Talk, Talk, Talk: Zach Damon's "Ann Arbor Tonight" puts a local spin on the late-night TV chat format


Zach Damon sits behind his desk on the set of the show his hosts, Ann Arbor Tonight. He's wearing a suit and tie, has a bit smile, and his black hair is slicked back. On his desk is a microphone, a coffee mug, pen and paper, and some University of Michigan football memorabilia.

Photo courtesy of Zach Damon.

At age 6, Zach Damon discovered his love of public speaking.

The future Ann Arbor Tonight host-producer was an ambassador for March of Dimes and spoke at different events in the early ‘90s, including the National Athletic Awards at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.

“I remember being in the audience because it was a pre-taped show and seeing the great energy and the great camaraderie of the business in general,” said Damon, who was born with cerebral palsy and grew up in Ann Arbor. “Everyone was so encouraging, and they’d say, ‘Zach, you can do anything you want to do, and if you want to work in media one day, then you can do that.’”

Damon also became inspired watching TV sportscaster Greg Gumbel and author-journalist Mitch Albom serve as hosts of the awards show. In that moment, he found his purpose.

“I remember seeing one of the broadcasters on stage doing his thing, getting the cues during the show, and then presenting," he said. "I remember at one point looking at the stage and saying to myself as a 5 or 6-year-old … I’d really like to be that person … and that’s where I felt most comfortable.”

Damon carried that dream with him throughout his teen years. By his junior year at Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School, he aspired to host a late-night talk show. 

“I was talking to some buddies of mine who were in the film and video club, and I said, ‘It would be really neat to have a late-night show in Ann Arbor and call it Ann Arbor Tonight,” said Damon, who’s inspired by The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. “I was sitting on my bed, and they were like, ‘Yeah, whatever, Zach.’ I always have these very big ideas, but I really felt that they were possible if you just put the action toward it.”

After high school in 2005, Damon, a former student-athlete and a longtime sports enthusiast, launched The Hot Seat with Zach Damon, a local sports and entertainment show, on Ann Arbor’s Community Television Network. For 11 years, he interviewed University of Michigan athletes and coaches as well as artists for the self-produced show.

“I learned a lot because you’re organizing and doing the whole production as well," Damon said. "From an interview standpoint and a talent and journalistic standpoint, you learn to ask the questions that you yourself would want to know. I said to myself, ‘Well, gee, if I want to know this … then, hopefully, others would want to know that.’ If you ask questions that you want to know, then it’s more authentic.”

By 2016, a local playwright and theater director introduced Damon to writer-comedian Mark Sweetman at an Ann Arbor comedy show for emerging standups. That encounter led to a discussion about starting Ann Arbor Tonight with Sweetman and their mutual friend, the late writer-comedian Bert “Chili” Challis.

“I ended up telling my friend and Mark Sweetman that I had an idea to do a late-night show because it was always a very big passion of mine,” said Damon, who’s also had a career in radio and as a voice actor. “After a while, both Mark and my other friend were like, ‘Hey, that is so funny, Zach, that you’re talking about late-night because we actually have a coach who’s going to start coaching at this comedy show and who also wrote for Leno on The Tonight Show.”

Damon then connected with Challis after seeing him perform at Big Tommy’s Parthenon & Comedy Club in Novi. He introduced himself after the show and said, “I understand that you wrote for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, and I hope to have a late-night show one day, and before I even finished, he interrupted me and said, ‘Well, let’s do it.’”

A month later, Damon shot the pilot episode of Ann Arbor Tonight at the Community Television Network (CTN) with a crew and featured actor Eric Parker, vocalists Three Men and a Tenor, and comedians Mike Green and Norm Stulz.  

“I remember sitting behind the desk and looking at the audience. There was a split second of emotional realism and being like, ‘Wow, I’m actually doing it, and it’s actually real.’ It was overwhelming gratitude,” Damon said. “You’re never successful or build anything without the help of others. It was just a sense of extreme gratitude because not many have the opportunity to get up every day and work on what they love.”

Damon and his dedicated crew recorded 24 Ann Arbor Tonight episodes in the CTN studios in just under four years. With the onset of the pandemic, he switched to an At Home self-produced version of the show, which features interviews with local and national guests via Zoom.

“The difference with remote is you don’t have to worry about all those logistics, and you don’t have to send shot lists and times," Damon said. "The only thing I have to do is know what my schedule is and then send guests the dates.

“The show was not possible without a crew and without many people, so I would say with doing that At Home version, it’s fine to do, but I do yearn and miss my crew and the studio aspect of it. It’s really a team effort … and that’s one of the magical pieces of doing film and television.”

For his latest and 29th episode, Damon interviews Miriam E. Nelson, president and CEO of Newman’s Own Foundation, and actress-comedian Emily Miller. As the first Ann Arbor Tonight episode of 2022, it demonstrates the show’s longevity despite ongoing pandemic challenges.

“This episode is also showcasing how we are able to have guests from anywhere highlighted on Ann Arbor Tonight. That has been a nice innovation,” Damon said. “My hope is to still incorporate remote segments of guests every so often once we go back to a studio setting. So far, this new episode has set the tone for how technology can help us adapt and keep moving forward.”

As a result of his hard work, Damon’s Ann Arbor Tonight has received several Philo T. Farnsworth Awards, including Producers First Place Honors for Arts/Cultural Awareness (Ann Arbor Tonight – At Home), Empowerment/Inspirational (episode 26), Entertainment (episode 26), and Underserved Voices (Ann Arbor Tonight – At Home).

“This was a huge surprise, and I was filled with gratitude as there are a lot of great producers out there,” he said. “This was not an accomplishment of one, but of many, as it takes many people to create an episode.”

Looking ahead, Damon plans to keep hosting and producing new episodes of Ann Arbor Tonight at home. He’s also developing a 501(c)(3) nonprofit around the show.

“There’s always a plan of growth and moving forward. We’re going to continue to make the best quality episodes that we can and keep it alive,” Damon said.

“I’m trying to really make it something where I’m giving back to the community at the same time. I’m working right now with a couple of people who are on the board of directors, and we’re still recruiting some others for the board of directors to file that.”

Lori Stratton is an Ann Arbor-based writer and editor of

Ann Arbor Tonight” is available via cable television on Comcast channel 17 and AT&T U-verse channel 99. It’s also streamed live and on-demand on the free MISports TV app on Roku and on the show’s YouTube channel.