The Late Show with Stephen Colbert mixes comedy and politics to appeal to its viewersTWITTER/ESTREAM_STUDIOS

The cultural phenomenon of the US late-night television show is one not often discussed coming from my education and family background. Little mention of TV has been made in my academic studies or by my parents (except in the context of evening viewing arguments). But I would argue that shows such as Last Week Tonight (HBO), The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (CBS) and Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC) deserve interrogation because what they do goes, for me at least, beyond providing a light-hearted nightcap.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, airing on weeknights at 11:35pm, has an undoubtedly comedic feel. Colbert’s opening monologue presents the day’s (mostly political) news in a satirical way, in recent years featuring cartoonish depictions of recurring characters Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. The show’s celebrity interviews have included tea with Helena Bonham-Carter, tequila with Dakota Johnson and wine with Graham Norton, all in front of a hundreds-strong live audience. Segments such as ‘The Road From The White House’ and ‘Catch a Third Wave: Endless Bummer’ provide what I see as a necessary new perspective on two otherwise worrying current events.

“The ability of The Late Show make people in these positions relatable is incredibly valuable in engaging the population with politics.”

To me, though, The Late Show stands out in two ways beyond its humorous value. The show was interesting to me initially because of the accessible way in which it presented American politics. By framing less prominent figures — from my perspective, everyone besides Trump — as recurring characters in the day-to-day drama of Washington D.C., I was able to view the business of the two houses of the American Congress and of the White House as something more human and more real than what is presented in newspaper snapshots.

In addition (and being aware that The Late Show is not the only show to which this applies), the show’s multiple interviews with Barack Obama, Jacinda Ardern and Joe Biden have allowed me to further empathise with prominent world leaders. The ability of The Late Show and others to make people in these positions relatable is incredibly valuable in engaging the population with politics and with the democratic process. I find it hard to underestimate the importance of this when there exists such an effort to overturn it from someone who, until recently, held the US presidency.

John Oliver's Last Week Tonight is known for its quick-witted nature and dark humourTWITTER/TIMEBOMBMAN

A second late-night show — not strictly a talk show, in contrast to the others discussed here — combining gripping political comment with dry fun-poking is Last Week Tonight, airing at 11pm on Sundays and hosted by (wait for it) ex-Cambridge student John Oliver. A standout feature of the show is its in-depth but concise treatment of issues from workplace sexual harassment to nuclear waste storage to the operation of the US Supreme Court. From my perspective, a restricted-to-twenty-minutes treatment of subjects like these, presented with a touch of dark humour and outrageous but apt analogies, is a helpful and engaging format without which it’s unlikely I’d do independent research into the topics discussed.

Late Night with Seth Meyers (airing at 12:35am on weekday mornings), is appealing to me not primarily because of its humour or because of its politics, but because it raises head-on questions about the need for a diverse range of voices in comedy. In a recurring segment of the show, Jokes Seth Can’t Tell, two of Late Night’s writers join Meyers, the show’s host, onstage to tell (and I paraphrase) jokes he can’t tell because he is straight, white and male, but which he and the staff think we should still hear. This segment is interesting because, on the one hand, it shows the show being self-conscious about the qualities (and biases) that its host brings to the table but, on the other hand (and perhaps not entirely intentionally), the show highlights through it a trend pervasive in the late-night talk show circuit, that is, the lack of diversity among show hosts.


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While each late-night show discussed and not discussed here is unique, something uniting those I’ve seen is encouragement of their viewership to engage in the democracy of their country. Stephen Colbert’s case is perhaps the most obvious, given The Late Show’s production of a series of videos entitled ‘Better Know A Ballot’, letting voters know how to vote in every state, in advance of the 2020 general election. But Last Week Tonight and each of the late-night talk shows, hosted by, among others, Colbert, Meyers, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden, regularly encourages political engagement. Their hosts’ ridiculing of those who would undermine the democratic process makes that hard to deny. This idea of using television shows to engage people with politics is something we might have need for in the UK, especially for a post-Brexit generation.