When Stephen Colbert sneaked onto the GOP convention stage in Cleveland Sunday wearing a Caesar Flickerman-from-"Hunger Games" get-up to declare the opening of the "2016 Republican National Hungry For Power Games!," he wasn't only getting a laugh at Donald Trump's expense.
The CBS "Late Show" host's inspired mischief also kicked off what could be called the "Hungry for Late Night Comedy Games."
A handful of shows are vying to play trump cards by going live, going to Cleveland or both. The stakes, in late-night TV terms, are high, amid a scramble to establish edgy comedy supremacy in the post-David Letterman, post-Jon Stewart era.
After his stage stunt, Colbert opened his first live show of the convention with an elaborate Republican-themed musical number (the gathering will have “no Muslims or Latinos, because I think they’ve all been banned!” he sang). He also resurrected his faux conservative character in a bit with former "Daily Show" host Stewart and brought back “The Word” segment from “The Colbert Report” (Monday’s word: “Trumpiness”).
Meanwhile, Stewart's Comedy Central successor, Trevor Noah, headed to Cleveland for live broadcasts as "Daily Show" alum Samantha Bee geared up for a convention-focused extra installment of TBS’ "Full Frontal" on Wednesday. Bill Maher planned special live-from-Cleveland installments of HBO’s "Real Time" for Wednesday and Thursday.
Seth Meyers, if only by virtue of his 12:35 a.m. perch, gets the final word Thursday with a live edition of NBC’s "Late Night" that will air (presumably) after Trump accepts the Republican presidential nomination with a (presumably) yuuuge speech.
For all the preparation that goes into live programs, success will depend on how quickly and effectively the hosts and their teams can wring laughs from very current events – especially the unexpected (like, say, Melania Trump apparently lifting portions of her Monday night speech from a 2008 Michelle Obama address).
While Noah is largely untested in this arena, Colbert and Bee learned the game well with "Indecision" live "Daily Show" specials in past campaigns. Maher's show has thrived on the unpredictable comments that arise during conversations with guests, though he knows a sharp, timely monologue is just as important.
Meyers comes to his first presidential campaign as the host of "Late Night" seasoned by past races on "Saturday Night Live," where the turnaround from spectacle to spoof is among the fastest on TV. Perhaps more significantly, he honed his fake news chops on "Weekend Update" and co-wrote perhaps the best-known political sketch in “SNL” history: the 2008 meeting of Amy Poehler’s Hillary Clinton and Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin (“And I can see Russia from my house!”)
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As Trump showed in his primary run – and Colbert displayed in his guerrilla “Hunger Games” bit – sometimes unconventional behavior can help you stand out in a crowded field.
Colbert clearly is counting on convention shtick to distinguish himself from his most direct – and less political – competition (NBC’s Jimmy Fallon and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel). Noah has an opportunity to put his own mark on "The Daily Show" while Bee charts her own new path and Maher builds on his longstanding franchise.
For Meyers, the political silly season offers a chance to draw a sharper contrast to his time-slot competitor, CBS’ James Corden, who is riding high on his fun "Carpool Karaoke" segments (including one set to co-star Michelle Obama Wednesday).
The challenge for all the late night TV political comedy players is to keep viewers laughing and watching – at least through next week, when the Democrats invade Philadelphia. As with "The Hunger Games," we're likely in for some sequels, stretching from the conventions to the election.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.