Late Night Gets a Much-Needed Queer Makeover With ‘Late Stage Live!’

The trans-led, trans-hosted late show on Brooklyn Public Access is taking the form and twisting it for a newer, younger audience.

Entertainment
Late Night Gets a Much-Needed Queer Makeover With ‘Late Stage Live!’

Hot Mic is a weekly column by Leah Abrams documenting, spotlighting, and reviewing live comedy in NYC. 

In 1982, David Letterman interviewed Steve Allen, the original host of NBC’s Tonight Show, about the format he pioneered. “Everyone says, ‘Steve Allen is the one who started this particular form,’” Letterman said. “Well, that’s only because I did it first,” Allen responds. “Seriously. If you had done it first, you would have done that same kind of stuff.”

He’s not wrong. The form in question is simple: handsome guy in suit sits at desk. It’s late at night but there’s a coffee mug. He riffs on the headlines of the day, telling tightly prepared jokes to a live studio audience that’s instructed when to laugh and applaud. He brings on guests and they laugh at everything he says. He’s white.

But a new show on Brooklyn Public Access that’s growing an audience with viral clips on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok is asking: What if late night, but queer?

This is Late Stage Live, the trans-led, trans-hosted late show that takes the late-night form and gleefully twists it for a new, younger audience. Ella Yurman hosts in a leather jacket and a loose tie, tossing her hair and clicking her pen a la Jon Stewart. “Welcome back to Late Stage Live, the only late-night show that really did just fall out of a coconut tree,” Yurman began on a Friday night in late April, taping the show’s sixth episode in front of a live studio audience.

That’s right: it’s not just a TikTok show. The Late Stage Live team tapes their entire production in front of a hodgepodge of friends and randoms. And then they air the final product on Brooklyn Public Access, which I’ve never watched and wouldn’t know how to find on my Smart TV, but still appreciated for the legitimacy it cast over the whole operation.

Walking onto the set at Brooklyn Information & Culture (BRIC) was like walking into a tiny Colbert taping. Anyone can book a free ticket, so I brought my boyfriend and his parents along for the ride, hoping to impress them with a show they couldn’t catch back in North Carolina. There were producers with clipboards checking our tickets, wearing headsets, and running around attaching lapel mics; there was the green screen in the corner next to an intricate backdrop of newspaper clippings and red string framing Yurman’s face, a conspiratorial gesture that evoked It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Pepe Silvia meme. In some ways, it felt like a room full of people who had watched so much 30 Rock that they subconsciously replicated The Girlie Show, complete with the exasperated banter between host and producer. Throughout the night, Yurman played Jenna Maroney to head writer Reid Pope’s Liz Lemon, who piped in as the voice of God, and made the audience feel like we were in on some kind of behind-the-scenes joke.

When the taping began, Yurman recapped current events, then brought on an ensemble cast of guests for longer segments on the marijuana industrial complex (aka Big Weed) and prison abolition. She sat grinning behind the desk, replete with a mug of pens and a little shot glass. The only winking departure from the form was an ashtray full of half-smoked cigarettes and a discreet little bottle of Rush peeking out from the corner of the screen. “These are my VCR cleaners,” Yurman vamped between takes. “That’s all.” If you know, you know.

In terms of form, I wish Late Stage Live! deviated from the Allen-Letterman-Colbert canon a little bit more, and found more opportunities to explore, spoof, and reinvent. In fact, the strict adherence to late-night conventions was, for me, the show’s only flaw. Centering a late-night show around a transwoman host is so infuriatingly rare that it’s tempting to call it radical in and of itself—and certainly, the show’s political bent toward abolition, Palestinian liberation, and anti-capitalism underscore those radical bonafides. But as part of the studio audience, I found myself forcing a laugh at some punchlines—like the opening coconut bit, which we heard two, three, then four times during reshoots. When the jokes are so literal and prepared, it’s easy for them to feel canned—not a knock on the incredible writers behind the production, but on the restraints of the late-night format itself, which requires repetition and formula, always teaching the audience when to laugh.   

Then again, Late Stage Live! still found ways to shock and delight—like at the very end of the show (spoiler alert!), at the close of the abolition segment, when a cop stormed the set, shouting, “Ella Yurman, you’re under arrest….”

“For being too damn sexy!” I laughed my ass off as he stripped off his uniform to expose a tiny set of briefs, gyrating sensually behind Yurman’s head. 

Another highlight was musical guest Violet Stanza, lovely and vulnerable and dressed like a princess in colorful cowboy boots and bright white eyeliner. “And now, fresh from making love at the Gaza Solidarity encampment…” Yurman announced, “Violet Stanza!”

Her three songs were of the storytelling variety, like Taylor Swift but actually compelling, and I’m sure I’m not the only person in the audience who shed a tear when she sang, “I think I wanna live past 24. Goddamn. I’ve never said that before.”

But what truly made the show was Yurman herself, a generational talent with the sort of stage presence and charisma that make her one to watch, on late-night shows and beyond. My boyfriend’s parents called her “engaging,” “charming,” and “relatable across generations”—the highest possible comment from (respectfully) two of the only boomers at the taping. Riffing between takes as the tech crew messed with her lavalier mic, she started reciting Hamlet’s To Be or Not to Be monologue, hinting at a wide range of artistic influences under the leather-jacket-and-tie exterior. It’s a breadth she shares with the most prolific icons of the late-night form, who have built worlds larger than their desks with a serious commitment to craft and execution. Or rather, in the parlance of her show: Yurman exists in the context of all in which she lives and what came before her.

“This is a public access show run by 12 parakeets paid in meth-dusted pistachios,” Yurman said at one point. I hope those parakeets get to keep trying weird, meth-dusted shit. Because they’re onto something.

You can watch Late Stage Live! on YouTube and subscribe to their show on Patreon to give those parakeets a raise.

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