But President Donald Trump was unlike anything that late-night hosts had ever really seen before, and his presidency caused a tectonic shift in the DNA of late-night TV — from the structure of the shows to their tenor and tone.
Hosts such as Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel acted less like MCs of a nightclub full of celebrity guests and more like nightly news anchors offering viewers much-needed, if not always comical, insights into the administration’s antics.
“Trump was like a hurricane you had to cover,” said Bill Carter, a CNN contributor who has written multiple books about late-night TV. “But now I think there’s a desire to move on, as the country is desiring to move on.”
“You can’t quit Trump cold turkey”
“There’s a bit of an addiction metaphor here because you can’t quit Trump cold turkey,” Carter said. “They’re going to find it’s tough to move on because the stories will continue to play out. I mean, he’ll criticize every single thing that Biden does, and there’s the story of the insurrection. So until all of that becomes resolved, Trump will still be a massive story for everybody, including late-night.”
Away from finding new fodder for monologues, Trump’s departure could also alter the power dynamics of late-night itself.
Take CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” for example. Colbert struggled to find his footing in the show’s early, pre-President Trump years but found its voice — and an audience — thanks to becoming a sincere yet satirical backstop to the president.
Will less Trump mean less success for Colbert, who currently has the top-rated show in all of late-night? Not so much, according to Carter.
“I am confident that he’ll do well,” Carter said. “He may not do as well as he’s been doing because I do think there’s a tune-in factor that ‘Trump did something outrageous, so I have to see what Colbert says.’ However, I do think he’s come into his own as a late-night host.”
With Trump gone, Fallon might find his way again.
“I think Jimmy was not set out to be the political commentator comedian. He’s an incredibly gifted comic, and that’s why he was doing well at first,” Carter said. “I think people liked the sort of feel-good aspect of his show, but Trump overwhelmed that.”
“I do think Trump being gone will help him,” which will allow Fallon to get creative again beyond coming up with political jokes, which are not really his strong suit, according to Carter.
“He did a lot of really creative things, and I think he’s going to have to do that and find new ones,” he said. “I mean he’s lost that ‘I got to tune in to see what Jimmy Fallon is doing’ feel, which made him a viral force on TV and online. But I think he can get it back.”
Live… From New York! It’s less Donald Trump
Then there’s the one show that lambasted Trump week after week during his term in office: “SNL.”
James Andrew Miller, author of “Live From New York, the Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live,” told CNN Business that the NBC variety show might soon find that making fun of Biden is a lot harder than making fun of Trump.
“Obama was probably one of the most difficult presidents for ‘SNL’ because he was difficult to impersonate and there wasn’t a lot of drama going on in the White House,” Miller said. “Biden promises to probably be the same, so that’s a challenge.”
But this may be a chance for “SNL” to find other things in the news to lampoon, Miller said.
“I think now in the Biden years there’s an opportunity for ‘SNL’ to also spend more time on so much of what it’s done in the past, which is great comedy, great sketches, reoccurring characters, and other things that have nothing to do with politics,” he said. “They’re emancipated from the burden of having to cover Trump all of the time.”
Although Trump was an all-consuming force on late-night, his presidency brought out a passion in the hosts that “allowed them to open up their point of view,” Carter said.
“Trump allowed them to really be themselves with the audience, and I think that won’t go back,” he said. “Whatever they really care about will now be front and center.”