Hosts Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers and More on What It Takes to Win Late Night Now

The election is "a gift and a curse," says Trevor Noah, as Emmy's variety talk category is upended by the departure of Jon Stewart and David Letterman and the viral power of YouTube.
Illustrations By Kagan McLeod

Since 1997, only three shows have won the Emmy for variety series: That's five straight wins for Late Show With David Letterman at the turn of the millennium, two wins for The Colbert Report and an absurd 11 wins for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, including a victory in 2015.

"It actually makes it nicer and more relaxing because you didn't feel like you had any pressure to compose any kind of an acceptance speech," laughs Jimmy Kimmel, host of this year's Emmys telecast as well as ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live!, a four-time nominee in the category. "Not once did I ever have a piece of paper folded up in my tuxedo."

But change is coming. Since December 2014, all three of those juggernauts have either changed hosts (and titles) or ended.

Although hope will spring eternal for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, as well as fellow surviving nominees NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and HBO's Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, the variety talk category could be headed for an overhaul with TBS' newly eligible Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, as well as Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah taking over CBS' Late Show and Comedy Central's Daily Show desks, respectively.

"It's insane. I feel like we got to be the new kid on the block for five minutes," reflects Seth Meyers, whose Late Night on NBC was part of last year's wave of eligible freshmen, a group that also included CBS' The Late Late Show With James Corden, Comedy Central's The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore and Last Week Tonight. "I didn't realize the sea change that was coming when we got Late Night. It seemed like almost the end of a round of turnover as opposed to the beginning."

Conan O'Brien, who got to be a new kid on the block in two different time slots on NBC, and then again after a move to TBS with his show Conan, has gone from self-described "young punk who needed to prove himself" to the wily veteran of the field. "When I showed up in 1993, it felt to me like an eternity of being the young guy, and being the new guy, and being unproven," he reflects. "Then it felt like these 11:30 hosts who had been around — Letterman, Leno, all these guys — leave the scene, and then overnight people are offering to help me into a chair."

Late Night With Seth Meyers

Fortunately all this change has occurred in the midst of an election cycle that offers a movable feast of nonstop ridiculousness, with jokes about Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton passing saturation long ago.

"You worry that you are like a stand-up who's been hammering the same heckler for two hours," says Meyers. "You know he deserves it, but at the same time, at what point is too much? Then every time you try to go back to your act, the heckler says something else. It is not quite pure comedy gold, but it is better than trying to write jokes about the debt ceiling."

The length of the U.S. election cycle is "a gift and a curse," adds Noah. "There's definitely some election/Trump fatigue that can get tiresome, but at the same time, spending so long with the material gives you an opportunity to be fully immersed in the cycle and keep finding ways to point out the madness."

Each time the madness gets pointed out, the internet celebrates the hosts for "annihilating" or "destroying" a candidate, but generally the candidate survives long after clips go viral. "It's not like we're saying, 'Morning meeting, guys. Who are we going to annihilate today?' " Samantha Bee says of her platform's power. "People have their preformed opinions. If we woke up every day and went, 'Today, we're going to change the world!' it would be the unfunniest show that was the most unfun to work on. It's a satire show. It's not an activism show."

Noah, who was handed the near impossible task of following in Stewart's footsteps, has, like Oliver, defined his voice by making a virtue of his outsider status. "Over time I've come to realize that I need to embrace the term 'outsider' because that's what most comedians are, just in varying degrees," he says. "Jon Stewart didn't build his voice or his show in a day, it took years. And I think it's naive, if not crazy, to think I can do it in a few months." One fresh step Noah took was to ditch Stewart's familiar desk opening for a standing start that, he says, "gave me an opportunity to share more of my authentic self with the audience." (Meyers went the other way: transitioning in August 2015 from a conventional standing monologue to a seated "Weekend Update" style, and finding both comfort and the ability to fit in more jokes.)

The Daily Show

Veteran O'Brien shook things up in a bigger way to differentiate his show. Trips to Armenia, Qatar and South Korea have helped Conan expand its international reach and change its tone — as well as made it eligible in additional "special" Emmy categories.

"I'm delighted when I can take the shtick that I've been working on since the third grade playground in Brookline, Massachusetts, and try it out at the demilitarized zone in Korea or in Yerevan or at a massive air base with the first lady or in Cuba," says O'Brien. "When I can get people in other countries to laugh … that's the primary thing that drives it. You'd be shocked at how little thought goes into, 'This would be good for the international brand.' "

While O'Brien might joke that there's no secret room at Conaco headquarters in which producers are charting a "master plan" for evolving the genre, the hosts all are aware that late night is evolving and that nobody other than a few manic TV critics is watching every second of 10 shows in the category.

"It used to be very simple, a matter of ratings, and people either showed up to watch somebody at that time or not," says Larry Wilmore. "But now people watch on their phones, they see it on Facebook, they see clips on Twitter, so there's completely different ways. People are making up their own shows. They might watch a little of this person's show, a little bit of that person's show, see 19 minutes of John Oliver's takedown. Start with Conan's monologue. I mean, who knows? There's so many ways you can watch these things now."

More and more, the definition of a late-night hit is built on YouTube traffic and the perception of viral success, whether it's an Oliver piece on Trump or a true game-changer, such as the vital niche James Corden has created with his show's "Carpool Karaoke," a brand that became so powerful, CBS experimented with giving it primetime exposure.

"The reason we love when we have a viral hit is because it's an even playing field," says Late Late Show executive producer Ben Winston. "So much of television depends on whether you're on network or cable, who's your lead-in, what were your primetime numbers like, because that adds a knock-on figure to how you do that evening. When we do well online, everybody's equal."

Shows aren't just going online to get new eyes on content that viewers might've missed overnight. Full Frontal airs for 20-ish minutes every week, but Bee and company have regularly placed full interviews and supplemental reporting pieces on the show's website.

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

"We love having too much content," says the host, who remains committed to airing only weekly. "That feels like an opportunity for us. Definitely, we miss jokes. It happens, but it's always a better feeling to narrow down to the absolute crux of your point; you can lead people digitally in other places. We always intended that our digital content would support the show and be just as important as the show. That has been our approach from the beginning, so it's not painful for us to take people digitally where we couldn't go on the show, where we didn't have time."

In a landscape once notorious for its feuds, the fragmentation cited by Wilmore and others has bred an unexpected new unity. "This idea [of competition] is an old one, because in the old days you could only watch one thing at a time," says Kimmel. "If Carson was on at 11:30 and Joan Rivers was also on at 11:30, you had to choose. It's just not the case now. People are putting together their own patchwork of shows, so, in a way, everything is your competition and, in a way, nothing is your competition."

Of course, that isn't true where Emmys are concerned. While the departures of Stewart, the fictional "Stephen Colbert" and David Letterman have left what appears to be a wide open field for the first time in years, the Daily Show host's longtime dominance still resonates among his compatriots. "I have the feeling he'll still win," cracks O'Brien of Stewart. "There will be a new category, 'Best Retired Host.' "

This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.