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Late night TV is back! We rank their first episodes

Stephen Colbert returns to new episodes during Monday's <em>Late Show</em> program.
Scott Kowalchyk
Stephen Colbert returns to new episodes during Monday's Late Show program.

Taking the stage in a blizzard of Trump jokes and sight gags, TV's four biggest late night hosts returned Monday after the long writers strike with an enthusiasm usually reserved for weddings and Taylor Swift concerts.

"I'm more excited than a guy seeing Beetlejuice with Lauren Boebert," cracked Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show, loosing a groaner that made me wonder if some of these hosts won't need a little time to get back in the swing of things.

The hosts were sidelined for about five months – they stopped making new episodes when the Writers Guild of America officially went on strike May 2 – and their return served as a stark reminder of how well satire helps us process the absurdities of modern life and politics. From Jimmy Kimmel's smart-alecky attitude on Jimmy Kimmel Live to Stephen Colbert's brainy wit on The Late Show and Seth Meyers' earnest good humor on Late Night with Seth Meyers, each host offers a different prism for taking in times which often seem stranger than fiction.

Cue card handler Wally Feresten with <em>Late Night</em> host Seth Meyers Monday.
Lloyd Bishop / NBC
Cue card handler Wally Feresten with Late Night host Seth Meyers Monday.

Yeah, it was crazy to see a former president arrested multiple times and a member of Congress canoodling at an all-ages musical. But it was somehow comforting to know that these guys see it, too. Colbert joked about U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert "trying to start [her date] like a lawnmower," while Kimmel noted with a smirk that the "Never Surrender" t-shirts the Trump campaign created also featured a mugshot taken while he was surrendering to police.

But there were lots of signs that these hosts are awfully similar. Most of them joked about Trump's mugshot (and his claim to be 215 pounds), Boebert at Beetlejuice, The Golden Bachelor and more. Even with five months of news to choose from, they often landed on the same jokes, proving once again that more diverse programs like The Daily Show — which returns Oct. 16, led by guest hosts — provide much-needed variety in the space.

(Hear that, Peacock? Time to renew The Amber Ruffin Show and get that crew back to work as well!)

They all also mentioned Strike Force Five, the podcast they produced together to raise money for their staffs – Kimmel said they had just ordered t-shirts and hats to sell for more dollars when the strike was ended; Fallon actually showed the shirts and hats on camera. For us late night fans who remembered how petty and competitive old school hosts like Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Jay Leno could be, it was remarkable to hear Meyers note that his friendship with fellow hosts (including Last Week Tonight's John Oliver) "made a very hard period a lot easier to deal with."

What none of them mentioned: the expose publishedin Rolling Stone in early September alleging that Fallon's Tonight Show "has been a toxic workplace for years." (I'm betting Fallon, at least, hopes enough time has passed that he can just pretend publicly that it didn't happen.) What they also didn't mention, surprisingly, is how much money the Strike Force Five podcast raised for their staffs or how they will distribute it.

Still, for a TV critic and late night nerd, the return offered an irresistible chance to grade the Strike Force Five on their return to new episodes – Oliver came back Sunday night – so here's my quickie analysis.

A+: Late Night with Seth Meyers
As a fan of his "A Closer Look" news parody segments, I loved that he spent the entire hour Monday doing a super-sized version dubbed "To the Max." Best moment for me was a joke that required him to do impressions of almost all five living presidents, which he managed pretty well (Meyers' stealth superpower is his talent for not-quite-on-the-mark-but-still kinda-funny impressions). I'd love to see the show try this once a week, especially since the actors are still on strike, making it tougher to get really big guests, anyway.

A: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Not only did he return with a sobering, lacerating look at the need to reform how the nation's prisoners get health care — "because, deep down, this is who we are," Oliver joked — he was also the only host to discuss the strike in detail, channeling deep anger at how long the WGA strike went on.

"I'm furious that it took the studios 148 days to achieve a deal they could have offered on day f---ing one." Oliver said this knowing that the president and CEO of the company which owns the platform his show is on, David Zaslav, got involved personally in the negotiations.

A-: Jimmy Kimmel LiveKimmel had the best opening sight gag – walking out to a foursome playing pickleball centerstage and cracking that they had to rent the place out during the strike. He's also become a surprisingly deft monologist for a guy who had no background as a standup comic before starting his show 20 years ago. As the grand old man of late night, he offered the best sense of easing right back into the old habit, with guests Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jason Isbell.

B+: Late Show with Stephen Colbert
While I think Colbert is the best late night host all around, Monday night's show still felt like he was shaking off a little rust, opening with a bizarre gag where he jumped out of a boat to ride a dolphin up to the Ed Sullivan Theater. Still, it was fun watching him spar with Neil deGrasse Tyson – proving why he's Colbert's most frequent guest – and showcasing severely underrated bandleader Louis Cato's wonderful work.

C+: The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon
I've never been a fan of Fallon's monologues, which often feature jokes I saw on X/Twitter the day before (he noted Trump's weight declaration and then showed a picture of Chris Hemsworth – a gag that was on social media weeks ago. Much as I love seeing news events re-contextualized on late night, it's much better when the jokes themselves are new.) But Monday's show was particularly disappointing, with its combo of obsequious interviews, the gushing over Matthew McConaughey's new book like he's the second coming of Judy Blume, and its complete disregarding of Fallon's own recent scandal.

But The Roots still rocked the house.

F: Real time with Bill Maher
Yeah, Maher returned to new episodes Friday, conveniently declining to admit he had originally planned to break the strike by presenting new episodes before a new deal was in place – thankfully, hereversed course, likely due to public pressure. Of course, he had previously criticized writers for making "kooky" demands, insisting that nobody is owed a living in show business. Now that others have made sure his writers could earn a living, he's back to presenting interviews celebrating Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' antivaccine comments and pretending he's not in the business of trolling liberals in order to try to stay relevant.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.