Critic's Notebook: Late-Night Winners and Losers From 2016 RNC

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert_John Stewart - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of CBS

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert_John Stewart - Publicity - H 2016

Billy Eichner, who already has several jobs that he does to general acclaim, is also trying to take my job.

Sitting with Stephen Colbert on Thursday night's The Late Show on CBS, Eichner paused toward the end of his segment and observed, "This was your week. You killed it this week," as if in addition to Difficult People and Billy on the Street, he also was being tasked with evaluating the performance of the late-night hosts covering the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Who's going to argue with Eichner? Certainly not me. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert was the biggest winner for the week of the RNC and nothing else even came close.

Colbert's comeback this week is one part media-driven narrative — check out The Hollywood Reporter's cover story on the subject — but it's more parts in actuality, as a show that had become a bit of a late-night afterthought in recent months churned out one viral moment after another, forcing me to do multiple stories about The Late Show in four days, which definitely wasn't my plan.

Yes, Colbert had the big things that everybody was talking about (and we'll get to them in a second), but he also had a great and reasonably balanced Thursday interview with Elizabeth Warren, Monday's lively opening musical number, the inspired appearance by Laura Benanti channeling Melania Trump and more. Colbert's monologue, sometimes sloppy and loose, felt tight and scathing all week, and his interviews, sometimes meandering and prone to conversational dead-ends, felt vital and engaged. There was an energy to Colbert's week that felt both inspired and spurred by current events, but also repeatable going forward.

Or at least his troops have to hope that it's repeatable going forward, because the host probably won't be able to recruit Comedy Central's 2008 and 2012 political lineup to help him every night.

I already wrote about Monday's return of Colbert's Colbert Report alter ego, which was surely a stunt, but a stunt executed to perfection and with limited stink of desperation. There was no desperation at all to Lewis Black's pajama-clad visit, just Black's reliable stuttering rage, cathartic as ever.

And speaking of catharsis, who could doubt that Jon Stewart has been champing at the bit for weeks to get back at a desk to vent and holler into the void after months out of the news spotlight? Sean Hannity and his acolytes probably don't feel eviscerated this morning, because they probably don't care about rank hypocrisy, but Stewart did a number on the things Fox News has punished President Barack Obama for that they now must bite their tongues on about Donald Trump. Stewart ranted like a man possessed and anybody who watched The Daily Show religiously in its previous incarnation was quickly reminded of how much we've missed and needed Stewart in our TV lives.

Sadly, that made the week's biggest loser The Daily Show With Trevor Noah and, to a lesser degree The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. This is less a reflection on the shows Noah and Wilmore did this week and more an indisputable point of comparison. Dating back to the Indecision 2000 coverage, Stewart made The Daily Show into late night's crucial election-season barometer, and The Colbert Report was equally required viewing in the last two national elections. It couldn't have been pleasant for Comedy Central brass to watch the linchpins of that success getting laughs on a different network, while Noah and his colleagues did ... the best they could.

Noah was, in fact, above average this week. His monologues were funny, pieces with the correspondents on the convention floor got laughs and his Chris Christie-esque mock trial with the audience on Wednesday's show was a real highlight. Never a very good interviewer, Noah had solid conversations with Michael Steele, Christiane Amanpour and Alex Wagner. For me, the biggest miss thus far has been the absence of rising comedic voice Michelle Wolf, though perhaps she'll play a role in Friday's bonus episode.

It's not The Daily Show or The Nightly Show's fault, really. Imagine if the Republicans, after nominating Donald Trump this week, had to watch Ronald Reagan's ghost speak at the Democratic National Convention next week. CBS, which still has ties to Viacom's Comedy Central from the days when both were part of the same company, really rubbed it in Comedy Central's face.

So if The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and Comedy Central's 11 p.m. hour were the week's biggest winner and loser, respectively, let's look at a couple more highlights and lowlights.

Loser: Jimmy Fallon's Donald Trump impression. Is that all you've got, Jimmy? I know folks love Fallon and love his Trump impression, and ratings suggest that just because many voters and general Americans are angry doesn't mean that that's what viewers want from The Tonight Show. But if I'm writing these winners and losers, I get to say what I want and I want something with more teeth than a hollow, superficial orange-faced impression that relates more to Amiable Reality TV Buffoon Donald Trump and less to Potential Leader of the Free World Donald Trump. You wouldn't do an O.J. Simpson impression now and make it all about the Buffalo Bills and running through airports to get a rental car.

Winner: Late Night With Seth Meyers — Not only is Meyers doing the best nightly, straightforward, politically flavored monologue in the field, but he also trotted out his showcase, in-depth "A Closer Look" segment each night without any diminishing returns. Meyers also had a serendipitous visit from Leslie Jones on Thursday night, who was able to discuss her adventures in Twitter bigotry from earlier in the week and to add crazed live energy to a cooking segment fueled by alcohol and live shellfish. But mostly, Meyers gets credit for doing the best version of "Weekend Update" we saw this week, in contrast to ...

Loser: Saturday Night Live on MSNBC — I don't know if Michael Che and Colin Jost were less funny than usual in their after-hours MSNBC appearance, but the circumstances around the appearance, specifically the scattered laughter from the news booth, made the visit confusing and ineffective. Even Kate McKinnon's Ruth Bader Ginsburg floundered in this setting, getting a couple laughs, but mostly generating a "Why am I watching this on MSNBC?" oddness.

Winner: "Carpool Karaoke With Michelle Obama" — James Corden can do politics in small doses, but he has to do them on a very surface level. I don't blame him. It's just not what he does. What Corden did marvelously, then, was to find a way to make sure that what he does well dovetailed with the political climate, specifically trotting out the first lady for an installment of Late Late Show's "Carpool Karaoke." Yes, it felt like an outlier in the franchise, both because security mandated that their drive was just a couple tightly monitored circles, plus it felt strange to see Michelle Obama doing a "Carpool Karaoke" segment on songs that were not, in fact, Michelle Obama songs, but spirits were high and the excitement on social media was unavoidable.

Loser: HBO — Bill Maher actually did an installment of Real Time on Thursday, but the fact that I only noticed it this morning says something about how HBO's various talk shows slipped out of the conversation this week. It happens that the special Real Time is very good and I have zero doubts that John Oliver is going to return after a hiatus with hilarious convention coverage this weekend, but there were ways HBO could have made its Emmy-nominated stars part of the zeitgeist this week and they were not. Did Any Given Wednesday even air an episode on Wednesday? [It did not. Nobody would have noticed if it had.]

Mixed Bag: Full Frontal With Samantha Bee — After a fine Monday episode, there was excitement about getting an extra Full Frontal installment on Wednesday, but that episode turned out to be "Full Frontal Election Documentary," an Apocalypse Now-inspired journey with Bee and her writers on the Herman Cain 2012 bus on the way to Cleveland. It was mostly an extended, padded field report from a gas station in Pennsylvania, with a couple laughs and almost no bite. It also ended before they even got to the fireworks factory that is the convention. Presumably next Monday's Full Frontal will be coverage from Cleveland and it'll be great, but don't promise me a new Full Frontal and give me something better suited as a cute DVD bonus feature.