See all of our Best TV of 2015 here.
It has been said ad nauseam that we’re living in a Second Golden Age of Television. Indeed, shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men and The Wire helped jump-start an era rich with serialized storytelling, antiheroes, and a novelized approach to the television format. And while that Golden Age may be starting to wind down a bit, there’s certainly still plenty of brilliant TV to be found – so much, that it seems we’ve reached Peak TV. But this Golden title doesn’t simply refer to scripted television; I’d argue the Late Night genre could be roped into the “Second Golden Age” as well, given its evolution over the past few years. That has been especially true in 2015, where we saw a monumental shift in the Late Night landscape. The lineup, focus, and format almost entirely changed within the span of the last 12 months. But for those who champion a more provocative talk show format over segments designed to go viral, options may be dwindling.
Back in January, we were already aware that one major shakeup was imminent. David Letterman had announced his retirement the previous spring, which was quickly followed by the revelation that Stephen Colbert would be taking over as host of CBS’ Late Show, meaning The Colbert Report had also come to an end at the close of 2014. But another, far more shocking departure was looming: in February, Jon Stewart announced that he would be stepping down from his groundbreaking Comedy Central series The Daily Show in August, ending his 16-year run on the politically-inclined late night series.
While Letterman had been a pillar of the Late Night landscape for some time, his show had become somewhat stale in the years leading up to his departure (which was then reinvigorated once he announced his retirement). Letterman himself admitted that his decision to retire came about because when telling his wife about one particular day at work, he couldn’t recall a thing about the actual taping of the show or even its guest. But Stewart, on the other hand, was in a far more active position, able to deliver incisive comedic takedowns, contentious interviews, and the occasional outburst of honest-to-goodness frustration and anger. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was a release valve for the tension and frustration of U.S. politics, and so with Stewart’s departure in view, the question of how the show could continue without its irreplaceable host loomed large.
Meanwhile, over on the broadcast networks, another shift was taking place. While Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show had initially found its footing as a more interactive kind of talk show (asking his guests to participate in games and sketches that would give audience members the chance to see an off-the-cuff version of their favorite celebrities, for example), Fallon and his teamed started leaning almost exclusively on this aspect of the show in 2015. The interview segments themselves became an afterthought, as clips of Tom Cruise doing a Lip Sync Battle or Chris Evans playing Flip Cup quickly went viral. Once the guest’s project had been sufficiently plugged, it was on to the fun and games. Ironically, the one time a Fallon interview actually went into seriously unscripted territory was in January with Nicole Kidman, whose admission that she had previously wanted Fallon to ask her out caught the host off guard in a hilariously embarrassing—and genuine—moment.
But as Fallon’s program became more interested in the entertainment side of Late Night, and Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show loomed closer, Late Night with Seth Meyers quickly began to evolve into the essential watch of the genre. Following his debut in February 2014, Meyers spent most of last year honing his interview skills. Given the impending departures of the hilariously grumpy Letterman and the whip-smart Stewart, Meyers and his team realized they had an opportunity to help fill those voids by playing to their show’s strength: interviews. Meyers began to ditch notecards—a staple of the genre—and adapted a more candid, conversational approach to the Late Night interview, which resulted in some of the most fascinating and entertaining segments of the year, ranging from geeking out with Colin Farrell over the underrated gem In Bruges, to having a pointed, conversational debate with Sarah Palin over Syrian refugees.
Indeed, Meyers seemed more than happy to inherit the role of Jon Stewart’s successor. In 2015 he also got rid of the stand-up monologue—another staple of the Late Night genre—and instead began delivering a more graphic-inclined “deskologue” from his desk. Meyers and his team also began putting together more opinion-driven extended segments revolving around certain political issues, like his excellent piece on Planned Parenthood. As Fallon became the entertainment option of Late Night, Meyers began to pivot his program more to the intellectual side while still maintaining a sharp sense of humor.
And then we have Letterman’s successor, Stephen Colbert, who is entering his third month as host of Late Show. The comedian has had a bit of trouble transitioning from satirical character to genuine Late Night personality, with the interview segments still feeling a bit stilted and uncomfortable. But, Colbert has been working towards finding the show’s personality (when he leans heavy on the geek, he shines). The benefits of that transition may fully reveal itself over the course of the next year.
As for the rest of the Late Night landscape, Trevor Noah is entering his third month as host of The Daily Show, and while it’s certainly a different flavor than Jon Stewart’s iteration, he’s starting to carve out his own niche with the program. As with Colbert, it’s still early, and Noah’s show is working to find what works best, but the host has improved markedly since his first week on air.
Letterman wasn’t the only one to leave his CBS series, as Craig Ferguson also called it quits from The Late Late Show at the end of 2014, paving the way for England’s James Corden to take over that flagship show. While the format of Corden’s program (which owes a debt to Graham Norton) still has some serious kinks to work out, he’s quickly finding segments that work really well, like his delightful Carpool Karaoke—a viral-friendly pre-taped celeb-centric segment that comes off as a smidge more genuine than some of Fallon’s gags.
There are also a couple of Late Night shows that haven’t changed at all in 2015, which may say more about their comfort level than their relevance to the genre. Jimmy Kimmel Live—which is actually the longest-running Late Night program currently on the air, at 12 years—continues to do its thing, acting more as an extended marketing arm of ABC than an essential piece of Late Night television. Conan O’Brien’s Conan on TBS still struggles to be competitive when it comes to booking guests, but it forces Conan and his crew to get creative with original content, resulting in triumphs like the fantastic Cuba episode.
The bottom line is that 2015 saw a major shift in the Late Night TV landscape, and it won’t ever be the same. Gone are the days of the “Late Night Wars” between the comedy-focused Letterman and Leno, which have been replaced by a polite cordiality between Fallon and Colbert. A desire for high levels of entertainment and viral-friendly segments has become paramount; the sharable clip is king. But there is hope yet for viewers of Late Night programming who still want a more conversational nature, and as Seth Meyers continues to craft a show that’s a cross between Jon Stewart’s sharp political observations and David Letterman’s oddball humor, he’s starting to look less like an outlier and more like a foundational cornerstone of the Late Night genre.