Or is it Just a Reboot?
In 1993, when I was thirteen years old, David Letterman left NBC to start a new show at 11:30 called The Late Show. This would be the first time that The Tonight Show, which was about to enter its fourth decade on the air, would have any true competition. Even more important than that however, was the fact that Johnny Carson had stepped down as host of Tonight after thirty years.
In the preceding ten years, Letterman, along with his staff, had changed the face of television with a convention destroying show called Late Night. Late Night was almost the anti-Tonight Show. If Tonight was a well-oiled machine, Late Night was meant to be its gas-leaking younger brother. Young people flocked to it in droves and every comedy writer wanted in on the action. Most people, Johnny Carson included, thought that Letterman was the obvious choice to take over Tonight when Carson decided to retire. NBC had other ideas.
Jay Leno had been the go-to guest host of Tonight for the better part of a decade. A large contingent of NBC executives thought that Leno was more amiable than Letterman, and was just as deserving of the job. Leno had been one of the top stand-up comics for years prior to his guest hosting gig at Tonight, and had also been one of Late Night’s most popular guests in its early years. To make a long story short, NBC chose Leno as Carson’s replacement, and Letterman went to CBS.
This back story is important in the narrative of my youth. I became transfixed by the goings of the late night hosts, and became a huge fan of David Letterman in the process. I loathed Leno for years, but eventually came to admire his tenacity, and how he was kind of the inverse Letterman who also happened to be really funny in his own way. The person I came to really be a fan of however, was Conan O’Brien.
I watched Conan throughout high school and pretty much any time thereafter. I still watch him on his TBS show when I get the chance, and even watched him on his unfortunately short run on The Tonight Show (and no, I don’t fully blame Leno for that, I mostly blame NBC for bad timing and no follow through). Conan became to me what Letterman was to so many in the 1980’s; the funniest person on TV. And to me he still is.
All of this comes to mind due to the fact that Letterman retired a couple of weeks back. It’s not as if it wasn’t time, but it’s still bittersweet. With Letterman and Leno gone, Conan at 11:00, and two of the least offensive comedians around hosting The Tonight Show and Late Night (Jimmy Fallon and Seth Myers respectively-you can be the judge of who is less offensive), it’s probably safe to say that network late night dominance is over and done with. Jimmy Kimmel is pretty funny in his own right, and Stephen Colbert will do a fine job I’m sure, but it might be nearing time to put the current late night talk show concept to bed.
Colbert himself, along with Jon Stewart, has already kind of made that argument for the last decade plus anyway. The Daily Show, which Stewart and company turned from a middle of the road comedy show to gold in a very short time, has been routinely referenced as the best late night show (although I still prefer Conan). Couple that with The Colbert Report, which hit the zeitgeist perfectly when it began in 2005, and the Stewart/Colbert double-team has been critically unstoppable. But that ended earlier this year when Colbert took his leave before his version of The Late Show starts, and now Stewart is leaving The Daily Show in August.
The late night time slot is more crowded than ever before, and it might be hard for anyone to really stand out due to this. With ratings for The Tonight Show collectively lower than they’ve ever been, and without any real current competition, it doesn’t take much a television genius to make out the writing on the wall. Johnny Carson might have been the “king of late night,’ but even he wouldn’t have much of a chance of standing out in the current television landscape. Maybe FOX just needs to bring The Chevy Chase Show back.
Until next time…