’ If It’s Pretaped?