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How is the Trump Era transforming late-night TV?

A still from
A still from "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee."
Ali Goldstein

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There's no doubt that President Trump has had a significant impact on late-night television.

The current slate of hosts — from Samantha Bee to Jimmy Fallon — are defining their shows by how deep they're willing to delve into politics and how critical they are of the Trump Administration. 

In an interview in the current issue of New York Magazine, former late night host David Letterman went so far as to say that comedians and late-night hosts today have "an obligation" to take on the president.

But politics and late night television haven't always gone hand-in-hand.

Culture journalist Mark Harris, also in the current issue of New York, writes that during the Johnny Carson era of The Tonight Show, it would have been unheard of for Carson to reveal his own political leanings.

Harris told The Frame's John Horn that things started to change when Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show in the late '90s. 

"People started to realize that there was an audience for someone who wore his political convictions on his sleeve, more than Carson did."

But even for Letterman, Harris says, it wasn't until later in his late-night career that his own political leanings became discernible.

"It was jolting to hear Dave get political," Harris says. "Now it's completely normal, it's almost surprising when you see a late-night guy and you watch him for an hour and you think, I have no idea where he stands on anything. That's the exception now."

So who are the winners and losers of this new era of politicized late-night TV?

Harris singles out Samantha Bee (host of Full Frontal on TBS) and John Oliver (host of HBO's Last Week Tonight) as two hosts who've been able to comfortably step into the role of political critic. 

Others who have yet to fare as well include The Daily Show's Trevor Noah and Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon. 

While Fallon would likely prefer to continue with Johnny Carson's apolitical model, Harris says, that might not work any longer. 

"Fallon, I think, understands that Trump right now is Topic A, Topic B, Topic C, Topic D. You can't avoid him, you can't do comedy around him. So as a non-political comedian, he has a particular challenge in trying to find a way to approach Trump and I'm not sure he's done it yet."

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