Perhaps nothing feeds our entertainment news cycle more forcefully than talk shows—a point that was certainly underlined this week.
From triumphs to gaffes to candor to politics to behind-the-scenes gossip to casting announcements to scandal to the sheer number of viral clips they spawn, talk shows provide an endless buffet of news for us to consume.
But, as we make our all-you-can-eat return trips to that buffet of shows and endless news, it’s become more and more apparent that we’re still not quite sure what we want from them.
It’s a landscape that seems to have scorched-earthed itself in recent years and continues to change on an almost monthly basis.
Legacy programs are figuring out how to stay relevant in a digital world, digital properties are striving to be seen as legitimate institutions, audiences are constantly contradicting themselves when it comes to the tone of the shows and hosts they want to watch, and producers are desperately trying to determine which famous faces—if any—will surface their shows out of the junkyard of competition.
This played out, in one sense, as major casting and scheduling announcements rolled out this week: Ryan Seacrest joining Kelly Ripa as permanent co-host of Live, coupled with the news that Megyn Kelly will debut on NBC in a time slot against them.
There was one instantly iconic late-night TV moment that became unexpectedly controversial—Jimmy Kimmel delivered a tear-filled plea for Obamacare after his infant son nearly died—and another late-night TV moment that was just plain controversial: Stephen Colbert’s admittedly tasteless joke about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, which sparked a #FireColbert campaign.
And simmering underneath are a slew of shows attempting to improve themselves in real-time—Netflix’s second season of Chelsea chief among them—new, just-announced series aimed at diversifying late-night, and digital-first series, like AOL’s BUILD series and any number of Facebook Live shows, each making robust investments to threaten the more linear competitors.
There’s no consensus over how much fun, how much politics, how much of the host, how much of anything we desire from the genre. What’s a charming white guy in a suit to do?
Jimmy Kimmel left audiences in tears on Monday night. It was a rare, largely joke-free and deeply personal departure not just for the host, but for the genre in general. (The last greatest examples of something similar: Dave Letterman bringing out his doctors after his heart surgery in 2000, and Stephen Colbert’s tribute to his late mother 13 years later.)
The response to Kimmel’s monologue was swift and passionate. The praise came from celebrities, from Twitter, from TV critics, and even from President Obama—the latter perhaps no surprise considering that Kimmel’s speech doubled as an endorsement for Obamacare.
But in today’s media climate, perhaps it should be no surprise that the backlash came just as swiftly, with pundits fact-checking and criticizing Kimmel’s anecdote about his child’s health care, and a large portion of his viewing audience dismayed that he, in their opinion, exploited his personal life for a political opinion.
It was a compelling moment, exploding with the kind of candor we supposedly crave in our hosts today and, more, it was an unexpected break in a mold we seem to be tiring of. And yet it still proved polarizing.
The controversy paled in comparison to the one that competitor Stephen Colbert found himself in.
The Late Show host, whose profile has greatly boosted lately thanks to an increasingly honed formula of endearing sincerity and pointed criticism of Donald Trump, was in the midst of a screed against the president when he concluded a riff of insults with an arguably offensive joke about Trump’s mouth only being good as “Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.”
The joke was branded politically incorrect, homophobic, and hypocritical, considering that Colbert was criticizing Trump’s own discourse. A #FireColbert campaign, fueled by Trump’s supporters, gained enough traction for the host to address it the next day on his show.
There are two things going on here. One, as writer Ira Madison III pointed out, there is a latent, inherent homophobia to this genre of Putin-Trump jokes (of which Colbert is hardly the only offender), fueled by the fact that mockery of homosexuality is still normalized enough that even the gay community didn’t immediately notice the offensive nature of Colbert’s comments.
The other is that, whether we’re talking about talk show hosts like Colbert or stand-up comedians, we encourage edginess but have drawn an invisible line beyond which a joke, sometimes arbitrarily, becomes too off-color to excuse and sets off our culture’s reactionary transformation into a lynch mob rallying for the offender’s head.
That’s becoming an increasingly delicate issue to navigate as both audiences and critics seem to demand that talk show hosts double down on political edginess.
As Rolling Stone put it this week in its round-up of the 50 Funniest People Right Now, “Getting pissed has been extremely good for [Seth] Meyers,” whose “Closer Look” segments have buoyed his profile.
Jimmy Fallon still gets scoffed at for his handling of a campaign interview with Donald Trump while, in contrast, multiple magazine covers and long features have been devoted to Colbert’s resurgence as he becomes more political.
Samantha Bee sets off a chorus of #yaaas anytime she takes aim at the GOP—specifically during last week’s Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner special, but should she take a step too far she, like Colbert, would be put through the ringer.
Perhaps the precariousness of overt politicization explains the continued popularity of James Corden’s show, which just announced its second primetime special centered around his blockbuster Carpool Karaoke bit.
But when politics and the cultural climate become impossible to ignore, and going too far with it gets you in trouble, yet relying too much on fun and games gets you raked through the critical coals, what’s the answer?
“I think it’s hard for other shows to go serious and then funny,” says Suzanne Lindbergh, senior vice president and executive producer of AOL’s BUILD series, a digital series that streams up to six live interviews, usually 30 minutes in length, each day with celebrities from all walks—Hollywood, Washington, and Silicon Valley.
In one day, Elizabeth Warren and the stars of Pretty Little Liars might come in for an interview, for example. “We do each of them as their own separate entity. So I can be very, very serious at noon and have that audience come in. And then two hours later I can nyuk it up with two comedians.”
Lindbergh recently gave us a tour of BUILD’s expensive, splashy new space in what was once the Tower Records on East 4th Street in Manhattan, from which a Good Morning America-style crowd can gather outside to watch, say, Jennifer Lopez be interviewed. The state-of-the-art studio means that, even though BUILD talks stream on Facebook Live, they don’t suffer from the low-quality shortcomings of most Facebook efforts.
“I don’t necessarily believe in this notion of sitting down to watch crappy video,” Lindbergh says. “I’m not interested in watching crappy video, and when I talk to my 16-year-old daughter, neither is she.”
A survey of their guest roster certainly indicates that BUILD has no trouble booking talent—Lopez, Hugh Jackman, and a pre-This Is Us finale Milo Ventimiglia all circled through on the same day—though it’s hard to ignore, even as the talk world figures out how to transition into the digital space, that there may be a struggle for legitimacy against the bigger names, from Ellen to Fallon. The fact that, by now, most talk show content is consumed as bite-sized viral videos anyway certainly attests to that.
Trying to bridge that gap, then, is Chelsea Handler, a name known for her more traditional E! talk show, now attempting to adapt and optimize her format for a streaming, digital service.
Her Netflix series Chelsea premiered last year, streaming three half-hour episodes a week, with a mix of sketches, interviews, and documentary segments inspired by her time shooting Chelsea Does. Handler admitted to the New York Post that her “premiere was a disaster,” and that the format was simply not working.
Now, the show has morphed into an hour-long, once-a-week endeavor that allows her to go deeper. “In the climate that we’re in and the stuff that I really feel passionately about, I don’t want to be rushed,” she told The Daily Beast in a recent interview.
Even in the new format, the content that gets noticed is undeniably that which leans into Handler’s inimitable Handler-ness.
The idea that the host matters is still clearly prevalent in the industry, given the amount of money and fanfare devoted to NBC’s hiring of Megyn Kelly from Fox News and Ryan Seacrest’s new position as Kelly Ripa’s co-host—not to mention the media circus that surrounded both NBC and ABC’s shuffling of talent including Tamron Hall and Michael Strahan.
The argument is more than valid that there are welcoming arms outstretched for a host that appeals to the redder portion of the viewing population, which is in some degree part of the attraction of Seacrest, who has proven universally palatable to all quadrants for more than a decade, and a major selling point for Kelly, coming from Fox News.
But the networks’ huge bet is still just that: a bet. There is an entire graveyard of big stars who were supposed sure-things in daytime but who fizzled completely: Anderson Cooper, Meredith Viera, Queen Latifah, Jeff Probst, Katie Couric, to name a few.
With a 9 a.m. hour in competition with Ripa and Seacrest, and a Sunday news magazine program in competition with CBS’ 60 Minutes, Kelly is being positioned as an NBC savior. And considering that the only daytime shows that tend to thrive today are the ones that are panel-hosted—The View, The Talk, The Chew, The Real, The Doctors, etc.—that’s placing a lot of faith in her powers.
The moral of a story, it would seem, from all these volatile elements—tone, politics, scheduling, casting, digitizing—is that there’s a scramble for relevance in a culture that isn’t sure what it thinks is relevant. At the very least, that’s certainly something to talk about.