On Wednesday and Thursday nights, as the first two Democratic debates wind down around 11 p.m. Eastern, viewers seeking postgame reaction can watch supersize panels on cable news or scroll through Twitter.
Or they can tune into the late-night shows.
Back in the old days — that would be four years ago — the presidential primary debates were of so little concern to late-night hosts that they happily taped their episodes hours in advance. They only addressed candidates sparring on a stage some 25 hours later.
For the first time, “The Tonight Show” will go live in its entirety after a major political event. “The Daily Show” will go live for two consecutive nights for the first time. And in what is believed to be a first, two 11:30 p.m. network late shows — Jimmy Fallon’s on NBC and Stephen Colbert’s on CBS — will go head-to-head live for a full hour. Seth Meyers’s hourlong 12:30 a.m. show will also be live both nights, allowing on-air jokes and jabs to continue into the wee hours.
“That’s the urgency that this event calls for,” said Jim Bell, the executive in charge of “The Tonight Show.” “And that is rather striking that’s where we are in 2019 compared to previous election cycles.”
Producers have decided that going live — something streaming platforms do not do — provides a competitive advantage. They also believe that interest in the debates during this election cycle will match the enthusiasm for the 2016 election, when primary debates shattered ratings records.
That belief is rooted, somewhat, in a man who will not be on the stage in Miami: President Trump, whose presence in 2015 helped ignite ratings and who, producers believe, will elevate interest in the candidates challenging him.
In this ever-accelerating news cycle, the people behind late-night television believe it is vital to cover prime-time events as quickly as possible.
“You’re competing against what people see on Twitter, and if you’re talking about something on the show that happened from the day before, it almost feels like ancient history at that point,” said Dan Amira, the head writer of “The Daily Show.”
But Election Day 2020 is still 17 months away. This week’s late-night schedule, which is beginning to feel like the new norm, could also be setting up a long march of deadline comedy news. (There were a dozen Republican debates in the 2016 election cycle.) Jokes have to be written immediately. The chances of mistakes ramp up. Staff burnout is a real consideration.
In 2016, the late-night shows did not bother with live shows until the conventions and the presidential debates.
Several shows, including Mr. Colbert’s, “The Daily Show” and Mr. Meyers’s, have done live specials during Mr. Trump’s first term, including on the nights of the midterm elections and the State of the Union address.
Primary season did not use to command this kind of attention. Jon Stewart’s final episode as host of “The Daily Show” aired the night of the first Republican debate in 2015. The episode was taped hours before the debate and did not include any material from the 10 candidates sparring. That debate, which aired on Fox News, went on to draw a record 24 million viewers.
“I imagine we’ll go live for many, many more events in the next year,” said Jen Flanz, an executive producer of “The Daily Show.”
The live trend started with “The Daily Show” and Mr. Colbert’s “The Late Show.”
Chris Licht, a veteran of television news who was brought in as executive producer in 2016 to help reorient Mr. Colbert’s late-night show, broached the idea of going live for the entire eight-day stretch that covered the Republican and Democratic national conventions in July 2016.
“It was actually really simple,” Mr. Licht said. “If our mission is to talk about what everyone’s talking about and the main thing that people will be talking about is happening after you normally tape, you should do it live.”
The show went live for two weeks and Mr. Colbert received a wave of strong reviews and a significant ratings boost.
Months later, Mr. Colbert’s show topped Mr. Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” for the first time in total viewers, a streak that continues nearly two and a half years later. Mr. Licht and Mr. Colbert have both cited the live shows as the beginning of that turnaround effort.
Likewise, in the summer of 2016, Trevor Noah was less than a year into replacing Mr. Stewart’s legendary run at the helm of “The Daily Show.” Political coverage, especially after the program’s much ballyhooed “Indecision 2000” coverage, became the show’s hallmark.
Mr. Noah was still finding his footing when “Daily Show” producers came to a similar conclusion: They should go live after Mr. Trump’s speech and Hillary Clinton’s speech at each party’s convention. Under Mr. Stewart, the show only went live on election nights.
During the program’s first live show in July 2016, a prepackaged piece went haywire on the air. Mr. Noah was left on his own when it stopped playing.
“The piece just stopped and we went back to Trevor and he was so much more cool and collected than the rest of us,” Ms. Flanz said, remembering how Mr. Noah riffed and fed off the audience’s reaction to the technical glitch. “It was that point I was like, ‘Huh, this guy. He likes this.’ And then it was like: ‘Oh yeah, we can do this all the time.’”
Most late-night shows will be tightly focused on politics during these live post-debate shows. But Mr. Fallon might do something else entirely. Mr. Bell, the executive in charge of “The Tonight Show,” was encouraged when the program went live just for Mr. Fallon’s monologue after President Trump’s State of the Union address in February.
Mr. Bell said that the monologue will reflect the night’s debates, but that the show over all will “give people a chance to take a most welcome break from the madness of politics.” A channel away, Mr. Colbert has several political guests lined up for Wednesday and Thursday, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. Mr. Fallon is going in another direction.
“We have Nicki Minaj booked for Thursday,” Mr. Bell said. “I can think of no better debate palate cleanser.”
The two broadcast late-night shows that will not be live — ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and CBS’s “The Late Late Show” — will not have new episodes at all: They will be in repeats.
If the ratings are there, both for the debates and the late-night shows, live shows will most likely become a regular part of the election cycle.
“A Democratic debate — two of them no less — is now the kind of an event that people will collectively watch,” said Mike Shoemaker, a producer for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” “That’s why it warrants it. It’s not like all of a sudden we decided this was interesting. People became interested in it.”