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Midterm elections are a big deal for late-night shows, too: Seth Meyers explains

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Live, from Election Night: It’s late-night comedy!

As the nation approaches what many consider the most consequential midterm election in memory, late-night shows are once again forsaking their customary early-evening tapings to comment on polling results and trends in real time.

Seth Meyers, who regularly delves into politics on NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” says it makes more sense to go live at 12:35 a.m. EST, when the nation will be focused on election results. 

“I couldn’t imagine taping a show at 6:30 (EST) that night, like we usually do, and having anybody be interested in what had happened six hours ago, because so much will have changed,” he says.

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Besides “Late Night,” other comedy shows planning live broadcasts Tuesday include CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” (11:35 EST/PST) and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” (11 EST/PST).

In addition, Showtime’s animated “Our Cartoon President,” produced by Colbert, presented a pre-election special Sunday, and TBS’ “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” plans a bonus Election Eve special on Monday (10:30 EST/PST) in addition to its regular Wednesday show.

They’re following their networks’ news divisions: ABC, CBS and NBC will devote their entire Tuesday prime-time lineups to election coverage, tripling the combined three hours devoted in 2014, and more than for any midterm in recent history.

Late-night shows have become more politically pointed in recent years, nudged by the success of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,”  says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Late night’s election focus reflects current hosts’ interest in talking politics. (Politics-averse Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” is pre-empted Tuesday).The emphasis has increased with the election of President Donald Trump, and that extends to the midterm elections, Jamieson says.

“You’re not going to focus on individual candidates other than a president unless they’re nationally visible enough to make the premise of the jokes stick. Now, If you’ve got Trump out there campaigning, there’s a way to circle the Trump jokes back in,” Jamieson says. “It’s Trump in the context of the midterms.”

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Late-night shows have gone live for past political events:  “Late Show” and “Daily Show” did so after the 2018 State of the Union address and the 2016 presidential election, and Meyers did during the 2016 party conventions and after a presidential debate. Still, so many live shows during a midterm election is unusual.

“I hate to be the one to break it to you: Things are unusual all over,” Meyers says. “We’re in an interesting time where things like midterms are receiving so much more attention in the run-up than they usually do … and I think that’s why so many of us are deciding to do live shows this night.”

The live “Late Night” show, which will feature Meyer’s pointed take on the news, “A Closer Look,” will follow NBC News election coverage. Guests include journalist Soledad O’Brien and Billy Eichner, who has been leading a campaign to get people to vote. 

Meyers and his writers won’t have much time to react to election results, but that’s not a bad problem.

“In simpler times, your biggest fear is how will we fill the hour? I have no doubt we’ll have plenty to talk about,” he says. “We’re going to try pretty hard, depending on how the night goes, not to let our emotions get away with us one way or the other and to just make jokes about the result.”

Whatever those results, Meyers doesn’t expect the kind of Tuesday surprise of two years earlier.

When Trump was elected, “I, at the time, thought he wasn’t going to be what I wanted out of a president. I might have been wrong about the election, but I feel like I’ve been pretty on the money for that,” he says.

Many late-night hosts no longer shy away from edgier political material, which is partly a result of how viewers consume information, Jamieson says.

“The assumption always was that people were watching before they went to bed and they didn’t want politics,” she says. “Now we live in a world where we have 24-hour access to political exchanges. … People sleep with their cellphones on next to them. Late night isn’t afraid political commentary is going to keep us awake at night.” 

Meyers likes weighing in on the political conversation.

“I would like to think we encourage people to become more engaged in politics, and at the very least we can tell you what happened during the day with enough jokes that it will be easier to go down than if you just got it from the newspaper or TV,” he says. “I think we’re a pretty decent supplement.” 

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