The new-media takeover of late night is complete. YouTuber Lilly Singh is taking over Carson Daly’s 1:30 a.m. spot, and Jimmy Fallon is recording entire Tonight Show episodes on a phone. (Specifically a Samsung Galaxy, in stores now!) Ever since the first SNL Digital Short, late night has been getting a second life online. But like some terrible cyberpunk movie, the online second life is becoming more important than the broadcasted first life. Entire chunks of late night are digital-exclusive today, and late-night hosts live and die by their branding and ability to surf internet trends.
Full Frontal tried to take advantage of videos that go viral to make the MAVNI program (and how Stephanie Miller simultaneously ruined hundreds of immigrants’ lives and harmed national security) do just that. Every media entity tries to go viral, but there are entire subsections of YouTube that rely on these #challenges to harvest clicks: trailer reaction videos, trying new foods, dance challenges. This is YouTube. But it’s also late night. Late night lives and dies by the brands of its hosts in a way even the most creator-driven prestige show doesn’t. Late night has a regular posting schedule akin to YouTubers, only with breaks built in. YouTubers can’t take a break unless they make a tearful apology post about their mental health and/or they say something racist. YouTubers rely on branded content for their money, and as evidenced by the joyful marriage of Samsung and Fallon, so does late night.
Trevor Noah was one of the first in the late-night sphere to make digital-only content a priority. The Daily Show’s “Between the Scenes” clips regularly receive more YouTube views than his interviews or desk pieces, and they have their own Facebook Watch page. What’s odd about the popularity of these segments is how joke-light they are. While explaining the narrow definition of reparations to a white jabroni, Noah gets one laugh. What does it mean that some of the most popular content for a comedy show is not comedy?
Explaining racism to a white guy for the one millionth time with good cheer is something Noah can exclusively bring to the table. He loves engaging in dialogue with people who disagree with him more than any comedian I can think of. Because there is so much media, and because a lot of that media is more immediate than a show that airs four to five days a week at a set time, late night has had to figure out what they can bring to the table that Twitter can’t. And that ain’t jokes.
By the time James Corden has recorded his monologue, so many jokes about his subject matter have been done on Twitter, and new shit has hit the fan in between tape and air. But something Corden knows he can bring is production value. Everyone has been making hay with the Theranos documentary. Bee did an Elizabeth Holmes impression too. Both are a week late to the party Busy Philipps started on late night, and I maintain that no one’s Elizabeth Holmes is better than Tavi Gevinson’s. But what Corden can bring is a glossy parody that hits the vibe of the documentary perfectly. He can cast amazing character actors as the talking heads. He’s got a graphics department. That’s the advantage late-night shows have over every schmo online: money.
And guests! The real TV shows still have bookers that can lock in real talent. YouTubers are getting names, slowly but surely. Lilly Singh was at Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas’s wedding, for instance. But the Jonas Brothers still promoted their comeback for a week on Corden, and this week, Stephen Colbert snagged Karen O and Danger Mouse for his show Monday. They brought Spike Jonze, so The Late Show did a BTS clip about how Jonze created the visuals for the Karen O/Danger Mouse performance. At the moment, the actual performance has more views. But the BTS video for Jonze’s Apple commercial has longer legs than the commercial itself, so it’s entirely possible Colbert’s peak behind the curtain will outlive what happened on TV.
There are some new-media spaces that late night won’t touch. Except Jimmy Kimmel, who got into the darker side of YouTube this week: baseless conspiracy theories. But the posting schedule and media reach of the new generation just can’t be done by olds and their corporate handlers. Late Night with Seth Meyers has a podcast, but it’s mostly just audio from the TV show. YouTubers have podcasts that generate entirely new content, apparently mostly about catfucking. They live in branded castles covered with their own faces and logos. They wear their own merch. They’re young, they’re hungry, and they’re unprotected by Jackie Coogan laws.
TV networks are responding to the new media onslaught by hiring new media stars. Lilly Singh will most likely continue to make YouTube videos once she has a late-night show, much as Busy Philipps has continued making Instagram stories and Desus & Mero have continued podcasting. The only way older late-night hosts can compete is passing off the auxiliary brand arms (the pods, vlogs, and the TikToks) to writers within the show. Yes, it is time to give Steve Higgins a vlog. He’s criminally underused standing at an announcer’s podium. Let Fallon play games with Cara Delevingne, but I want to see Steve Higgins mukbang Taco Bell. I want his ASMR cooking segments. I need him to do commentary on a marble race. Give the world the premium Higgins content it deserves, Tonight Show! It’s the only way you’ll survive.