At its best, Internet culture is supportive, charitable, and inspiring. At its worst, it’s gimmicky, insulting, and insular. The last item in that list is the biggest barrier to entry on @Midnight, the Internet-themed comedy game show that’s been airing on Comedy Central off and on since last October. Simply put: If the show makes a joke about Tinder, Snapchat, or the general shittiness of Yelp reviews, it’s assuming that viewers (and contestants) at least have a working knowledge of what those nonsensical words mean. If they don’t, then both the jokes making up the questions and the jokes that are blabbed out as answers have to be sharp enough that viewers will be able to figure the whole thing out. It’s a major obstacle for both @Midnight and the Internet, but one that the show is well positioned to tackle.
With the future of late-night chat in the air in recent months, @Midnight is an important and interesting look at what could be next for post-11 p.m. programming. With Twitter, Instagram, and constant access to all media, are talk shows really necessary? Really good conversations are great, but the typical “one host, one guest, 11 minutes of chatter” format is nearing obsolescence as the media landscape opens up further and further. It’s one of the reasons that Late Night With Seth Meyers, with its charming but chatty host, has stumbled while The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon has soared: Fallon gets the Internet. It seems like a little thing, especially after you watch Fallon get shot in the face with a water cannon for the 10,000th time, but it’s that kind of web connectivity that’s brought life—and young viewers—back to late night.
@Midnight does social media well—and it should, considering its title is also its Twitter handle. But the show itself is only as strong as its host and guests. Host Chris Hardwick knows the ’net, but he’s also almost embarrassingly nerdy. Hardwick wouldn’t find that insulting given his personal brand, but the tics he’s picked up over the course of the show’s run can get a little grating. When Hardwick first yelled “Points!” to signify a contestant’s success, it was cute; now it’s the TV equivalent of a meme surviving past its prime. (Same with the whimsical “wipe, wipe, wipe” when Hardwick “wipes” the finalists’ scores toward the end of the show.) That being said, he’s a charming host, quick on his feet, and articulate enough to explain even the most ridiculous category premises. He seems genuinely tickled and alarmed by the content of the show—the online artifacts retrieved by the @Midnight team, the commentary from the contestants—and that kind of enthusiasm is contagious.
Moreover, when @Midnight works, it really works. The show thrives on its guests. If the three comedic contestants are duds, non-comedians, or just don’t bring the funny, that episode will be a bust. Episodes where the contestants know each other—former Dungeons And Dragons pals Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, and Blaine Capatch played against each other recently, for example—then the players can build on each others’ jokes and personalities, making the whole affair feel more like a quick hangout with your funniest friends rather than a television program you’re watching just because you’re too bored to find something else. An at-ease panel can make even the dumbest (and least web-related) categories soar. On the Posehn, Capatch, and Oswalt episode, for instance, the comedians competed to tell which of two radio-station morning-show names was real, leading to Posehn admitting that he’d actually been on one of the more groan-inducing options, the Free Beer And Hot Wings show out of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Another panel composed of Community’s Jim Rash, Danny Pudi, and Gillian Jacobs gave viewers a look at the friendship between the trio, as well as their talent as improvisers.
It’s all personal preference, though. If a viewer likes a particular set of guests going into the show, then they’ll like the show. If they could care less or haven’t heard of a certain set of comedians, then like a bunch of bachelorettes who have wandered into a comedy club—they’ll be a tough sell. In that same vein, if you hate reading heaps and heaps of themed, hashtagged jokes, then you’ll hate—or already hate—being on Twitter any night around midnight Eastern, when the show launches its popular Hashtag Wars segment.
Considering @Midnight has been doing so well for Comedy Central—it experienced series high ratings in its first week of competition from The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon—the future is bright for the show. And given the show’s subject, it’s only natural that @Midnight will morph and develop, not unlike the memes on which it survives. Already the program is gaining legitimacy, with people like Judd Apatow appearing as contestants and celebrities of greater stature stopping by to make jokey appearances somehow involving the game’s final category. It’s not unlike Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast in that sense: What was once a “for the Internet by the Internet” affair has since become widely recognized as a fun way for a celebrity to get their cool, hip message and personality across. It’ll be interesting to see how the show bridges traditional mainstream television needs—ratings, segments, audience comprehension—with its non-traditional subject matter. In that way, @Midnight is a bit of an experiment, although it’s one with a point—or “Points!” as Chris Hardwick would say.