Amid Declining Budgets, a New Model For Late Night Emerges

The news out of late-night TV in recent days and weeks has been whiplash-inducing:

Last month NBC renewed Seth Meyers as star of its Late Night franchise for four more years. (Hurrah!)

Then this Tuesday came news that starting in September, the network wasn’t going to allow him to have a band anymore. (Womp, womp!)

CBS announced that it had renewed its new late-night entry, After Midnight, for another season—a move that signaled confidence that the successor to its now departed Late, Late Show, featuring the promising young comic star Taylor Tomlinson, was gaining at least some traction in a new (ish), and much less expensive,  format.

And The Daily Show announced that it will mount live editions of that now venerable franchise immediately after the two scheduled presidential debates on June 27 and September 10. In both cases the shows will be hosted by its legendary, and now reanimated, star, Jon Stewart. Presumably little expense will be spared to create event-like shows on those nights. Just like in the old days.

So how are we to read this sudden dispersal of late-night tea-vee leaves?

Certainly not that the cup runneth over for late night, because NBC’s Late Night going band-less is something of a momentous development. Late Night has had an at least modest-sized band, and frequently the best band in late night, since February 1, 1982.

The famed Paul Shaffer led David Letterman’s “World’s Most Dangerous Band,” which was introduced that night and played a vital role for Letterman throughout his run at 12:30 a.m.

Conan O’Brien’s Late Night featured perhaps an even more-celebrated house band, The Max Weinberg Seven, fronted by the iconic E-Street Band drummer. And the next in line, Jimmy Fallon, was able to land an already legendary band, The Roots, led by the incomparable Questlove (who later followed him to The Tonight Show).

Meyers started out with kind of a reversion to Letterman’s early days,  backed by more of a combo: the 8G Band, led (occasionally) by Meyers’ one-time SNL castmate Fred Armisen. That never really changed.

The presence of a live band has always added an element of energy and spontaneity to the top late-night shows. They play hot licks during commercial breaks intended to keep the audience jazzed, though more often rocking.

It would be easy to say that by refusing to spend more money on a house band, NBC is making a statement about its commitment to late-night programming—namely that it is shaky at best. Except for the fact that Meyers was renewed until 2028. (Which I guess means he’ll be around until then. Unless Trump wins and arrests all the hosts who have been mean to him.)

What seems much more likely is that the moves within Late Night signal that NBC is looking for ways to keep its late-night legacy—the longest and most significant in television, especially when Saturday Night Live is included—alive and thriving.

The same might be said about CBS’s move with After Midnight, which has defied some early expectations by building a modest but loyal (and, for CBS, surprisingly young) following. There is no band on After Midnight either, nor was it ever planned for there to be one.

That show is entirely comedy-oriented, skipping even the guest/couch/movie-pitching that has characterized most network late-night shows. The format is a bit in flux, as the producers seem to be sensibly looking to spotlight their host more and more. That is entirely consistent with late-night history, where commitment to viewing is heavily tied to loyalty to the host.

Tomlinson is perceived to have star quality, so she absolutely should have more to do on the show. Not to mention her presence is the latest, and one of the best, efforts to break the gender code in late night.

Still, what is happening with The Daily Show might be the most interesting move of all. Stewart launched the show into the forefront of American culture during his original 16-year run as host. That momentum sustained through much of the run of Trevor Noah as host.

But after Noah’s departure, the show’s future got distinctly cloudy. Stewart’s one-night-a-week return behind the desk has provided a jolt of added interest. It may not quite be to the level claimed in the announcement about the debate plans: “tremendous growth upon Stewart’s historic homecoming.” But the ratings have improved; and even better, so has word of mouth about the Stewart’s hosting work on Mondays.

TDS had already announced plans for a live week of shows from each political convention this year. So it is not being half-hearted about its ambitions.

Does that mean more Stewart after the election year? No one would be surprised if Comedy Central has expressed that wish rather fervently.

And yet: no band.

For its entire run, The Daily Show has managed quite well without a house band. It has featured few musical guests, and when they appeared they mainly supplied their own accompaniment. It never seemed to hurt the show in the slightest.

Of all the current network late-night shows, the one most like TDS is, without question, the Seth Meyers version of Late Night.

He opens most nights with “A Closer Look,” an extended monologue delivered from behind his desk, specifically commenting on just a few of the headlines of the day. The segment is very reminiscent of Stewart’s heavy concentration on one main topic per show. Meyers rarely leaves the studio (except to do “Day Drinking”).

The absence of a band should not affect much of the performance of each show, unless audience energy level drops. But audiences for TDS have never seemed sleepy or disengaged.

Of course the band cancellation is a budget move for NBC. The network business is shrinking like a wet T-shirt in a dryer on super-hot cycle.  But a new four-year deal signals NBC thinks Meyers can handle it. And that he will be around in his current format for at least that long.

Unless he gets impeached.

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