Can the late-night chat-show format work on British television?

Can the late-night chat-show format work on British television?

LATE-NIGHT chat shows play an outsize role in American politics. A survey conducted by Pew in 2010 found that 13% of people under the age of 30 tuned in to the “Daily Show” for its coverage of current affairs—as many as watched CNN or network evening news. That year, a political rally led by John Stewart and Stephen Colbert gathered an estimated 215,000 people in Washington DC, before the midterm elections. Prominent political figures have appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live”, “Late Night with Seth Meyers”, “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon”, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”. Presidential candidates have long done the rounds of such programmes in the hope of raising their profiles and appearing likeable to voters. After Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar appeared on the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in recent months, the 2020 Democratic race was dubbed the “Stephen Colbert Primary”.

Little wonder, then, that British television executives have tried to introduce similar shows across the Atlantic. “10 O’Clock Live” premiered on Channel 4 in 2011, hosted by Jimmy Carr, David Mitchell, Charlie Brooker and Lauren Laverne. The show’s high production values and earnest commentary resembled those of its American counterparts, and should have played to the strengths of its key figures. Mr Carr used monologues to show off his one-liners, Mr Brooker was given a segment in which to poke fun at British culture and Mr Mitchell engaged in the apoplectic rants for which he is famous. It was cancelled after only three series, after middling reviews (one called it a “murderously unfunny smug-a-thon”) and poor ratings. 

In 2017 the “Nightly Show” tried again. Broadcasting on weekdays, ITV put a different celebrity at the helm every week—and it was a disaster. Reviewers called the show a “desperate” take on the American format, lacking any satirical punch; few viewers tuned in, and those that did took to social media to air their grievances (particularly about the News at Ten being pushed back by half an hour). It did not make it past the inaugural series. Ellie Taylor, a comedian who worked on the show, argued that it was a question of resources. “[In America] they have incredible people churning out incredible material everyday,” she said. “We don’t have that industry.”

The failures are not down to a paucity of capable hosts. James Corden and John Oliver, two British comedians, have found great success presenting late-night shows in America. Nor is it reflective of a British distaste for political programmes, which are a staple on the schedule of the major channels (albeit rarely in prime-time). The cancellations suggest an unwillingness on the part of television executives to persevere with the format if it does not yield returns quickly, particularly when a series is expensive to produce. American shows, by contrast, can afford to give new hosts and new styles time. Trevor Noah was hardly familiar to audiences when he took over the “Daily Show” from Jon Stewart in 2015. Viewers dropped off, but then returned. Mr Noah’s contract has since been extended until 2022.

Perhaps it is a question of familiarity, too. Panel shows are a tried-and-tested format in Britain. “Mock the Week”, for example, is 13 years old. “8 out 10 Cats” is on its 10th series, while “Have I Got News For You” was first broadcast less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The setup lends itself to a particular style of British humour: guests can make newsy quips and puns, and quick thinking is rewarded. Comedians make jokes at each other’s expense, and overly confident celebrities get their comeuppance. All this is significantly different in tone to the monologues typical of late-night talk shows, where the host expounds, uninterrupted, about government policy or social issues. Plus, those who want to watch Mr Oliver’s rants can find them online.

“UK comedy audiences prize originality,” James Brassett of Warwick University says, and so simply cutting and pasting the “Daily Show” into Britain does not work. But there are still ways to make use of the American form and combine it with British comedy’s idiosyncratic voice—what Armando Iannucci, a prominent satirist, describes as “tangential, playful and surreal”. 

“The Mash Report”, broadcast on the BBC, is the closest any show has come to pulling it off. Though much like “10 O’Clock Live” and American shows in its use of different segments and characters, it does not feel chaotic. A “fake news desk”, a collaboration with the Daily Mash, an online website, is well written and gives the show an absurdist streak (one “report”, for example, was about northerners’ rude awakening to the unfriendliness of London). Rachel Parris, a stand-up comedian, delves into topical issues and pokes fun at politicians. Promisingly, though the show has attracted a smaller audience than is expected of a 10pm slot, the BBC is giving it time to improve. Perhaps the controllers sense that in trying times, good comedy is essential.

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