What’s Going On In Late Night

18 May

For many years I always felt the best TV was on late at night, no not that skinamax crap, I’m talking about the talk shows. Maybe it’s because (until recently) I‘ve been a night owl all my life, I feel a certain kinship with the late night host who’s trying to keep the attention of viewers, who should be asleep. As a lifelong late night fan I’ve been saddened by recent announcements regarding CBS’s Late shift and feel compelled to comment on the current Network Night scene.

Gotta get this off my chest. Jay Leno is an empty shell, in the shape of a TV personality that’s been filled with programming written by corporate bean counters. He had the best staff and doing his show in L.A. made it easy to book higher profile guests, so it was simple to mask what an untalented sell out Jay is. I first realized this, not when that whole debacle with Conan O’Brian went down (more on that later). But way back when Jay Leno was hocking Doritos. You weren’t getting enough money, fame, and spiritual fulfillment being the host of The Tonight Show Jay? So you sold Doritos to fulfill your artistic and comedic dreams? You high voiced hack! That’s when Jay committed to being a shill. I could make this post entirely about bashing Leno, because it sure is fun, but I digress. Let’s hope he’s gone for good this time.


The first time I watched David Letterman on The Late Show he was throwing stuff off the roof for the sheer pleasure of watching unwarranted destruction, I was hooked. Back in those days they had some great bits; Dave working at a Drive-thru, Rupert Jee annoying people. It was edgy for its time and has been repeatedly copied by others. But beyond his bits Dave’s real power was his attitude. He was dry not snide, sarcastic without being condescending, and self-deprecating instead of whiny. He’s just grumpy enough to be interesting and that came through especially in his interviews. He always kept them spontaneous and unrehearsed. For me Dave was always the king of late night and when he bows out it will be the end of an era.


Dave’s old show Late Night was given to Conan O’Brian who infused it with his own wacky cartoonish sense of humor. As a life-time Simpsons fanatic I’m partial to Conan O’Brian. Early on there was no competition for Conan and his side-kick Andy Richter so they got away with awful stuff that was neither funny or entertaining. Occasionally they’d hit on something so ridiculous it was funny like Pimpbot and The Masturbating Bear and slowly developed a repertoire of immature comedy for immature people like me. Conan’s biggest weakness is interviewing, he frequently interrupts to steal the spotlight and that only got worse when Andy left. I supported Conan when he took over The Tonight Show, he was in his element and loving every minute of it. We all know what happened next, so all I’ll say is that what NBC and Leno did to Conan was more fucked up than a soup sandwich. Once Conan had the Tonight show kicked out from under him, I went and saw his touring show which was amazing. After that he’s never been the same, even with Andy back, his TBS show lacks something undefinable, it just can’t recreate that same old feeling.

The Jimmys; Fallon and Kimmel get a lot of press and praise but I never watch them. They’ve both done a lot to advance the future of Late night talk shows into a new area, the 4 minute viral video the morning after. Hate to say it, but this is the new trend, and will ultimately end with hosts being known for their youtube clips that you can also watch on old TV when your smartphone dies. The Jimmys know this and nightly present 5 minutes of online content and 50 minutes of TV filler. Also, Hey Jimmy Fallon I’ll give you $1000 dollars if you can stop smiling for 30 seconds and $10,000 if you go a whole show without saying “Oh wow, that’s great, really great.”


My favorite is The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Because Craig’s meticulous deconstruction of the genre bends it into an alternative late show. His early sketches were atrocious but the writer’s strike ended those and forced him to just wing it and the show has never been better, although I do miss Michael Cane in Space. Unlike most shows Craig’s comedy is a slow burn of inside jokes not conducive to internet clips. There’s jokes that call back to his first night in 2004. Once viewers learn why the running jokes are funny you feel like you’re in a special club. It’s all just him improvising with his robot skeleton side-kick Geoff and chatting. He’s not afraid to get personal and share stories about his life, his past addictions, his opinions, all the while reminding us that him and his show are crap. The big reason I love this show is they play with the same themes so much that if you watch one night and like it you’ll like it every night. But sadly Craig is leaving the show in December.

The future of late night looks grim. Letterman is being replaced by Stephen Colbert. Stephen is known for the character he plays on cable. That won’t work on an hour long network show, he’ll have to be genuine. Only the public doesn’t know the real Stephen very well, so what should we expect? His persona is extremely full of himself, if that continues I won’t tune in, part of why I like Dave and Craig is that they’re self-deprecating. As for Ferguson’s replacement it has yet to be officially announced but the leading guess is Joel McHale. The best thing I can say about that choice is that it is still unofficial, we’ll find out soon.

Good thing I’m not a night person anymore.

Carl Wells


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