About 5 p.m. last Monday in New York, Steve Bodow, an executive producer at “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” was making final tweaks on that night’s script when he saw a breaking-news alert from The Washington Post: President Donald Trump had disclosed classified intelligence to Russian officials in a White House meeting.
The show’s taping was just 90 minutes away, but Bodow knew that the program’s planned opener about the weekend’s news — a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia — would feel stale without the latest Trump controversy. He quickly sounded his own alarm to fellow writers and producers at that Comedy Central news satire.
“It was just like, ‘Ahhh — hang on, folks,’” he said in an interview. The first act of the show was rewritten on the fly.
There are an awful lot of last-minute changes these days at late-night comedy shows that thrive on topical humor. At a time when an already relentless news cycle seems to be spinning like a nuclear-powered Ferris wheel, these programs, many of them produced in New York, are being taped at evening hours, right when consequential news stories are breaking.
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In just the past two weeks, several major stories have dropped during crunch time, between 5 and 6 p.m. Eastern time: the firing of FBI Director James Comey; Trump’s intelligence disclosure; the revelation of a memo by Comey that documented Trump’s efforts to halt an investigation of Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser; and the appointment of a special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to oversee the investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.
With a mixture of speed, weariness and a growing acceptance that this is what their job now entails, comedy show writers are scrambling to satisfy the appetites of their news-savvy audiences. The frenzy reflects not only the pressure that writers put on themselves to come up with the freshest, sharpest satire they can generate, but also their competitive TV environment, in which several broadcast and cable shows are trying to put unique stamps on the same set of events.
The rapid responses are already yielding tangible results: On Friday, Comedy Central said “The Daily Show” had its most-watched week of Noah’s tenure, drawing an average of more than 1 million viewers an episode.
With people getting news from more sources than ever, including from late-night shows themselves, the joke tellers have become like the journalists providing scoops: They don’t want to be even five minutes behind their rivals.
“This has not happened this much in the past,” Bodow said. But these recent stories, he said, “were major, crazy developments whose import was immediately clear — each time, we were like, ‘OK, we’ve got to do that.’”
Seth Meyers, host of NBC’s “Late Night,” said that when the news of Comey’s memo emerged last Tuesday, just before taping time at 6:30 p.m., his staff hurriedly revised one of his “A Closer Look” monologues — already prepared to address the intelligence disclosures — to incorporate the newer story.
Meyers said he also explained the Comey memo to his studio audience before his taping started.
“You want to tell people, stuff has happened in the last hour that you’re probably not aware of,” he said. “It’s not as crazy as you’re thinking, but also, it’s crazier than anything that’s ever happened up to this point.”
Jo Miller, the showrunner of TBS’ “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” said that at 5:49 p.m. May 9, she was writing the final line of a show to be taped and aired the next night when Comey’s firing was announced.
The show’s staff worked overnight to write a new first act, while the previously prepared segment, on the American Health Care Act of 2017, was taped anyway and posted online.
Programs like “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” which is based in Los Angeles and usually recorded about 8 p.m. Eastern time, have slightly more time to incorporate real-life plot twists. (CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” both based in New York, declined to comment for this article.)
“The Daily Show” has made some adjustments to its production, including moving its rehearsal From 3:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. ET, to allow more time for the unexpected.
When the special counsel’s appointment was announced Wednesday night, Bodow said: “We slipped into it like it was standard procedure. We quickly bid goodbye to a bunch of Snapchat and Instagram jokes and hello to special counsel Robert Mueller.”
Meyers said it was crucial for “Late Night” to keep pace with the evening news, so his content reflects what viewers are most interested in later that night and the next morning.
Describing the thought process at his show, he said, “It’s like, ‘Oh, we’ll do a piece about airline deregulation today — nope, no we will not, because that is no longer what anybody is talking about.’”
If need be, the New York-based shows have some wiggle room to tape later in the evening, but not too late, because some final edits and tweaks need to be made before their episodes are broadcast.
There have been special occasions in which programs like “Late Night” and “The Daily Show” have gone live — the Republican and Democratic National conventions; election night — but no one necessarily wants to inflict this strain on studio audiences and co-workers every evening.
As Bodow said, “If you’re not taping by 7:30 or 8, then you’re doing it live, and don’t you dare suggest that.”
He added, sardonically, “I think for the impeachment show, that’s what we’ll do.”