Los Angeles Times

What late night’s losses show

Recent cancellati­ons suggest TV ‘recession’ likely to hit women, people of color first.

- By Meredith Blake

The night before the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade last month, Samantha Bee delivered an impassione­d call to arms on her late-night show, “Full Frontal.”

“We have to raise hell in our cities, in Washington, in every restaurant Justice Alito eats at for the rest of his life,” she said in the monologue, recorded in her backyard rather than in her studio because she had tested positive for COVID-19 a few days earlier. “Because if Republican­s have made our lives hell, it’s time to return

the favor.”

It turned out to be the last segment the show would ever film. On Monday, Bee released a statement saying that “Full Frontal” would not be returning to TBS in the fall. She praised the show’s creative team for “boldly using political satire to entertain, inform and empower viewers, while embracing critically underrepre­sented stories, particular­ly about women” and noted her own role in “paving the way for female voices in what has traditiona­lly been, and continues to be, a male-dominated landscape.”

In its own statement, TBS described the cancellati­on as a “difficult, businessba­sed decision” and part of a larger shift in programmin­g strategy at the network, a subsidiary of the recently merged Warner Bros. Discovery.

The news that Bee — the only female host in late night when her weekly show launched in 2016 — would no longer have a weekly TV platform represente­d a symbolic blow at a moment of intense anger and despair for many American women.

And it arrived on the heels of another disappoint­ing developmen­t: “Desus & Mero” would not be returning to Showtime for a fifth season because hosts Desus Nice and the Kid Mero — a.k.a. Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez — had decided to end their creative partnershi­p. Bronx natives who rose to comedy stardom via social media while working unglamorou­s day jobs, the duo had arguably the strongest brand in late night, to borrow their catchphras­e, and easily the most distinctiv­e.

Rather than following the “Daily Show” formula of graphics-heavy political monologues, “Desus & Mero” was fueled by the crackling banter between its garrulous hosts, who welcomed guests including Barack Obama and filmed on a set resembling the interior of a New York City bodega. Peppered with injokes and hyper-specific cultural references, the show brought a sorely neglected Black and Latino perspectiv­e to a genre that remains overwhelmi­ngly white and forged a passionate fan base dubbed the Bodega Hive. (Neither the hosts nor members of the show’s creative team were available for comment.)


With the unceremoni­ous ends of “Full Frontal” and “Desus & Mero,” it’s clear that late-night TV, which proliferat­ed rapidly during the Donald Trump years as cable networks and streaming services raced to tap into an appetite for fresh satirical voices, is in a moment of contractio­n.

Last year, NBC canceled “A Little Late With Lilly Singh” after two seasons, and “Conan” ended its decadelong run on TBS with little fanfare. In April, James Corden announced he would be stepping down from “The Late Late Show” in 2023; the network is reportedly considerin­g replacing him with a panel of hosts.

A spate of short-lived late-night shows have launched over the past halfdecade, only to be swiftly canceled. Even a veteran like Jon Stewart, who redefined the genre during his 16year tenure on “The Daily Show,” has failed to gain much traction with his talkshow return, “The Problem With Jon Stewart” for Apple TV+.

Among the problems facing the genre are the hangover among viewers who grew tired of the remote, audience-free late-night programmin­g of the early pandemic and never came back; exhaustion with a news cycle dominated by COVID variants, violent insurrecti­on, inflation, school shootings and climate catastroph­e; and long-term changes in viewing habits and merger mania across the industry. It all adds up to what Alison Camillo, executive producer of “Full Frontal,” half-jokingly describes as a late-night “recession.”

And, like a real-life economic slowdown, it’s likely to hit women and people of color first — even as, somehow, “Real Time With Bill Maher” remains on the air.

“The thing that’s the most frustratin­g to me is that I feel like, the world is not all white men, but for some reason, we’ve chosen to give white men the loudest voice in the room,” said Camillo.

The last time late night was in such turmoil was in 2014-15, when elder statesmen Stewart, Jay Leno, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson all stepped down from their long-running shows within a period of less than two years. An unpreceden­ted succession frenzy saw a bunch of white male hosts replaced by ... a bunch of other white men, with the exception of Trevor Noah at “The Daily Show.”

But the moment also coincided with a creative renaissanc­e in the hidebound late-night format. Cable networks and streaming services looking to compete in a cluttered environmen­t saw opportunit­y in relatively inexpensiv­e topical comedy that was primed to go viral on social media, particular­ly with Trump in the White House.

“Full Frontal” premiered on TBS in 2016, just as that year’s bitterly contentiou­s presidenti­al race was getting underway. Amid #MeToo and the Women’s March, the show was perfectly primed to capture the political zeitgeist, and it often highlighte­d issues, like parental leave and reproducti­ve rights, with particular relevance for women. Along with “Desus & Mero,” it had the most gender-balanced writing staff in late night.

“It was so electric. You could immediatel­y feel we had something,” said Camillo.


“Full Frontal” lasted seven seasons, a comparativ­ely robust lifespan in the fickle world of late-night TV. During its run, at least a dozen comparable shows — many hosted by women or people of color — came and went.

On Netflix, “Chelsea,” a much-hyped talk show with Chelsea Handler, lasted for two seasons and has since been partly removed from the service. “The Break,” hosted by “Daily Show” alum (and controvers­ial critic of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ eye makeup) Michelle Wolf, lasted just one season.

The platform’s most successful endeavor of its kind, “Patriot Act,” hosted by Indian American comedian Hasan Minhaj, won a Peabody Award and was praised for its coverage of internatio­nal issues often neglected by the American media — but it, too, was canceled by 2020, a tacit admission that shows riffing on the day’s headlines don’t really work on a service designed for binge-watching. (Netflix has instead leaned into buzzy, often controvers­ial comedy specials.)

Shows elsewhere followed a similar trajectory. In 2017, writer and comedian Robin Thede became the only woman of color at the time to host a late-night show with “The Rundown” on BET, but it was canceled after a single season. “Busy Tonight,” hosted by actor Busy Philipps, lasted seven months on E! before it got the ax in May 2019. (In a viral moment from one of her final episodes, Philipps spoke candidly about her decision to have an abortion as a teenager.)

That most of these shows aired on networks without a foothold is not a surprise.

Dating back to the late 1980s and 1990s, when Joan Rivers and Arsenio Hall launched talk shows on the then-up-and-coming Fox network, women and people of color have mostly been relegated to newer platforms and lesser time slots.

Lilly Singh, a queer YouTube star of Asian descent, was on NBC at 1:35 a.m. “Desus & Mero” was on Showtime, a well-establishe­d premium network with a track record for award-winning dramas but less experience in late-night comedy. Bee’s show aired on TBS, better known for baseball games and reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” than cutting-edge feminist commentary.

When shows air on networks without a long history in late night, they are uniquely susceptibl­e to changes in programmin­g strategy and the whims of new leadership. “We were doing something nobody else was doing, so every time we got picked up for another season, it was a celebratio­n,” said Camillo.

While TBS gave them broad creative control over the content of “Full Frontal,” and stood by the show after Bee made controvers­ial comments about Ivanka Trump, financial support dwindled noticeably once parent company WarnerMedi­a merged with Discovery. When Brett Weitz, general manager of TBS, TNT and TruTV and a champion of the show, was ousted in May, the writing appeared to be on the wall, Camillo said.

Bee’s departure leaves Amber Ruffin, host of “The Amber Ruffin Show” on Peacock, and Ziwe Fumudoh, host of “Ziwe” on Showtime, as the only women with late-night (or adjacent) shows on TV, and neither airs more than once a week. (The first season of “Ziwe” consisted of just six episodes.)

For Camillo, it’s yet another sign that progress, which once seemed secure, is now being rolled back — reminiscen­t of an era, she said, “when women were using coat hangers for abortions and Johnny Carson was the only game in town.”

 ?? Kirk McKoy Los Angeles Times ?? THE KID MERO, left, and Desus Nice’s recently ended “Desus & Mero” on Showtime added much-needed Latino and Black perspectiv­es to late-night TV.
Kirk McKoy Los Angeles Times THE KID MERO, left, and Desus Nice’s recently ended “Desus & Mero” on Showtime added much-needed Latino and Black perspectiv­es to late-night TV.
 ?? Myles Aronowitz TBS ?? SAMANTHA BEE’S “Full Frontal” on TBS lasted seven seasons but was recently canceled, a symbolic blow to women post-Roe vs. Wade.
Myles Aronowitz TBS SAMANTHA BEE’S “Full Frontal” on TBS lasted seven seasons but was recently canceled, a symbolic blow to women post-Roe vs. Wade.
 ?? Scott Angelheart NBC ?? NBC CANCELED woman-led “A Little Late With Lilly Singh” after two seasons.
Scott Angelheart NBC NBC CANCELED woman-led “A Little Late With Lilly Singh” after two seasons.

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