After decades of sticking hard to formula, late night talk shows got a little weird in 2020. They had to: there’s a whole pandemic, and everything. Fancy sets were replaced with previously unused corners of attics and basements, hosts who normally looked like they were ready for the cover of GQ grew haggard and bleary, and immediate family members made up both the cast and audience. Even when shows returned to the studio it was in eerily quiet and empty rooms, like everybody had been raptured except for the souls damned to interview celebrities and perform monologues every night. Weird year, this 2020.
The best late night shows of the year don’t have much in common. They include a puppet-driven talk show parody that still functions as a real talk show, a conventional network talk show that tightly embraced the comic possibilities of broadcasting from the host’s home, a breakout late night performer finally getting her own show, and two guys who barely skipped a beat when they started Zooming each other instead of hanging out in a studio. Yeah, there’s a lot of politics involved—it’s almost impossible for any TV show to not be political these days—but maybe less than you think. Out of these five shows, only two made politics their primary focus, and both still found time for general silliness and absurdity. Most importantly, all five of these shows are legitimately, consistently funny, and all helped out a bit during this trying year.
Here they are: the best late night shows of 2020.
Earth to Ned was basically DOA when it dropped on Disney+ in September with barely a whimper. That’s a shame: this absurd talk show deserves attention. Heavily indebted to Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, The Jim Henson Company’s Earth to Ned is a talk show that sends up talk show convention. The show’s host, a budding alien warlord named Ned who came to Earth to conquer it, but then fell in love with our pop culture, actually interviews his guests (including Kristen Schaal, RuPaul, Taye Diggs, Rachel Bloom, and more) in unscripted, improvised segments, but from the vantage point of a giant puppet alien who really doesn’t understand the most basic concepts of human existence. It’s a ridiculous satire of entertainment journalism with a side of sci-fi and some predictably amazing puppetry from the Henson folks, all meant for adults but still appropriate for older children. Is it a legit late night show? The interviews are apparently no more scripted than most talk shows, so that’s good enough for me.
The best of the traditional network late night shows can’t match Last Week Tonight for its journalistic approach to political comedy, but it does a bang up job as catharsis. During the worst year in memory it felt better than usual to watch Seth Meyers plainly point out the lies and hypocrisy of Donald Trump and the GOP, from their cruel disinterest in managing the pandemic to their insane attempts to steal the election. And as bleak as its Closer Look segments could get, it still had room for the silliness of Amber Ruffin’s regular appearances and John Mulaney’s recent turn as a trenchcoated semi-regular. Late Night isn’t just the funniest of the late night dinosaurs, but the most well-rounded.
Desus and Mero’s show can be a little off the radar since moving to Showtime, but it’s still great—the funniest and most vital political comedy show this side of John Oliver, while also having its finger on the pulse of what’s actually important in pop culture in a way these shows rarely ever do. Desus and Mero are two of the most charismatic dudes around, and together they make a peerless duo that’s always on the same page. Their show is always hilarious and never feels nearly as dull, rigid or impersonal as the network late night shows.
NBC Universal’s The Amber Ruffin Show immediately established itself as one of the funniest shows in late night when it launched on the streaming service Peacock back in September. It helps that the show is nothing but comedy—no guest interviews, no bands, just a monologue and comedy sketches featuring writer/performer Amber Ruffin. If you’ve seen her on Late Night with Seth Meyers, you know how charming and disarming Ruffin can be—she’s almost preternaturally cheerful, using that effervescence as cover for precision strikes against racism, systemic oppression, and the many indignities and traumas of the Trump age. That contrast works wonderfully during her brief appearances on Late Night, and she’s been able to scale it out for her half-hour show without undermining it at all.
It’s been around for six years, but it’s still amazing how absolutely hilarious Last Week Tonight is while also doing deep dives into some of the most depressing and stressful things you could ever talk about. 2020’s bad rep is absolutely, 100% deserved, of course—this is a year that’ll be remembered for that time we couldn’t leave the house for 10 months and that’s going to end with a 9/11’s worth of preventable deaths every day while our outgoing president and his hostile political party openly try to demolish our democracy and steal an election, after all—and somehow John Oliver was able to wade through the worst of it with humor and something resembling grace intact. Also, shockingly, without ending his own life. He is clearly one of the most emotionally and mentally fortified people on the planet, and to our ongoing benefit he’s dedicated that strength towards entertaining us while also pointing out everything that’s fucked up about this world. We’re not naïve enough to think a TV show can change the world to any appreciable extent, but Last Week Tonight continues to open eyes and influence thoughts, and that has to be good for something.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.