The 10 Late-Night TV Moments That Defined the Decade
From Jon Stewart’s departure to Jimmy Fallon’s fateful hair ruffle and Jimmy Kimmel’s tearful plea, the 2010s were a time of major upheaval in the late-night landscape.
Ten years ago, the “late-night wars” were at their peak. Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien were battling for The Tonight Show as David Letterman chuckled from the sidelines. Jimmy Kimmel was still that immature dude from The Man Show who had trouble booking A-list guests. And Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were at the top of their game on Comedy Central.
A lot has changed in the decade since.
Letterman walked away from network TV and now produces about six interviews a year for Netflix, paving the way for the “real” Colbert to dominate the late-night ratings in a way he never could before. In an oddly prescient move, Stewart stepped down before he was forced to cover the Trump era. And a new generation of late-night stars, mostly culled from The Daily Show’s ranks, has descended on cable and streaming to fill the void Stewart left behind.
As this decade comes to a close and the nation braces for 2020, here’s a chronological look back at the 10 moments that had the biggest impact on late-night television over the past 10 years.
It’s regretful that just one is centered on a female host, Samantha Bee, who has managed to succeed in this still male-dominated field unlike others—including Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, Michelle Wolf, Robin Thede, Busy Philipps and Iliza Shlesinger—who made valiant efforts this decade but all had their shows prematurely canceled, before they were given the chance to have the same cultural impact as their male counterparts. Starting with NBC’s Lilly Singh, let’s hope this next decade has a better track record.
Conan O’Brien Blows Up ‘The Tonight Show’
The decade began with major drama. Within the span of a few weeks in January 2010, NBC tried to force its recently installed Tonight Show host Conan O’Brien to the post-midnight slot to make room for Jay Leno—who had been hosting his new primetime show at 10 p.m.—to move back to his original perch at 11:35. Instead of accepting the insult of a deal, O’Brien walked, making life hell for the network until his final show aired on Jan. 22.
What followed was a decade-long transformation for O’Brien, who is now the longest-serving late-night host on TV with his ever-evolving show on TBS. There were hopes that he might blow up the traditional talk show format from the start, but instead he has done so slowly over the course of several years. There were hints of a desire to do something new in his innovative travel specials, but it wasn’t until this year when TBS cut the show down to 30 minutes that he seemed to feel truly free to loosen up the staid format.
The addition of his insanely popular podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, the Team Coco universe has given the 56-year-old comedian a platform to be more laugh-out-loud hilarious than he’s been since his early days of Late Night on NBC.
Bill Maher Gets Sued by Donald Trump
Long before Donald Trump became a nightly punchline, he was a frequent target for Bill Maher. During a 2013 appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the Real Time host took Trump to task for his birther attacks on President Barack Obama by joking that he would donate $5 million to the charity of Trump’s choice if he could prove that he’s not the “spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan.”
Trump decided to take him seriously, filing a lawsuit that demanded Maher pay up before quietly withdrawing it a couple of months later. It was among the first times the newly “conservative” Trump had made himself a character on late-night TV—Maher has been milking his victory ever since—predicting just how central he would become to the medium once he became a candidate and ultimately president. Maher was among the first to demonstrate that Trump is easy to make jokes about—perhaps too easy.
Stephen Colbert Gets ‘Canceled’
The outrage started, as it often does, with a tweet. In March of 2014, the official Twitter account for The Colbert Report tweeted, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” Left out was the context: a recent Colbert Report segment parodying Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who formed the “Original Americans Foundation” to combat accusations that his team name was racist.
What followed was a canary in the coal mine for “cancel culture” as activists got #CancelColbert trending on Twitter. The following week, Colbert addressed the backlash, in character as right-wing pundit “Stephen Colbert,” joking, “I’m not going to lie, this was close, we almost lost me.” The Colbert Report was not “canceled,” either figuratively or literally, running through the end of that year before the “real” Colbert ultimately took over for David Letterman the following fall.
But the hashtag activism was a sign of things to come, with outraged Twitter users attempting to take out Trevor Noah before he could succeed Jon Stewart and successfully keeping Kevin Hart from hosting the Oscars and comedian Shane Gillis from joining the cast of Saturday Night Live. The #CancelColbert campaign may not be the reason Colbert dropped his provocative character and embraced the more thoughtful version of himself, but it probably helped.
John Oliver Breaks the Internet
No one has been more successful at using his show to affect real change than John Oliver. This first became apparent on just the fifth episode of Last Week Tonight, in June 2014. His main topic that Sunday night was the decidedly unsexy net neutrality. And yet his argument was so convincing that viewers bombarded the FCC with comments, perhaps helping push the agency to reverse a policy that would have essentially eliminated that basic tenet of the internet.
When he returned to the topic three years later, viewers sent so many comments that they crashed the FCC’s website, which originally was thought to be the target of a cyberattack. He has only continued to use his power for good since.
Samantha Bee Breaks the Mold
The longest-serving Daily Show correspondent of all time deserves major credit for achieving what no other female late-night host has in this decade or any other. She survived.
After premiering in early 2016 on TBS, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee became a vital voice throughout that year’s presidential campaign and the Trump presidency she never saw coming. Bee filmed an entire celebratory cold open sketch that was meant to run the night after Hillary Clinton’s victory and had to be refashioned as a dystopian nightmare. This fall, her show was renewed through the 2020 election.
It would be easy to boil Bee’s tenure down to the moment she called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” for doing nothing to stop family separation at the border, but Full Frontal has been so much more than that. Not only are her political rants consistently sharper and funnier than those of her male counterparts, but Bee has brought a unique authority to her coverage of the #MeToo movement generally and the Brett Kavanaugh saga specifically that has made her indispensable this decade.
Trevor Noah Goes ‘Between the Scenes’
When Comedy Central started looking for someone to replace Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show in 2015, they were thinking big. According to a New York Times magazine feature from that year, the network got the “quickest no in history” from Amy Poehler. Offers also went out to Chris Rock and Amy Schumer but both comics turned them down. (Remarkably, Samantha Bee was never even considered, as she revealed on The Last Laugh podcast earlier this year.)
Ultimately they landed on the relatively unknown South African comic Trevor Noah. After avoiding his own #CancelCulture moment, he struggled at first to fill the most trusted seat in late-night TV. The thing that changed it all was when he decided to go off-script for the Emmy-winning “Between the Scenes” web series that found Noah sharing his honest thoughts about the most divisive news stories of the day as opposed to delivering canned jokes. He may never reach the moral clarity heights of Jon Stewart but in this piece about the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile, he comes awfully close.
Jimmy Fallon Ruffles Trump’s Hair
If Donald Trump had not been elected president less than two months later, it’s likely no one would remember the time Jimmy Fallon ruffled his hair on The Tonight Show. But as it turned out, that moment has haunted Fallon ever since.
Fallon has said he was “devastated” by the criticism and “depressed” in the weeks that followed. Not only was he pilloried by the left, but Trump himself also attacked the host on Twitter, writing, “Jimmy’s now whimpering to all that he did the famous ‘hair show’ with me (where he seriously messed up my hair) & that he would have now done it differently because it is said to have ‘humanized’ me-he is taking heat. He called & said ‘monster ratings.’ Be a man Jimmy!”
In many ways his show has never recovered. The Trump era has put a premium on politically astute late-night hosts, which helps explain why Stephen Colbert zoomed past Fallon in the ratings and has remained there ever since.
Jimmy Kimmel’s Health-care Plea
Another host who got the memo about political engagement in the Trump era is Jimmy Kimmel. After the ABC host’s infant son nearly died during open heart surgery, he used his own personal, emotional story to explain why he believed Congress should preserve the Affordable Care Act. “If your baby is going to die and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make,” Kimmel told viewers, choking back tears.
When Senator John McCain put his thumb down to kill the Republican Party’s “repeal and replace” plan just a few months later, Kimmel was rightly credited for helping sway the nation with his words.
James Corden Sings with Paul McCartney
If there was one late-night segment that made viewers happier than any other this decade it has to be James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke.” And while The Late Late Show host may have recently jumped the shark by singing gospel with Kanye West on a plane, the bit reached its peak when he toured Liverpool and sang Beatles songs with Paul McCartney last year. With nearly 50 million views on YouTube, it’s also easily one of the most-watched late-night moments of the decade.
Seth Meyers Takes on Meghan McCain
In the nearly six years since it premiered on NBC, Late Night with Seth Meyers has slowly become one of the most consistently funny and engaging late-night shows on TV. If you want a 10-minute breakdown of what happened in Trumpland on any given day, there is no more pleasurable way to get it than through Meyers’ masterful “A Closer Look” segments.
But if there’s one moment from his time on the air that really stands out above the rest, it’s probably the surprisingly contentious interview he had with The View’s Meghan McCain earlier this year. At least, it was surprising for McCain, who seemed to think they would be having the type of chummy conversation that has been the talk show norm for decades. Instead, Meyers grilled her on her “dangerous” comments about Rep. Ilhan Omar, leading McCain to ask him, “Are you her publicist?” Later that night, her husband Ben Domenech tweeted an unhinged homophobic rant against the host.
There may have been a time when two ideologically opposed media figures could sit down for a friendly chat on late-night TV. But as we head into this next divisive decade, that time is over.
For more, listen to the most recent episodes of The Last Laugh podcast.