Let there be late night: A report card on the hosts’ return episodes, some better than others

In the wee-est hour on Tuesday morning —1:05 am, according to his post’s timestamp, Donald Trump reviewed the combined returns of Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers and John Oliver to live (on tape) TV.

“Now that the ‘strike’ is over, the talentless, low rated CREEPS of Late Night Television are back. I knew there was a reason I didn’t want to see it settled — True LOSERS!!!” he posted on Truth Social.

He went on to add, “Remember when I told you that the poorly rated and not at all funny Late Night Talk Shows are nothing less than a major Campaign Contribution to the Radical Left Democrat Party. Watch what is going on – so interesting!”

By then, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” had already aired its first episode back after five months. But the post was fair game for the rest.

On Tuesday’s “Jimmy Kimmel Tonight!” Kimmel replied, “This from a man who is such a loser that he buried his ex-wife on a golf course just so he can continue to cheat on her.” Then he turns to his sidekick. “You get it, Guillermo?” he did not.

On “Late Night,” Meyers mentioned the ad and deadpanned that Trump couldn’t possibly be talking about him.

Meanwhile, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” quickly pulled the most complimentary verbiage out of context and slapped it onto a massive Times Square billboard ad.

Nature is healing.

Late night’s return is an early sign of TV coming back after the five-month Writers Guild of America strike, which all the hosts acknowledged, some more extensively than others (cough cough Fallon cough). Spending 148 days off the air blunted the scalpels of some more than others.

All of them enumerated the craziness they wished they’d been on the air to confront since May. Subjects repeating across multiple monologues included Trump’s multiple indictments (of course); Trump’s miraculous 215 lbs. weigh-in on his Fulton Country inmate file; Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert’s “Beetlejuice” diddling; “The Golden Bachelor” and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell flipping out in a deposition at the suggestion that his products are lumpy. Which they are.

These returns also separated the Lettermans from the Leno.

Although the shows are back, their struggles aren’t quite over. On Tuesday’s “Late Night,” Meyers also acknowledged that SAG-AFTRA remains on strike, explaining what any celebrity guests on his show are allowed to do and what is verboten. (Salon’s unionized employees are represented by the WGA East.)

Late night’s leading men weren’t entirely stalled. Fallon, Kimmel, Meyers, Oliver and Colbert banded together to create a podcast called “Strike Force Five,” supporting their shows’ benched late-night staffs with the proceeds. In Monday night’s monologues we learned the hosts received an order of the many, oh so many t-shirts they intended to hawk in support of the cause when the guild announced the strike was over.

Oliver, who was Colbert’s guest on Tuesday, helped his old “Daily Show” buddy get rid of a few by way of a t-shirt cannon, but that merriment ended when Oliver accidentally biffed an audience member squarely in the face. (The woman seemed fine but attorneys live for this kind of oopsie, and maybe Mama needs her student loans wiped out.)

If you missed late night, it was great to have them back. These returns also separated the Lettermans from the Leno. Some of these comics really unplugged, and others, to use Kimmel’s parlance, were so backed up with funny stuff that from the moment they took the stage they became spontaneously combusting joke piñatas.

Here’s a rundown of each late-night personality’s return performance, examining how well some reminded us of how and why they own certain niches and how others – one, specifically – did himself no favors by failing to use his network platform wisely and with humility.

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” resumed on Sunday, Oct. 1 on HBO.

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)Given his show’s long-form journalistic centerpieces and its host’s penchant for julienning every insane headline with arch glee, one would think his show being first to resume production would have placed Oliver at something of a disadvantage. Far from it. From the moment he launched in his litany of everything he missed over the last five months, Oliver was lit up like New York in December.

While he traveled through the easy takes, he took extreme joy in a string of callbacks to the Boebert incident, not merely for the “freshman-era hands stuff” of it, but his naked delight at knowing it happened at “Beetlejuice: The Musical.”

What else did he miss? A lot: Barbenheimer, “Sound of Freedom,” King Charles’ coronation and the viral feel-good hit of the summer, “Cop Slide.” “Cinema at its finest!” he called it. Also, the Titan submersible disaster, the raid on a newspaper in Kansas, the Maui wildfires, and the Alabama Sweet Tea Party. The internet took care of us on all those fronts, a major reason that late-night audiences have declined in recent years.

Between that and making the most of the looser standards and practices of premium cable by featuring Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) reading a fully uncensored passage from George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue” with dialogue about lube, a strap-on and fellatio, it truly was a stellar welcome home party. And that was before he dove into an incisive look at Prison Health Care.

“Late Night with Seth Meyers” resumed Monday, Oct. 2 on NBC.

If you missed late night, it was great to have them back.

Oliver spent about half of his program running down the barrage of stories he missed. Meyers did him one better, devoting the full hour of his return to a mega-sized version of “A Closer Look, and, stunningly, he did not slow his cadence one bit.

“A Closer Look” is typically written by one writer; if that holds for Monday’s segment, hat’s off to that guy. But the relentless alacrity of Meyers’ delivery and the fact that he sustained it over 40 minutes, with a single commercial break to catch his breath, reaffirms his unmatched performance ability, met by supervisor Wally Feresten’s successful handling of the 260 cue cards required to pull it off.  

 Late Night with Seth MeyersCue card handler Wally Feresten and host Seth Meyers on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” (Lloyd Bishop/NBC)As Meyers said in Monday’s and Tuesday’s telecasts, though, he could never pull off his show alone, and he proved that by featuring another installment of “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” featuring writers Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel busting out punch lines to setups that, as Meyers says, “due to my being a straight, white male would be difficult for me to deliver.”

Ruffin stopped the audience in its tracks with a Cosby joke that never mentioned him by name. It was an accessible bit that had an insiderish intellect, establishing why Ruffin and this show’s other writers are among the smartest in the biz.

“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” resumed on Monday, Oct. 2 on NBC.

During the pandemic, Meyers created a character called the Sea Captain. In a skit heralding his return, Colbert zipped back to New York from a mid-ocean exile on the back of a dolphin.

Coming off months spent adrift, it would seem, he uncorked some lewd energy, pantomiming Boebert’s theatric hand technique by simulating starting a lawnmower, including pressing an invisible choke button with two wiggling fingers.

Regardless, most of his monologues and Tuesday’s “Meanwhile” segment restored him as the king of smart dad jokes.

As such, seeing him host Oliver on Tuesday was a bit of magic Colbert’s joust with Monday guest, Neil deGrasse Tyson couldn’t quite match. Oliver is always slightly incensed on behalf of the common person; Colbert is too. He’s just most invested in making you feel better after being hit with bad news, which we could have used a few times over the summer.

“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” resumed on Monday, Oct. 2 on NBC.

Monday night’s show kicked off with Kimmel walking into a pickleball game in progress, explaining the network had rented out the unused space. From there the jokes were very Kimmel standard – pleasant, dry and unchallenging. “I’m sorry, but you know what? Try James Corden’s studio. He moved to England,” he tells the ousted pickleballers.

Regarding his five months off the air: “We’ve been gone for so long, ‘The Bachelor’ is now a grandfather.”

As for Trumpworld: “Trump got arrested four times: Once for classified documents, once for interfering with the election, once for January 6, and once for shooting Tupac, allegedly.”

Night two was sharper, as he expressed surprise at McCarthy’s announcement that he would not run to reclaim his Speaker position. “I mean, he’s a Republican,” Kimmel quipped. “You lose a vote, you just say you won the vote. Get with the program, man.” 

Kimmel may not be the top-rated late-night host, but his Everyman agreeability makes him the more down-to-earth alternative to that other Jimmy.

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“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” also resumed on Monday, Oct. 2 on NBC.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy FallonThe Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (Rosalind O’Connor/NBC)During his Monday rundown of everything he and his fellow hosts missed while they were out, Colbert told the audience that Russia banned all of America’s late-night hosts — “including me!” he said — except for Jimmy Fallon.

If you hadn’t heard that news, that’s probably because Rolling Stone’s scathing expose describing Fallon’s toxic behavior behind the scenes likely drowned out the implications of Putin’s tacit endorsement. None of Fallon’s Strike Force Five teammates mentioned the Rolling Stone report even though it was all anyone could talk about in the days following the report.

One would think Fallon would be straining to make the obligatorily polite apologies to his oppressed staffers. But he said nothing on Monday night, saving his mana to sing with Matthew McConaughey – which both stars are allowed to do.

Did the audience notice? Draw your own conclusions from the show’s 19% year-over-year increase in total viewers for Monday night’s episode, according to Nielsen ratings. He still came in second place in the 18-49 target demographic, bested by Kimmel.

Based on his lackluster monologue, his lack of acknowledgment has registered with his writers. On Wednesday the news broke that the WGA staffers on “The Drew Barrymore Show” declined to return to her production, but Fallon’s people seem to be quiet quitting. Understandable.

Where’s “The Daily Show”? Comedy Central’s late-night fake news flagship returns Monday, Oct. 16 with a yet-to-be-announced guest host and, unfortunately, without veteran correspondent Roy Wood Jr., who announced his exit from the show on Thursday. Trevor Noah’s permanent replacement has yet to be named, and that person won’t make their debut in the chair until 2024.

Between it and the rest, we’ll have plenty of satire to parse, thank goodness. There are only so many reruns of “Family Guy” a person can take while they’re drifting off.

Oh, and “Real Time with Bill Maher” is also back. Now you know.

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