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While American Late Night flourishes, UK hosts flounder trying to find their satirical voice

ByLouis Norman

Mar 29, 2017

Anyone familiar with the current incarnation of what passes as politics in America will perhaps be aware of a recent shake-up. Something of a constitutional kerfuffle, if you will. But let it never be said that the American people take being gaslighted by reality lying down (except for when they do, re: the Election).

Nonetheless, satire, lacerating political commentary and a healthy sense of fury, are alive and kicking in the wake of Trump’s ascent. The American Late Night circuit, where the most brutal dispatches at the Trump administration are delivered on a daily basis, has long been a cornerstone of both the American news media and American comedy.

This thriving hybridisation of the news and the comic has yet to find its roots across the pond. Here, in the UK, we have the news, and we make fun of the news, but we don’t know how to do them at the same time, and we certainly don’t know how to do it with the same importance as the Late Night stalwarts like Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and Samantha Bee.

Some of these shows start with a monologue addressing that day’s madness(es), pointing out the various insanities that might have passed us by, making a little light of them. A guest might come on – more and more often of the political variety. Later, someone like Seth Meyers will delve into his ‘ A Closer Look’, or Stephen Colbert will engage in an elaborate act of parody. Or better yet, bring sorely missed former The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, out from underneath his desk.

Some of the shows deal just in the politics. Samantha Bee offers 30-minute doses of laser-accurate venom aimed in the direction of the White House. John Oliver’s brand of incredulity and polite – or on occasion, not so polite – fury has made him one the most recognisable Brits in America.

But, somewhat inexplicably, the format hasn’t found a place over here. There’s a recent attempt, in the form of The Nightly Show, trading host every night and tending towards the apolitical. Viewing figures are fine, but there’s been little response online, and that’s where the success lies these days. Jimmy Fallon, the most apolitical of the US talk show hosts, has 13 million subscribers on youtube. James Corden has almost 10 million. The Nightly Show has accrued a bafflingly pathetic 1,063 in the month since it first aired.

For my part, though, I think the lack of politics is the undoing of The Nightly Show. Apart from a slightly excruciating video in which David Walliams edited himself into a Trump press conference, there’s little evidence of engagement with the current state of the world. Sure, it might be hard to turn a UK audience onto American politics when so many American comics are doing it justice themselves. And yeah, I’ll agree that UK politics has less savour. Watching Trump gurn has enough televisual potential to make an entire show out of it.

For the same reason that Jimmy Fallon is slowly taking a back seat to Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert, The Nightly Show won’t find its footing until someone with the backbone and spit-fire fury of Samantha Bee ends up fronting the show.

Online success finds its foundation among millennials, and while millennials definitely want carpool karaoke, we also want someone to unpack the news for us, articulate a stance we can support, and offer some sliver of sanity. If they can make us laugh doing so, the alchemy is complete.

Or maybe it has something to do with sheer American ease of character. No one has ever looked fully comfortable on Graham Norton’s sofa. There is a laid-back amicability between host and guest on all the late nighters that we can’t seem to emulate.

When we can synthesise fury and friendliness, silliness and seriousness, as the Americans have perfected over the course of the last couple decades, then we’ll have a late night show worth watching.

Image: BogoGames @ Flickr

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