How Late-Night Comics Tackle the Election – By John Jurgensen and  Ellen Gamerman Updated March 17, 2016 2:44 p.m. ET


 There’s been a radical changing of the guard in late-night comedy since the last presidential race. WSJ's John Jurgensen reports. Photo Illustration: Stephen Webster for The Wall Street Journal


There’s been a radical changing of the guard in late-night comedy since the last presidential race. WSJ’s John Jurgensen reports. Photo Illustration: Stephen Webster for The Wall Street Journal

Since the last presidential race there has been a radical changing of the guard among the late-night talk shows. Of the 10 shows that regularly weigh in on politics after prime-time hours, eight of them either have new hosts or are entirely new to the schedule since the 2012 election.

Gone are Jay Leno and David Letterman, the first late-night hosts to serve as influential job interviewers for presidential candidates. It’s also the first presidential scrum without Jon Stewart since before 2000, when he put “The Daily Show” on the map with his coverage of the Bush vs. Gore battle.

Election season is a high-pressure proving ground for the late-night newcomers. The stakes are financial—with revenue from campaign ads pouring in—and cultural, providing a chance for hosts to rise above competitors and become part of the daily national conversation. Relative newcomers Samantha Bee and John Oliver have already made headway, even as the network triad of Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert lead in the ratings.

There is, of course, no shortage of material. Water-cooler buzz about this election is high. Despite a glut of debates, ratings are strong, even sometimes record-breaking, especially for Donald Trump and the Republicans. The challenge for comics is how to compete with the real-life behavior.

Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton, and Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton on ‘Saturday Night Live’ on Dec. 19, 2015

Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton, and Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton on ‘Saturday Night Live’ on Dec. 19, 2015 — Photo: Dana Edelson/NBC

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