The splashiest, most dramatic cultural event of the summer might not involve a superhero, a bingeworthy murder mystery, or Adele singing her lungs out in a stadium. Instead, it looks like that title could very well go to the Republican and Democratic national conventions — the coronations for the parties’ presumptive presidential nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And thanks to the unpredictable nature of the campaigns so far (and the blockbuster ratings they have already garnered), the late-night world is scrambling to secure a front-row seat to the political fireworks.
In a way, the conventions serve as an exclamation point to the all-caps sentence that’s been this bonkers political season. “Everyone is going to be watching,” says Late Night host Seth Meyers. “Particularly on the last night when the nominee speaks.” No one knows what will go down, but everyone is certain something major will. “It’s very rare that you kind of know in advance the days that there’ll be big news,” says Meyers. “But with this one, it seems like every meteorologist is pointing to a storm on the map, saying, ‘This is about to happen.’ I’m not surprised that so many shows are taking steps to be as close to it or as timely as possible.”
From live broadcasts and extra episodes to on-site tapings, hosts are all cementing their plans (see below) for the sure-to-be-unorthodox RNC (July 18-21 in Cleveland) and the hopefully-also-interesting DNC (July 25-28 in Philadelphia; portions of both conventions can be watched on cable-news and broadcast networks). The reason for all this heightened attention is simple: The conventions could get crazy. Like, historically crazy. “This is a unique election cycle on just about every level,” says Late Show executive producer Chris Licht. Longtime Daily Show EP Steve Bodow agrees: “I’ve been at every one since 2004. Clearly this year, and on the Republican side especially, it’s just going to be mayhem.” Jo Miller, executive producer for Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, describes the upcoming events with a mixture of anticipation and dread. “For all of us who were too young to attend the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago” — an event marked by tumultuous (and televised) clashes between protesters and police — “we might get to see what that was like, for better or for worse, I fear…. Anything can happen on the streets.”
Real Time With Bill Maher executive producer/writer Scott Carter feels the same way. “We’ve never seen a year like this,” he says. “[Bill’s] always been a political junkie, but this year he’s a political junkie times two.” That goes for the country at large, too: The debates on both sides earned record numbers for the networks that carried them. To wit, the March 3 GOP debate on Fox News drew nearly 17 million viewers. In contrast, the 2012 Republican debates reportedly peaked at 7.1 million viewers.
“It’s not hard to be more watched than a normal [RNC], which is a Ken doll in a suit and an old man talking to a chair,” Miller says, referring to Mitt Romney’s 2012 convention, where Clint Eastwood spoke to an imaginary President Barack Obama. “This will definitely be more watched than any of that. In a way, it’s like watching NASCAR and hoping that something blows up. There’s something morbid about it.” Perhaps more so than in any other year, presidential politics is just as much entertainment as it is news — which means potentially big ratings for anyone smart enough to get in on the action.
Bodow recalls late-night’s lightbulb moment. “It started a year ago with ‘Oh my God, how many people watched that Republican debate?'” he says. “‘What have we stumbled into here?’ The country is deeply interested in what’s going on, and it ought to be, because it’s really consequential — and also really entertaining.”
Carter points to Real Time‘s huge numbers this year — “up about 400,000 viewers per week,” he says — as just the tip of the iceberg. “I cannot imagine what the audience level is going to be for these [special episodes].”
Of course, not all conventions are created equal. This year’s RNC will likely attract far more attention than its Democratic counterpart thanks to a certain creatively coiffed candidate. For the past year, Donald Trump’s mere presence has been enough of an enticement to lure extra eyeballs, as Donald Trump himself will be the first to tell you. The teleprompter-hating, script-eschewing, gaffe-prone businessman (and former reality TV star) is more or less a gift sent to TV producers from the ratings gods.
As for each show’s specific approach for capitalizing on all the potential chaos, their only strategy is to not have a strategy. No one is prepared to make any hard predictions, and for good reason. “I’ve grown wary of describing my expectations to anyone about this election,” Meyers says. “I’ve been on a real cold streak as far as picking out these things, so I much prefer just sitting back and commenting on it as it happens.”
Bodow is on the same page. “I think we’ve all learned that having expectations for anything in the Republican Party this year is a losing proposition,” he notes with a laugh. But he adds that The Daily Show will pay special attention to the fact that Trump has had trouble getting fellow Republicans to speak at the convention. “What if you had a political party and no one came?” Bodow asks.
Larry Wilmore, who jokes that he’ll have to cover the RNC from New York because Comedy Central won’t pay to fly him out, wishes the uncertain GOP slate could be drawn out even longer. “I want two weeks of Republican conventions!” he says. “I think the network would be so happy with that. Trump is your headliner. With a headliner like that…nobody’s going to complain.”
Since so many late-night shows will be swarming the same two events, the key players are bound to run into each other. And as Miller points out, a lot of them are already well acquainted — Full Frontal, The Daily Show, and Colbert’s Late Show can all trace their roots back to the same Jon Stewart-curated cabal of writers and performers. So amid all the competition to land the best Trump and Clinton zingers, some camaraderie — and drinks — may be in order. “We’ll probably be hanging out together at a bar,” says Miller. “And it’ll probably be a really gross bar.” And with all the commotion anticipated in Cleveland, Miller kids that some might not even make it to Philadelphia. “I think by that point we may all have just collapsed into the Cuyahoga River.”
How to join the political party: Rev up your DVR
The late-night landscape is altering to mine the most out of the conventions, and we’ve got all their plans.
The Daily Show With Trevor Noah
Comedy Central, 11 p.m. ET
The South African-born host will head to his first-ever U.S. convention with a slate of episodes taped in Cleveland (airing July 19-22) and Philadelphia (July 26-29).
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert
CBS, 11:35 p.m. ET
After years of zinging politics on basic cable, Colbert will take his new(ish) network show live each week — first for July 18–21, then July 25-28.
The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore
Comedy Central, 11:31 p.m. ET
Wilmore will be covering the conventions, but he won’t be taping there. “It’s lazy to go to the conventions, as far as I’m concerned,” says Wilmore. “It’s real comedy to do it remotely.”
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee
TBS, 10:30 p.m. ET
In addition to her usual Monday episodes, which will include special field segments and taped bits from the conventions, Bee will host a bonus episode on Wednesday, July 20, at 10:30 p.m.
Late Night With Seth Meyers
NBC, 12:35 a.m. ET
For the first time in the Late Night franchise’s history, the show will air a special live episode on Thursday, July 21 — the scheduled night of Trump’s big speech.
Real Time With Bill Maher
HBO, 10 p.m. ET
Maher and his political panel will still go live as usual every Friday, but the show will also add live post-convention eps that will begin whenever the RNC (July 20-21) and DNC (July 27-28) coverage ends each evening.
TBS, 11 p.m. ET
Ol’ Coco O’Brien will also be covering a convention, albeit one with less pomp and circumstance: He’ll be taping a week of shows at San Diego’s Comic-Con July 20-24.
In addition to exploring political developments on her Netflix talk show (new episodes are available for streaming Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 12:01 a.m. PT), Chelsea Handler will join Politico for an event at the DNC on Thursday, July 28.
A version of this story originally appeared in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now, or available to buy here. Subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.