The transition from the 80s, 90s and 2000s is now complete. Every host that had a network late night show in 2002 has been replaced or moved to another gig. It started when Jimmy Kimmel started a show in 2003, then Craig Ferguson replaced Craig Kilborn on the Late Late Show on CBS. 2009 was a mess for NBC, as we all can remember Conan O’Brien left Late Night for the Tonight Show, then was forced out and moved to TBS. His successor on Late Night, Jimmy Fallon, moved to the Tonight Show when Jay Leno was pushed out of the job, and Seth Myers took over for him a couple of months ago.
The last major domino is going to fall next year. David Letterman is retiring in 2015, and will be replaced by Stephen Colbert. There are also reports out that Ferguson will be replaced as well in 2015. Ferguson’s status with CBS is tied to Letterman and his production company. CBS decided to pay him 10 million dollars to not take over for Letterman, and apparently didn’t even consider him. Instead, it sounds as though, from that article by the NY Daily News I linked to, CBS is looking at Chelsea Handler to take over the 1230 spot, freed of the constraints of Worldwide Pants’ control of that time slot.
I have always loved late night talk shows. I like the monologues, the sketches, the guest interviews, all of it. I watched Letterman religiously, mostly because I couldn’t stand Leno, especially after the Conan fiasco, which meant I didn’t watch Jimmy Kimmel until very recently. When Jimmy Fallon came around, and Conan came back, I started to divide my time between all of the talk shows. When Fallon moved to the Tonight Show, I started to include him and Kimmel into my rotation.
David Letterman’s ability to be serious when a situation called for it, and his tenure always made his show seem the most important, rather than just silly. His ties to Carson and an era gone by earned him a special kind of respect. He was often discounted by younger fans because he was older and he didn’t offer the arbitrary humor of his competitors. Dry, clever humor is always my favorite kind, but the 6 hosts that will have shows (allegedly) by late 2015 all bring their own qualities. Here’s my breakdown of the 6, in descending order of who I think will be least to most enjoyable by, let’s say, the middle of 2016, though I suspect I will enjoy all of them.
6: Conan O’Brien (TBS) - Late Night was good. I liked what he did on the Tonight Show. He always struggled a bit with the monologue, but his sketches were innovative and funny, if for no other reason than their low production values. Ever since he was pushed out of the Tonight Show, he seems to have lost a step. He veers too often towards blue humor, where he is clever enough not to fall back on it. It almost seems that, with nothing to continue to strive for, his ambition is sapped, and his on screen product just isn’t as good.
5: Chelsea Handler (CBS) - I only know Handler from her appearances on other shows. I think one thing she has over other hosts, like Seth Meyers, especially, is an ability to be conversational with an audience. Another thing that I have noticed, however, is that she defaults to blue humor as well. I’m not like Jerry Lee Lewis in my opposition to women working blue, but I think with the daily late night shows, constantly being crass gets tiresome and shows a lazy mind. Handler seems smart enough to get by even if she tones it down, and she has the ambition the O’Briend has lost. It will take some time, but I think she can look to Kimmel as an inspiration. He converted from a raunchy Comedy Central Host to a perfectly fine network host, while still being funny.
4: Seth Meyers (NBC) - I like Meyers. I think he has the dry, acerbic wit that we will be missing when Letterman leaves. What he doesn’t have, in my opinion, is the every man pathos that Letterman did. He still reads like a newsman from his days on Saturday Night Live. His bits need work, he needs to work on his delivery and he needs to figure out his interactions with guests (his stand ups with Martha Steward and Mario Batali were brutal, though part of that was defiintely the fault of his producer and director for letting them last so long.) Fred Armisen isn’t really a great comedic spoil as the band leader, either. Seth is more of a straight man, and Armisen doesn’t play off of that well. There are a lot of issues with the show right now. What Meyers does have, though, is an excellent writing background. The original Conan took a while to sort itself out, but he had a writing background as well. Meyers’ show won’t be as silly as the Conan version, but it will be immeasurably better by the end of the year.
3: Jimmy Kimmel (ABC) - If nothing else, Kimmel is the most veteran face after 1030 (Central Time) right now. He has his show figured out, and has his own style. He has a rapport with guests, and seems to have a cabal of friends out there willing to take part in bits. He doesn’t go for the overtly silly, over the top jokes, and has shied away from his Man Show image. His monologue relies heavily on content found on Youtube or online, which adds a level of fan involvement that many people appreciate these days. I suspect with Leno out of the picture he will start pulling in better guests, with his being the biggest show on the West Coast. The problem he has? He just doesn’t make me laugh as often as other hosts. I don’t know what else to say. It’s nothing against him and I can’t put a finger on it.
2: Stephen Colbert (CBS) - Colbert, people suspect, will be a complete wild card. I don’t know that the result will be as crazy as anyone expects. Sure, Colbert will be playing it straight after hosting the Colbert Report in character, but he sort of adapted The Daily Show to the character. In my mind, Colbert will simply bring a new life to The Late Show, rather than completely reinventing it. I think Colbert is funny, he is clearly inventive enough to come up with the Colbert Report character, and his appearances as himself on other shows give a window to a strong, affable personality that will likely play well on a grander stage. I think his transition will be much easier than Meyers’ was. He isn’t as acerbic or wry as Letterman, but then, nobody, save for maybe Handler, will be when he’s gone.
1: Jimmy Fallon (NBC) - Almost everyone I talk to that watched Fallon is surprised by how much they like his show. His problem on SNL was his inability to get through a show without getting a serious case of the giggles. His talk show — scratch that — his variety show is built around his inability to keep a straight face. He plays silly games, has fun with his guests, doesn’t linger over the monologue and most importantly, has thoroughly embraced social media. His kinship with celebrities, notably Justin Timberlake, has helped make the show even better. He has the best band in late night, and Steve Higgins has a great presence as a studio announcer and comedic partner to Fallon. His writers craft excellent bits, and his embrace of the music mashup has led to great viral videos. As I said, this is a variety show in it’s truest sense, with games, comedy bits, singing and audience interaction. Not only is the show funny, but it’s fun. It’s going to be hard to knock Fallon off the top perch by the end of 2015, if you ask me.
But still, none of these shows will carry the weight that David Letterman has for the past 30 years. Not that it’s necessary, but I will miss late night talk shows having a little bit of gravitas.