No Trump, No Problem for Late-Night Talk Series Like The Daily Show With Trevor Noah

The ebb and flow of current events always impacts late-night talk shows, but for this year’s Emmy nominees in the variety talk series category, the 2020-21 TV season proved bumpier than usual. Producing shows remotely amid the pandemic aside, there were polar-opposite approaches to governing the switch from the Donald Trump to Joe Biden presidential administrations.

CBS’ “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” executive producer Tom Purcell previously told Variety that one of the beauties of producing late-night television is the constant discovery and evolution, which all the late-night shows had to embrace this year.

“Late-night is a constant chronicle of the national mood and what people are going through in a very granular way,” Purcell said. “We’re reacting to it just as events are carrying us all along.” For Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” executive producer Jen Flanz says prior to the 2020 election, Noah’s team was cautiously optimistic that they’d have more of an opportunity to veer away from “being in D.C. every day” if Biden won, offering the show a chance to return to general cultural, social and international stories, from mental health and gun control to racial inequality and the environment.

“[Trump] was very difficult to write around because he’d make sure to insert himself even in stories that weren’t about him initially,” says supervising producer and writer Zhubin Parang. “Not having him as a requirement to talk about got us so excited because we could discuss issues that we would never have been able to talk about without including him.”

Parang says the team was relieved to not have to react to every Trump statement or tweet. He gave the GameStop stock run-up as an example of a Trump-free story they were glad to be able to cover: “That was not a story we would have been able to do without him involving himself had he still been the president,” Parang says. “It almost felt like the entire world was so excited to start doing stuff that didn’t involve Trump that the amount of stories blew up in his absence. It’s been very fun just talking about things that have nothing to do with him.”

That’s not to say that “The Daily Show” or other Emmy-nominated late-night shows have avoided Trump or the contrast between Trump and Biden altogether since the inauguration. ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” noted in February the Biden White House reinstated the phrase “climate change” and ditched “illegal alien” for “noncitizen.” Kimmel speculated on other terms and phrases that might be eliminated, from “fake news” to “bigly” to “Get Lou Dobbs on the phone!”

On HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” the host declared the reaction to Biden’s victory “a reverse 9/11,” but it wasn’t long before he was critical of what he saw as the Biden administration’s inaction on stranded refugees.

For “The Daily Show,” the return to a sense of political normalcy also impacts how producers approach the program, marking a return from reactive to proactive.

“Before the Trump era, the way we wrote the show and produced the show was we used to think a day-to-a-week-out about what might be happening, which hearings may be coming up in the Supreme Court. We could plan a little more,” Flanz says. “And we got out of the practice of planning because we found even once [Trump] started running for office, we were writing and producing all this material and then we couldn’t use it on the show because he would bump everything. What’s been nice and also challenging has been to get back into the practice of writing ahead and producing ahead and thinking about what may be coming up or just thinking what’s a topic that we want to cover on this show.”

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