Get Me Rewrite! Now It’s Late-Night Hosts Keeping Up With News


In just the past two weeks, several major stories have dropped around crunchtime between 5 and 6 p.m.: the firing of the F.B.I. director James B. Comey; Mr. Trump’s intelligence disclosure; the revelation of a memo by Mr. Comey that documented Mr. Trump’s efforts to halt an investigation of Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser; and the appointment of a special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to oversee the investigation into ties between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.

With a mixture of speed, weariness and a growing acceptance that this is what their job now entails, comedy show writers are scrambling to satisfy the appetites of their news-savvy audiences. The frenzy reflects not only the pressure writers put on themselves to come up with the freshest, sharpest satire they can generate, but also their competitive TV environment, where several broadcast and cable shows are trying to put unique stamps on the same set of events.

The rapid responses are already yielding tangible results: On Friday, Comedy Central said that “The Daily Show” had its most watched week ever in Mr. Noah’s tenure, drawing an average of just more than 1 million viewers an episode.

With people getting news from more sources than ever, including from late-night shows themselves, the joke tellers have become like the journalists providing scoops: They don’t want to be even five minutes behind their rivals.

“This has not happened this much in the past,” Mr. Bodow said. But these recent stories, he said, “were major, crazy developments whose import was immediately clear — each time, we were like, ‘O.K., we’ve got to do that.’”


Seth Meyers, the host of NBC’s “Late Night,” has had his staff quickly revise the show when news breaks.


Seth Meyers, the host of NBC’s “Late Night,” said that when the news of Mr. Comey’s memo emerged last Tuesday, just before taping time at 6:30 p.m., his staff hurriedly revised one of his “A Closer Look” monologues — already prepared to address the intelligence disclosures — to incorporate the newer story.

Mr. Meyers said that he also explained the Comey memo to his studio audience before his taping started.

“You want to tell people, stuff has happened in the last hour that you’re probably not aware of,” he explained. “It’s not as crazy as you’re thinking, but also, it’s crazier than anything that’s ever happened up to this point.”

Jo Miller, the showrunner of TBS’s “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” said that on May 9, at 5:49 p.m., she was writing the final line of a show to be taped and aired the next night when Mr. Comey’s firing was announced.


The staff of TBS’s “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” worked overnight to rewrite the show after Mr. Comey was fired.


The show’s staff worked overnight to write a new first act, while the previously prepared segment, on the American Health Care Act of 2017, was taped anyway and posted online.

Ms. Miller said in an email that she and her colleagues now have plenty of experience adjusting for late-breaking news, dating back to when the Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016.

“We still use the shorthand ‘Scalia’ (as a verb) for what has become a weekly last-minute show adjustment,” she said.

Programs like “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” which is based in Los Angeles and usually recorded around 8 p.m. Eastern time, have slightly more time to incorporate real-life plot twists. (CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” both based in New York, declined to comment for this article.)

“The Daily Show” has made some adjustments to its production, like moving its rehearsal to 3 p.m. from 3:30 p.m., to allow more time for the unexpected.

When the special counsel’s appointment was announced on Wednesday night, Mr. Bodow said: “We slipped into it like it was standard procedure. We quickly bid goodbye to a bunch of Snapchat and Instagram jokes and hello to special counsel Robert Mueller.”

Mr. Meyers said that it was crucial for “Late Night” to keep pace with the evening news, so his content reflects what viewers are most interested in later that night and the next morning.

Describing the thought process at his show, he said, “It’s like, ‘Oh, we’ll do a piece about airline deregulation today — nope, no we will not, because that is no longer what anybody is talking about.’”

Jen Flanz, an executive producer at “The Daily Show,” said that, as rapidly as audiences have learned to digest what feels like an all-night news buffet, they expect their dessert, in the form of satirical commentary, to follow soon after.

“They just saw that alert on their phone, too,” she said. “If you don’t address it, they’re waiting for it the whole time. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah — get to that thing.’ And if we never got to it, they’re not laughing.”

And just as news media organizations vie for scoops, Ms. Flanz said there was a similar spirit of competition among late-night shows to have the best, most current material.

“We’d better get this joke up before somebody else does,” she said.

While Mr. Meyers said that he appreciated seeing the “madcap, ‘Philadelphia Story’ energy” of his staff accommodating an 11th-hour update, there were also times he said it was appropriate to wait before reacting to complicated stories.

“If we’re adding four pages of explanation,” he said, “we’d probably think, ‘Let’s give this the full 24 hours to get to tomorrow’s show.’”

If need be, the New York-based shows have some wiggle room to tape later in the evening, but not too late, because some final edits and tweaks still need to be made before their episodes are broadcast.

Though there have been special occasions in which programs like “Late Night” and “The Daily Show” have gone live — the Republican and Democratic National Conventions; election night — no one necessarily wants to inflict this strain on studio audiences and co-workers every evening.

As Mr. Bodow said, “If you’re not taping by 7:30 or 8, then you’re doing it live, and don’t you dare suggest that.”

He added, sardonically, “I think for the impeachment show, that’s what we’ll do.”

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