In a story earlier this year, marking ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel’s move to the 11:35 p.m. time slot, I predicted a promotion for NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, which proved true when he was named Jay Leno’s heir on the network’s “Tonight Show.” I didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that one coming. Over the weekend, NBC announced Fallon’s “Late Night” replacement – Seth Meyers. And no one is surprised.
Lorne Michaels is the man you should get to know if late-night comedy is your dream. His “Saturday Night Live,” specifically the show’s “Weekend Update” news segment, is turning into the farm team for bigger solo gigs. Michaels, who rules at “SNL,” will take over as executive producer for “Tonight” when SNL veteran Fallon moves over, plus he will continue that role at “Late Night.”
Until that pipeline is diversified, don’t expect to see much change after prime time. I’m not holding my breath, since SNL has never been great at showcasing diverse talent from a diverse group. (To parody famous black women, they just bring back Maya Rudolph for a reprise or use its black male performer du jour for an insulting turn in drag.)
It’s not that all white guys look alike or practice the same type of comedy. Meyers, SNL’s head writer, most prominently made his mark at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011 in an appearance that mocked Donald Trump and won raves. Fallon’s nice guy persona contrasts with Kimmel’s mischievous bad boy. Leno and David Letterman over at CBS almost qualify as senior statesmen by now. But despite a tweak or two around the edges, late-night shows have hardened, with their opening monologues and guys-behind-a-desk format. The next generation promises to operate within the same narrow demographic.
This is happening while the Washington political world, never known for taking chances, is making noises and trying baby steps toward diversity. A two-term African American president reflects the electoral power of a changing America, and both major political parties are noticing in policies that profess to reach out.
In prime time TV, one of the hottest dramas is ABC’s “Scandal,” with an African American woman talking the lead. In late night, it seems it’s network business as usual. If anything, it resembles the Republican Party of old, when the next guy in line snagged the presidential nomination. After trying that with John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 and not having much success, GOP upstarts such as senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are jumping the line and staking a claim, hoping to change the party’s presidential fortunes. One of them could be facing a woman, maybe Hillary Clinton, at the head of the Democratic ticket in 2016.
In late-night network TV, though, the old formula holds, as rigid as the British monarchy. Meyers, the new heir, will soon move on and up, with Lorne Michaels wielding power that Karl Rove could only dream of.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3