A few months ago, Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s topical comedy series “Real Time With Bill Maher,” proposed to the network that it add special live episodes on Wednesday and Thursday nights to follow the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
At the time, Maher explained in a recent interview, he believed this strategy would help his show capitalize on the intense interest in this year’s conventions and distinguish itself from similar programs.
“I thought maybe we’d have this all to our ourselves,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “I guess that was too good to be true.”
Indeed, it was. “Real Time,” CBS’ “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers” are all planning live episodes following convention broadcasts in the next two weeks, as is Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” under its new host, Trevor Noah.
Additionally, “The Daily Show” will be presented from Cleveland (where the Republicans are meeting) and from Philadelphia (where the Democrats are gathering) during these weeks and is enlisting its team of correspondents to file satirical reports from the road. TBS’ “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” hosted by that “Daily Show” alumna, is also producing dispatches from the conventions for its regular Monday shows and adding an episode on Wednesday.
Other late-night shows that thrive on current events, including ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” TBS’ “Conan” and Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore,” will surely keep an eye on the conventions as well.
While these programs are scrutinizing speeches, delegates and party officials, looking to deliver laughs as rapidly as possible, they also have the opportunity to establish their hosts as the comedic conscience for this political era — to own that role as Jon Stewart did over 16 years as host of “The Daily Show.”
The competition will not be simply about having the best one-liner or viral video prompted by Donald Trump’s or Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech. These shows are trying to define themselves and claim their turf in an increasingly fragmented category.
“The stakes are tougher for everyone,” said Kent Alterman, president of Comedy Central.
But, he added: “I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. Good comedy comes from strong, singular points of view and there’s room for more than one.”
The field has expanded considerably since 1992, when Al Franken hosted live convention coverage for Comedy Central, called “InDecision 92,” with guests like author Roy Blount Jr. and congressional scholar Norman J. Ornstein.
“I had Roy sitting in a Barcalounger, watching ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS,” recalled Franken, now the junior U.S. senator from Minnesota. “We made a pledge that if something important happened, we would report it within 10 seconds.”
Not everyone accepted the intellectual sincerity of these satirical proceedings. “My favorite letter I received was from someone who wrote, ‘The guy you have playing Norm Ornstein is perfect,’” Franken said.
“The Daily Show” has made its robust convention presence a hallmark of the program.
But now, the stakes are higher for the show, and for Noah, the South African comedian who succeeded Stewart in September. On Thursday, for the first time in 16 years, “The Daily Show” received no Emmy Award nominations. (Under Stewart, who stepped down in August, the series won the Emmy for best show in its category 11 times since 2003.)
Alterman, the Comedy Central president, said that he expected Noah’s tenure at “The Daily Show” would be “an evolution,” just as it was for Stewart.
“The show that Jon inherited was much different than what it became — that’s just a natural process,” Alterman said. He added that Noah’s convention coverage “will be satisfying for people who have been really watching, and hopefully an opportunity for people who haven’t been paying attention to check back in.”
Adam Lowitt, a “Daily Show” executive producer, explained that the ability to be on site can drive the program into “peak performance.”
“Nothing really slips through the cracks — everyone sees everything,” said Lowitt, who joined the program in 2002. “It is the dream scenario that’s never applicable in New York, which is, no one gets to go home and see their families.”
No Emmy nominations went to Colbert’s “Late Show,” either, and the program, which made its debut in September, has had difficulty finding its footing since its host was recruited from the Comedy Central news satire “The Colbert Report.”
The “Late Show” live convention coverage is expected to feature some limited involvement from Stewart, now one of the show’s executive producers, who has largely stayed off camera since leaving “The Daily Show.” (CBS declined to comment for this article.)
Programs like “Full Frontal,” which made its debut in February, are throwing themselves into the scrum for the first time. Jo Miller, a “Full Frontal” executive producer, said that in Bee’s visits to past conventions as part of “The Daily Show,” she proved her talent for finding comedy in dry and seemingly dull settings.
“There’s no way we were going to miss letting her loose on conventions that are actually, inherently interesting for once,” said Miller, who worked with Bee at “The Daily Show.”
Ratings, too — particularly those generated by the unpredictable Trump — are an undeniable incentive for these programs, which hope to draw in fresh viewers who stick around after the official convention proceedings are over.
“Who can blame us all?” Maher said. “Once we saw that the Republican debates got an audience of 24 million people, who doesn’t want a part of that?”
Mike Shoemaker, an executive producer of NBC’s “Late Night,” said that these shows were driven to cover the conventions, ultimately, by the aptitudes and interests of their emcees, who have cultivated interests in political comedy over several years.
“All these shows are built around the strength and the best move of the host,” said Shoemaker, who also worked with Meyers at “Saturday Night Live.”
The ability to riff extemporaneously on unfolding events, Shoemaker said of Meyers, “is an arrow in his quiver.”
“There’s a whole genre of people doing it, and doing it well,” he said. “Half the talk shows are this way.”
But, Shoemaker said, there was ample room for all these shows to cover conventions in distinctive ways, and to thrive without taking viewers away from one another. “Everyone’s voice is unique enough,” he said.
Besides, Shoemaker added: “It doesn’t happen that often that you do the same joke. It’s not like any of us can see the other shows. They all happen in a vacuum, and then they air while we’re sleeping.”