Late night television got a bit of a shake up last night when Taylor Tomlinson became the youngest female late night host — and, uh, currently the only female late night host — with the premiere of CBS‘s After Midnight. The series is a Stephen Colbert-produced reboot of Chris Hardwick‘s old Comedy Central internet-themed game show @midnight, which doesn’t necessarily scream “innovation” in 2024. However, if Tomlinson’s charming debut as a late night host is any indication, the team working on After Midnight might have something of a stealth winner on its hands. After Midnight‘s premiere episode felt less like the reboot of a tired comic game show and more like the foundation for the rare late night show that could pull off the Herculean task of successfully translating the manic magic of the British panel show for the American audience.
Last year, the usually stagnant world of network late night television experienced a little bit of a programming ripple. James Corden announced that he would be ending his tenure on The Late Late Show in April 2023. While Corden’s show became most famous for bringing “Carpool Karaoke” to the world, the British writer and actor’s original innovation was to ditch the late night desk and invite all of his celeb guests to lounge on sofas together for the talk portion of the show. That, of course, was less of an “innovation” than a mainstay of UK late night. (Check out any viral Graham Norton celeb interview clip for an example.)
CBS announced as early as February 2023 that a retread of @midnight would take Corden’s spot, so it wasn’t a complete shocker for comedy fans when the details surrounding After Midnight slipped out. Nor was it a complete curveball when Stephen Colbert finally announced Taylor Tomlinson as his new follow-up act in November 2023. The now 30-year-old standup had steadily built a career as a charming, canny comic with multiple successful Netflix specials. What might surprise comedy nerds — and definitely took me by pleasant surprise — is the fact that After Midnight‘s structure screams @midnight, but its execution already evokes the manic joy of British comedy hits like Would I Lie To You?, 8 Out of 10 Cats, Mock the Week, Q.I., and The Big Fat Quiz of the Year like nothing I’ve seen stateside before. (Including attempted American reboots.)
So what exactly is After Midnight? That is a good question. Even Taylor Tomlinson jokes about five minutes into the debut that it’s unclear where the show’s format would land it in, say, Emmys consideration. “It’s kind of a talk show, but there’s no conversation. It’s a game show, but the points are fake. It’s a vanity project, but it somehow makes me look…worse?” Whitney Cummings, back working a month after having a baby, protested, “Stop!” at Tomlinson’s self-deprecation.
Basically, three guest comics are asked by Tomlinson to come up with jokes riffing on viral TikToks, Gen Z trends, bizarre Amazon products, and more. Points are given whenever Tomlinson feels like it and, for one segment, the prize is a literal pat on the back. The format of After Midnight‘s progenitor, @midnight, was basically the same, except the social media platforms then mined for jokes were Vine, Tumblr, and a little site still known as Twitter. The comics’ glee during the old #HashtagWars evoked the way comics literally used to attack hashtags with their best punchlines during the heyday of the bird app about ten-odd years ago. In Tomlinson’s version, it’s just one of many chances to be silly — and for the comics to communicate with one another.
After Midnight‘s inaugural trio of contestants were Kurt Braunohler, Whitney Cummings, and Aparna Nancherla. All three are accomplished performers with distinct comic rhythms and all three took a segment or two to get warmed up to the new show’s style. But once the panel started earnestly cracking each other up, the show started to find its stride. Specifically, After Midnight began to heat up when the show became less about Tomlinson eking out points and more about the host yukking it up with friends.
So, yes, the thing about After Midnight that immediately set off my British quiz show nerd alarm bells was the banter. Rather than simply pitting comics against each other in a fake game of funny, Tomlinson consistently invites the contestants to meet her at her self-deprecating level. Her jokes about the grand prize being her father’s approval, her requests for personal anecdotes to steal, and even her honest commentary on what producer “Jack” is feeding into her earpiece created the feeling that we’re not watching a silly game show so much as a super cool comedian hang. Soon, Nancherla is sharing jokes about childhood trauma while Cummings noodles on being a new mom. Kurt Braunohler reveals that anesthesiologists are constantly telling him he needs more juice because he’s a ginger.
These “personal” asides — because, look, who knows where a comic’s public and personal personas end — make the audience feel like they’re getting more than the contestants’ best hashtags. They’re getting insight into who these comics are. These “personal” touches are what makes British panel shows so addictive to fans. You find yourself tuning in for your favorite returning comedians and building parasocial relationships despite yourself. That’s what fuels British panel show fandom and, thanks to Taylor Tomlinson’s hosting style, that’s the secret juice After Midnight has from the jump.
As Tomlinson herself demurs, last night’s premiere was literally the show’s beginning. So, like, who knows where the late night series goes next? But Tomlinson’s easy charm, the playful interplay of the first batch of panelists, and the goofy fun everyone eventually had really won me over. If After Midnight can build a stable of returning comics, ones who continue to make the audience feel like they’ve been invited to join a clique of fellow weirdos, then the show has the potential to do what late night hasn’t accomplished in years: create a network haven for comedy nerds looking for a nightly clubhouse to call their own.