The new late-night TV wars are being waged online

Twenty-five years ago, late-night TV was a battleground for viewership and ratings. There was a finite amount of airtime for talk shows, and for a long time, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman ruled the airwaves.

But now, perhaps inspired by shows that have revived the form like The Daily Show (and its offshoots), Comedy Bang! Bang! and The Eric Andre Show, a slew of new, hyper-local and hyper-warped versions of the late-night talk format are popping up online. YouTube has plenty of space for anyone who dreams of bantering with guests from behind a desk.

Long Night with Vish Khanna, The Late Great Show and Liver Than Live all thrive on the kind of spontaneity the form allows. Khanna (who writes for NOW) captures the idea perfectly while recalling why late-night talk shows left such an impression on him at a young age.

“These are all well-produced things,” he says, “but it’s among the first mediums I saw that didn’t feel as mediated as it was.” He points to The Larry Sanders Show – a show about a fictional late-night talk show – as an example of a program that “revelled in the precarious social awkwardness and danger of the whole enterprise.”

A staged version of Long Night has been a fixture of the Long Winter concert series for three years. But Long Night the TV show eschews the more forced aspects of the style for a streamlined approach that plays to host Khanna’s strength, the long-form interview. Bell Media’s Ian Daffern and Khanna worked to refine the idea into a more conversational style of show, with each episode revolving around a specific theme. Khanna says that despite its roots, comedy isn’t really the show’s goal.

“If there’s humour, it’s pretty incidental,” he says. “Any time I try to formulate or formalize it, it’s never quite as satisfying.” An experienced journalist and broadcaster, Khanna likes to let humour and anecdotes come up naturally in conversation, taking guests off-script and away from the superficiality of promoting whatever they’re there to hawk.

“The idea is that their work and their experience can inform discussions of bigger-picture topics,” he says. “Yeah, you’ve made a record, wrote a book or toured, but what is that expression saying about our common lived experience?”

Eli Speigel, Liver Than Live’s writer, director and host, also thrives on spontaneity by putting live performances at the forefront. While the show’s comedy draws on Speigel’s love for Space Ghost Coast To Coast, The Eric Andre Show and Between Two Ferns, he was also inspired to showcase Toronto’s thriving local music scene by Peter Ivers’s New Wave Theatre.

The emphasis on being in the moment and uninhibited continues in his man-on-the-street bits and guest interviews. While most talk shows pre-interview guests to give the host and producers an idea of which questions provoke the best responses, Speigel reverses that, giving his questions to his guests before filming and opting to hear their answers for the first time on camera. “I want them to put me on the spot,” Speigel says.

Bo Frantz, in The Late Great Show, takes a flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants approach, playing to the strengths of his creative group of friends. He describes the Toronto music scene as “a bunch of muppets,” with well-defined characters he envisions sketches around. Episode 2’s Uber Dad sketch, with booker Dan Burke and Jude from the band HSY as a father-son duo, is the result of that creative process – or lack thereof.

“We have a half-baked idea, and whoever shows up and whatever mood we’re in dictate what happens,” Frantz says. He credits his co-host, Kyle Knapp, for doing a lot of the legwork, and the show’s editor, Andrew Matthews, for shaping what they film into something intelligible and funny, giving it its impromptu feel.

Frantz has done two episodes, and a third and fourth will hopefully come out in the summer and fall. Even though he’s recently relocated to California, he still plans to make the show with friends back home and says the move will play into the ongoing storyline.

Because Speigel made Liver Than Live’s three episodes entirely himself, he’s now thinking of ways to lighten the workload, and will release individual segments rather than full 15-minute-long episodes in the future.

After launching his venture on the Bell Fibe network last month, Khanna is now free to upload the first season’s six episodes to his YouTube channel – the first just last week.

Not only does the internet afford the creators the space they need to develop their own niche in the late-night talk show form, it also frees them from one of the strains inherent to it: having to make a show every single night. Instead, they can wait until inspiration strikes. | @therewasnosound

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