Hosts were just supposed to guide us from commercial break to commercial break. Now, we want them to help us make sense of the world.
STARRING: Seth Meyers, Ziwe, Padma Lakshmi, Andy Cohen and Keke Palmer
Hosts are having an existential crisis. Hosting televised entertainment — whether a late-night talk show or a reality competition series — was once a largely amoral and apolitical venture. If it was political, it was ideologically agnostic, shining a light on or poking at the accomplishments or absurdities that were palatable between commercial breaks. A host’s job was to lead the show amusingly but unobjectionably, to raise or lower our temperatures as needed, to step in when guests or contestants weren’t following the rules, to let us know that there was only one rose left to be distributed, or that the tribe had spoken, or why it’s important to put sour cream in your pierogi dough. Hosts didn’t always make the guests feel comfortable: David Letterman might ask Paris Hilton about Hilton’s jail stint; Oprah Winfrey could interrogate writer James Frey about fabricating his way onto her book club list. But their momentary agitation served to reaffirm the glowing stasis of broadcast.
In the past few years, though, civil unrest has permeated even the least progressive corner of America’s consciousness: our TV screens. The television-watching audience has demanded a reckoning for the status quo — a status quo that comes at much of their expense. And so, we’ve started to ask more of our hosts. Of course, there were times in the past when institutional frontmen have been called on to respond to profound moments of pain or importance. After 9/11, for instance, “Saturday Night Live” famously brought on Mayor Rudy Giuliani; “Can we be funny?” Lorne Michaels asked him. (He responded: “Why start now?”)
But it’s not just discrete events we’re hoping our televised leaders will help us process: It’s the nuanced, ongoing impact of the whole of history on our current state, including the goings-on of the show being hosted. As Donald Trump’s presidential term melted America’s political compass, Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show,” with its timeless escapism, slid to third place in the premier late-night time slot, behind a relatively radicalized Jimmy Kimmel and the linguistic dexterity and ethical rectitude of Stephen Colbert. There seemed to be a shift in balance from what we wanted (a respite from reality) and what we needed to feel safe (an acknowledgment of reality). More hosts began tackling subjects that had previously been beyond their scope — or, at least, beyond broad public scrutiny. Chris Harrison led 19 years of “The Bachelor” and its spinoffs mostly without incident, until the host felt compelled to defend a Season 25 finalist after old photos surfaced of her attending a party that celebrated the antebellum South — while he was being questioned by the first Black Bachelorette in the franchise’s history. The search for Alex Trebek’s replacement on “Jeopardy!” after the host’s death turned out to be a rigged game, with executive producer Mike Richards naming himself quizmaster before writer Claire McNear uncovered a podcast of Richards’s from 2013 and 2014, on which Richards did things like call his co-host “booth slut” and use crude stereotypes about Jews, Asians and poor people. In late January, Whoopi Goldberg was suspended by ABC after saying “the Holocaust isn’t about race” on “The View.”
While these seemed like fairly obvious examples of what not to do, they did highlight an issue: Many of the people who were good at hosting — or at least were contracted to do it — were not equipped to take on the additional duty of understanding what was going on outside the soundstage. (Let alone addressing it with the facility they had when informing a contestant that, they’re sorry, but you’re not going to see your family for a long time because you’re going to Hollywood.) Nowhere was the gap in the talent pool more glaring than at the Academy Awards, which went hostless for three years — presumably because anyone famous and skilled enough to pull it off didn’t want to face the inevitable judgment for their perceived failure at simultaneously upholding the mirage of Hollywood glamour and grappling with the poisoned infrastructure that makes it possible.
But despite the preponderance of evidence, being a good host in 2022 is not impossible. There are hosts, like satirist Ziwe and the multipotent Keke Palmer, who can do their jobs not in spite of, but because of the cultural moment. “Ziwe has more of our attention today than she may have a few years ago,” Vinnie Malhotra, Showtime’s executive vice president of nonfiction programming, told me over email. “We are ready to push the boundaries on conversations around race and gender in this country, and Ziwe is ready to take the kid gloves off of the discussion in an ‘anything goes’-like manner.” That a comedian who demands that her guests name five Asian people could inspire such glowing network commentary shows how far corporate interests have shifted recently.
Some hosts have evolved to meet the times. Andy Cohen and Seth Meyers went into leading late-night shows as many have done before them — to offer America a moment of humor before bed. Now they’re also confronting societal ills. And then there are hosts, like “Top Chef’s” self-proclaimed “only brown person on that judges’ table” Padma Lakshmi, who were waiting for television to catch up to them.
As part of the small community of hosts who are thriving in this tumult, Cohen, Lakshmi, Meyers, Palmer and Ziwe understand what makes a good host in 2022. The Washington Post Magazine spoke to each about how they’ve navigated the political moment, hosting entertainment shows during a deadly pandemic, and why the awkward moments are the best ones. (Editor’s note: All subjects were interviewed separately. Interviews were edited for clarity.)
What is your role as host?
KEKE PALMER (Vogue’s live stream of the 2021 Met Gala red carpet; MTV’s 2020 Video Music Awards; the third hour of “Good Morning America,” 2019-20; and BET’s “Just Keke,” 2014, which made her the youngest ever talk show host, at age 20): Sometimes it’s, “Keep it moving.” And other times it’s, “Oh, let’s slow down and let’s see what’s happening.”
PADMA LAKSHMI (Bravo’s “Top Chef” and Hulu’s “Taste the Nation”): I always see my role as host as being the audience’s representative. I want you at home to experience, or know as much as you can, what eating that food is like. And unlike a show about singing, or dressmaking, or dancing, you really are reliant upon me to communicate that experience, which is why I think it helps to be a food writer on a food competition show. Whether it’s crabbing in South Carolina or learning how to make tahdig in Westwood, Los Angeles, with a Persian chef, or I’m tasting a very high-end meal on “Top Chef,” my job is to have the experience that the audience would have, vicariously, through me.
ANDY COHEN (Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen” and CNN’s “New Year’s Eve Live”): I come into everything that I do as a fan. When you’re watching me, I’m going to be reacting to things as a fan.
There was a moment in year five of my show where I kind of hit the wall mentally, and I was, like, checking the boxes. Someone tweeted [that] they sensed a lack of engagement. I was like, Oh my God, I shouldn’t ever even get one tweet that says this because this is actually my dream job. And I can never take this for granted, and it can go away tomorrow.
SETH MEYERS (NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers”): I take that idea of being a host and what you would expect of a host seriously: making [guests] feel at home, and like it’s a safe place to either be fun or be vulnerable or however they choose to approach it. The whole back half of the show [when interviews are aired] is thanks to their time and participation.
I put more work into being a guest on David Letterman’s [“The Late Show”] than I have ever put into being the interviewer [on my own show]. You felt like your job for the week was to be a guest on David Letterman. Whereas my job here is to create the space for people to have the experience [to] not to have to work as hard as I did on Letterman. [I want you to] be your best self.
ZIWE (Showtime’s “Ziwe”): [The character of Ziwe, who is played by the actual Ziwe and hosts the satirical variety show “Ziwe”] is not the brightest bulb. I think she jumps to conclusions. She has a bit of a social-justice warrior pejorative in her, and which allows her to be sort of accusatory about perpetually thinking and engaging in race. She is also a rich media elite. And so, while her heart goes out to “The People,” she is in a really privileged position and wants to preserve that power even if she doesn’t say that.
It’s like “The Colbert Report.” I like to think of the [Ziwe] character as like the love child between Michael Scott [from “The Office”] and Franchesca Ramsey’s [race explainer MTV series] “Decoded,” right? With a character, you’re able to sort of remove yourself and say to the guests, “Hey, I’m about to ask them what would be annoying. If me being annoying makes you mad, makes you want to call me out, do that. That’s an honest reaction. Let’s exist in that space.”
With my character it’s like, “Yeah, she’s an idiot. She’s really superficial. She’s someone I could hate.” You watch celebrity interviews all the time, and you can feel the tension between them and the interviewer. They can’t react appropriately because it’s their job. I’m more interested in seeing a pesky journalist character — myself — push someone to antagonize them to react. That’s really fun. Like Fran [Lebowitz] saying [to me], “I don’t know who you are.” People have asked me, “Did that hurt your feelings? How did you feel about that? Why did you keep it in?” I think that is the funniest thing she said to me. And it was the most honest.
I never want to build a myth around myself where I am sort of beyond reproach, like, the standard-bearer for conversations about race, and gender, and culture in America. I’m setting myself up to be publicly very wrong. And so, anytime that I can be questioned, I find exhilarating.
How do you incorporate social and political material into an entertainment show?
PALMER: It was very difficult [to host the VMAs in 2020, during the pandemic and the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd] because it was just like, “How do I give somebody some escapism while at the same time not totally be an idiot about what’s happening all around us?” There’s already a condition where it is that we’re all living different realities. You know, I’m working, but my work looks like complete fun. And the people at home, some of them aren’t working, some of them are looking for a new job. Some of them don’t think they’re going to work for a long time. I just didn’t want to be ignorant to the realities that were going on. [I was like,] “This is what’s getting me through, because I’m experiencing the same thing as you guys are: I perform to escape, and I perform to help others escape.”
At that time, I had just lost “Good Morning America,” the third hour [which changed from a chat-show format to being more serious and topical because of the pandemic]. I’d gotten the VMAs opportunity, and that was a blessing. I wanted [the audience] to know that I’m not trying to ignore anything, but I’m trying to give us a way out; that’s my job as an artist. Like Shakespeare: He had wooden teeth and fake hair. People were dying at age 30. He was putting on plays in the middle of plagues because he wanted people to escape.
MEYERS: I don’t think when I got this job we had any expectation that it would turn into what it has. This is a nonpartisan criticism across party lines, [but politicians] just want to go and say the same thing over and over again. Whereas one of the benefits of being a 12:30 [a.m.] show [is that], if a big star is doing a junket for a big movie, by the time they get to us, they’ve talked about the movie so much that if you found an old article where they said they still have their baby-teeth box under their bed, they would so much rather talk about that than, you know, how weird it was to do CGI.
We have tried really hard to draw as much attention to the underlying elements that both led to Trump’s rise and are maintaining his position of power within American politics after he lost his election. And we think there’s an urgency to that. I would be a little loath to [call it] a moral urgency, because that sounds like the death of comedy. But we do try hard not just to say, “This lunatic said this crazy thing.” We have a lot of fun laying out when lunatics do say crazy things, but then we try to be a little bit prescriptive with what the best way forward might be.
[‘Late Night’ host Seth Meyers: ‘I don’t think you can just let the president talk without calling in the lies’]
At some point, [there] is an inflection point where you realize, “Oh, I don’t want to just keep talking about this surface joke about this person. I’d rather dig a little deeper.” As the world around you changes, it’s impossible not to change with it.
[Like] January 6th: We had to tear up our scripts because we were watching it and thinking, Somebody’s going to die. And we’re going to make a joke about somebody when we record our show at 4:30, and it’s going to age badly in eight hours when it airs. So we tore everything up, and we went live that night. Sal [Gentile, a writer on the show,] wrote really beautiful words that I think have held up incredibly well over 12-plus months.
COHEN: You have no choice but to meet the moment. I think it’s part of the reason that Seth Meyers and Colbert are successful — is that it’s hard to ignore the moment that we’re in. We are in the moment. People are looking for authenticity and reflection of what’s going on. It’s an evolution.
There are shows that do well that just kind of ignore [larger issues]. It’s like you’re looking in a vacuum. Like, “Oh, okay. This kind of doesn’t have anything to do with the moment we’re living in.” And that’s pure escapism. But doing a show where you’re all about going there, then it’s hard to [do it] halfway. … You’re either going to do it or you’re not. You’re either going to be authentic or you’re not. And I always say that one of the reasons for the success of “Watch What Happens Live” — and that I’m still going to this day — is authenticity.
It’s the same with [hosting CNN’s] New Year’s Eve [coverage, in which Cohen said Bill de Blasio did the “crappiest job as the mayor of New York” and that “the only thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree on is what a horrible mayor he has been.”] I mean, it’s like, if I’m going to be on live TV, I try to just make whatever that moment is an authentic moment and an authentic situation. [That was] four hours into New Year’s Eve on a tequila ride, but I think that’s what people sign up for. And I think that’s very resonant for today.
ZIWE: [When I was a guest] on [Andy Cohen’s Sirius XM show] “Radio Andy,” he was like, “What is the best way to cover race on this show?” because he knew that I had been watching the show forever. And my advice was just to lean into the absurdity like any other subject.
COHEN: I don’t remember the Ziwe thing. I love Ziwe and I would take her advice about anything. The issue with racial dynamics is, it’s hard for me to lean into the absurdity because sometimes people say things that are offensive, that are not — there’s nothing funny about it. I mean, we always try to lean into the absurdity. That’s what we do. But sometimes, you have to handle it a little more seriously.
LAKSHMI: On “Top Chef” I think we have done a good job of steering the show collectively to be moving with the times. But I am still often the only brown person on that judges’ table. I think we’ve done a really good job with gender, and I think we still have a ways to go. And if we’re just looking at Michelin-star chefs, then we’re not doing our job. I always voice my opinion or suggestions, but I don’t think they were always heeded or taken. Really, do we need another challenge about how to make a mother sauce? And whose mother is that sauce from? Not my mother.
[‘Top Chef’ is getting more Black judges — finally. Other cooking shows need to follow suit.]
“Top Chef” is such a big machine. It’s literally like 150 people that you have to corral all in one direction. It’s not enough that I think we should do [something], and my executive producer thinks we should do it, and Tom [Colicchio, chef and head judge] thinks we should do it — it’s also about Bravo and all the layers of those execs.
[On the other hand,] “Taste the Nation” [Lakshmi’s Hulu series about food in different American ethnicities, cities and subcultures] is a totally auteur-driven show. It is a very niche product, and I’m surprised it’s had the success it’s had. My goal with the show was just to give the platform that I had been lucky enough to build for myself to other people and learn with the audience about our neighbors and different types of Americans. My challenge is to keep it fun and not take myself too seriously. I’m an expert in very little, but what I do possess is a very deep curiosity — about people, and food, and culture, and history. I’m a history nerd. We struggle with making history fun and present[ing] it in a way that’s easily digestible and making parallels to modern life that’s easy to understand.
How do you experience the dialogue between you and the audience?
COHEN: “Watch What Happens Live” started 12½ years ago as the only live, interactive late-night show. [Audiences answer virtual, real-time polls and send in questions that are read by Cohen or delivered live by the fan via video conference.] It was kind of around the birth of Twitter. Since we were live, we wanted the audience to have a voice in what the conversation was. We wanted to know what people actually want to know from [guests]. I think that feeds into why “Watch What Happens Live” has been a show that drives a lot of water-cooler conversation: It’s kind of a circular thing, because we’re asking the stuff that people really want to know.
[In a journey from reality-TV producer to A-list interrogator, Andy Cohen found his gift for breaching the barriers of fame]
ZIWE: All I try to do is ask interesting questions and present a strong POV that you, as an audience member, can agree with or disagree with. Both are okay. But I’m not going to be the guiding light in helping you live and determine your life, because I’m not equipped to do that. I can barely do that for myself.
LAKSHMI: I don’t hear from chefs. To be honest, I don’t give a f--- about teaching chefs anything. I care about teaching that 15-year-old at home who’s in high school about pan-African food. Because we’ve been on the air now for, gosh, 16 years: When I first started, those kids that were watching “Top Chef” with their parents are now in grad school and getting married. I can’t tell you how many bar mitzvahs I’ve been invited to by tweens and teens. I think Tom probably considers what his peers are thinking about. Chefs are not my peers. People are.
How can awkwardness be used as a tool?
PALMER: The approach that I had for [hosting the red carpet of] the Met Gala is to try to have fun and admit these awkward moments and try to get the real feeling of what it’s like to be on this carpet. “It’s the Met Gala. What? Am I supposed to talk? Am I supposed to smile?”
In the industry, I never fit into that kind of fantasy gag. You know, I could play around with it, and I can wear a nice outfit, but I’m always going to be the person saying, “It got quiet, didn’t it?” We all are human and trying to figure it out. I find it to be much easier, especially at these super intense events, to just keep it real. Here we are, trying to be diverse at this extremely high-profile fashion event at this incredible museum in the middle of a pandemic. Okay. What are we trying to prove? At this point, it’s just like, “Let’s just talk and try to chill out because the whole thing is overwhelming.”
“Good Morning America” was a totally different approach because it’s the morning. People [are] trying to get up. They want to talk about something to keep their eyes open, but they don’t want to go too deep. [Morning shows] maintain simply because they give people a sense of security and normalcy.
COHEN: The most awkward moments are the best moments. That’s what the whole point of the show is. It’s “Watch What Happens Live,” what happens during this half-hour. I could drop something; I could insult someone; someone could insult me. I mean, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I think that to be put in that situation, you have to be comfortable with being a little more vulnerable. And the longer you do this, you also just grow a thicker skin. I’m way less sensitive to criticism now than I was then, which you have to be, because mainly you’re going to be criticized. You’re going to be criticized before you’re going to be celebrated. That’s just how people are on social media.
ZIWE: Leaning into the uncomfortable is the premise of my show — the discomfort of simple, basic questions like, “How many Black friends do you have?” It seems innocuous. And it is innocuous. Like, it’s just a simple question. But somehow it has all of this subtext that makes interview guests feel really, really disturbed by it. That’s kind of the fun. What my best tactic is: to just sit and listen quietly and let the awkward silences fill themselves and not truncate my guests from their point. Let them breathe and figure out slowly. Because in this modern age of media, we’re expected to have the perfect answer in three seconds. And I don’t think that that’s a realistic way to interact with really intensive ideas. Even when I’m enjoying the discomfort, I’m also really uncomfortable. But that’s something I’ve just learned to sit in over the course of my life.
When you watch the way [guests] respond to stress — even if they lie, [it] is so honest. It’s hard to hide discomfort. And I love to see the humanity of the people I speak to. Whether the person I’m speaking to is verbose like an Alyssa Milano or a Fran Lebowitz, or whether they’re a little more curt and tight-lipped like a Phoebe Bridgers, each of those calculations is reflective of who they are and how they interact in spaces like this. What I can offer fans of my show and fans of the respective guests that I’m interviewing is like an opportunity to see them without the veneer of fame for a brief moment.
How is hosting television like hosting people in your home?
MEYERS: I’m a better person to sit next to you at a dinner party than to throw a party. I don’t know if that difference makes sense, but if there’s something to talk about, I feel like I’m better served for the moment than if it’s just “Let’s have fun.” There are so many other people in recent years who host jobs where the point is to have fun, who are just — to put it bluntly — better at being fun than I am.
COHEN: I’m always trying to kind of host a party. I want my guests to have fun; I want to have fun. And I just want to be inclusive.
LAKSHMI: If you came to my house for dinner, I would make sure that you felt comfortable. If I saw you kind of clutching your arms, I would say, “Is it cold? Do you want a shawl? Should I close the window?” [It’s the same on “Top Chef”]: I see my role as less of a host for the audience and more of a host to these very nervous chefs, who have cameras in their faces at all times and don’t know what’s coming at them from minute to minute. I see my role there to make them feel comfortable, to calm them down. Because if they’re relaxed, then the audience at home gets a deeper glimpse of who they truly are.
Of course, as an executive producer of the show and somebody who gets paid to host the show, I want the show to do well. So there’s a shrewdness to that. But before that, there’s just a human aspect to what I’m doing in the room in that moment. I want them to do well. I know what it feels like to be nervous, to feel like you’re not going to perform well, to feel insecure, to feel stage fright — I know what those things feel like because I’ve felt them, and I’ve felt them firsthand on live television. It’s not a good feeling. And I know what that feels like when the host tries to put you at ease, whether it’s going on “Good Morning America,” the “Today” show or those late-night shows like Fallon. I want everybody who comes on my show to have a good experience.
What quality have you always needed to be a good host?
LAKSHMI: I think the biggest skill or asset you can possess as a host is to understand what the other person needs to shine and try to help them get that.
ZIWE: Listening, honestly. I really want to emphasize that there is no magic behind it. It’s listening, being quiet, letting people speak. Taking them for their word. It’s kind of the fundamentals of interviewing. Dick Cavett is one of my biggest inspirations. I used to watch his interviews with James Baldwin and Muhammad Ali as a kid. They were much more thoughtful than you could ever imagine a seven-minute clip would be on network TV.
MEYERS: Competence. All I wanted to be was a competent late-night host. Which is, now that I look back, a depressingly low bar to set for myself. But I do feel like you have to lay down a base coat of competence before you can start doing all the other things.
PALMER: Your job is to figure out what you bring to the table. What is it that makes you different? The beauty of being a host is going through life, showing people different worlds [through your perspective]. And people either are interested in how you perceive that world or not. A few of my fans were saying, “Keke [should host the Oscars].” And what was interesting to me about that wasn’t, “Oh, you guys want to see me host the Academy Awards,” but “You want to see my perspective of experiencing that night.” And to me that’s all you would hope as a host. So sometimes you might say, “I want to see what it’s like for Chris Rock to experience that night.” “I want to see what it’s like for Seth Meyers to experience that night.”
What has changed about what you need to be a good host right now?
MEYERS: Now you have to have good taste and you have to have a conviction that your taste is the right taste for the show. Like, don’t get me wrong — we tell a lot of very dumb jokes as well on this show. But I think that when I tell them, the audience believes that I enjoy telling them, because I do.
ZIWE: A new quality that you have to have is [an understanding of] context. Because an interview guest could say something like, “I love a winter vacation. I love skiing.” And this has a different context depending on class, depending on race. Okay, is this a blond person who loves skiing who went to prep school, or is this like a young guy from Atlanta who loves skiing? Like, “How did you learn to love skiing? How did you get into skiing?” Or is it the global warming of it all? “Skiing, now that’s a dying art. How do you feel about the fact that it doesn’t snow [anymore]?” Context. Because there are so many entry points into a conversation, and that comes from listening, right? If you’re listening actively, you know that at any point you could stop the guest and go off-road. And it allows you to explore the depths of the guest in a way that would be otherwise a superficial interview.
PALMER: I think everything before was about [hosts] being able to keep up a facade. But now people are not necessarily into the facade, but more so into pulling from behind the curtain. That is what creates the opportunity for someone like me. And then also diversity. Now everybody is getting even more diverse and even more inclusive. The reality of those things also makes way for me to be a host in the way that I’m a host.
LAKSHMI: I haven’t really changed. I think the times have.