The End of the Late Night Wars?
In the beginning, there was Johnny. The same man that Jack Nicholson announces as he breaks open the door in The Shining with an axe. The father of late night talk shows and the host of the Tonight Show on NBC from 1962 until 1992. Carson was a comedian come interviewer and he made his show the template from which all other chat shows have been developed - opening monologue, band and the celebrity interviews. At the height of his show, 59 million Americans tuned in to watch him and innumerable stars were made, including the men, and it is nearly always men, who followed him.... Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Ellen DeGeneres, Eddie Murphy, Roseanne Barr, Steve Martin....and Jay Leno and David Letterman.
Sure, in Johnny Carson's time there weren't that many challengers as there wasn't that many channels, but he was a tradition, one of those traditions that's worth revisiting to remind you what real ability looks like when the next failed actor or c-lister decides to begin a chat show. He also knew talent, and when he came to retire he knew who the man was who should replace him. He wanted one of his guest hosts, people of the calibre of Joan Rivers, Jerry Lewis, Garry Shandling or Bob Newhart, he wanted ex-weatherman and failed actor David Letterman. Now Letterman already had the show that followed Carson, Late Night, and believed that NBC had promised him that he would succeed, but he hadn't reckoned on the popularity at the network of Jay Leno.
Now books and films have been written about what happened when Johnny left. There were allegations that Leno hid in closets to listen to NBC executives and canvassed for the role whilst Letterman negotiated and kept his aspirations under wraps. A lot of bad blood was caused when Leno was announced as Carson's successor and Letterman left for CBS and a time-slot in direct competition with Leno. For two men who had been good friends, Leno was one of the most regular guests on Letterman's show, a very public rivalry began.
Now, ratings wise, Leno has won the battle bar a few limited periods. Critically though, Letterman has innovated and been a much better interviewer. Both have had coups in getting particular stars onto their shows, but Leno tends to have secured the headlines with spectacularly opportune pieces like getting Charlie Sheen mid meltdown a couple of years back. Leno has pushed a man of the people approach with vox pops and a slightly messianic opening to his shows where the audience flock to shake his hand. Letterman has wisecracked, been cool and flirted relentlessly with Hollywood starlets.
Don't Blame Conan
Leno has been ultra steady and worked hard to keep his show on top, Letterman's style and wit has continued to impress but he has encountered scandals about sexual harassment and a blackmail plot. Leno, well, Leno, has faced a re-run of the Carson situation with a spectacularly awful succession in 2010. Planned to be replaced by Conan O'Brien, Letterman's successor at Late Night, NBC started having second thoughts as Leno's ratings were soaring. To accommodate the change, they put Jay on earlier, then bumped the Tonight show back to give Leno his old time slot with his new show. O'Brien first soared in the rating and then plummeted, he lasted under a year before Leno was back in charge and Conan pocketed a huge pay-off and a long sabbatical. I wonder who Letterman blamed:
Now, in 2010, Dave was not on his own. Over at ABC, the love-child of Letterman and fellow late night host, Jimmy Kimmel, wasn't happy either:
And as for shrinking violets like Howard Stern and Rosie O'Donnell, you can see what they think of Jay by clicking on their names here.
So the world of late night talk shows was again presented as a war where Kimmel and Letterman hate Leno, Conan hates Leno but can't say so and the other two players at that time, Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Fallon just love everybody. In the last couple of years, things though have changed. Kimmel is now in direct competition with Leno and Letterman's time-slot, Jimmy Fallon's Late Show has become extremely popular with young audiences and cable has opened up the competitors further with people like Chelsea Handler, Arsenio Hall, the now defunct Alec Baldwin and the recently canned George Lopez. Oh..and a returning Conan O'Brien...
Where Johnny Carson once got 59 million viewers for a show at 11.30 at night, now the leading show, still Leno, gets 4.5 million with Kimmel and Letterman both getting around 3 million each. The later shows have trendy Jimmy Fallon getting 2 million and Ferguson 1.5. The latter two have shared gifts, Fallon has even had Ferguson's pantomime horse on his show and Ferguson has declared he isn't interested in any wars, even inviting and praising Leno on his show. Harmony seemed to be breaking out when NBC did it again and announced that Leno was again being sent out to pasture and would be replaced by human puppie Jimmy Fallon.
Leno haters see another re-run on the cards with cute Jimmy coming a cropper like Conan. It has refuelled all those resentments but, as fellow host Craig Ferguson pointed out, what has Leno done wrong but had the highest rating show for 20+ years. Even more tellingly, Jay dropped the bombshell that perhaps Dave doesn't hate him any more and they called each other. Talking with Stern on his show, Letterman confirmed that that was true, that they did speak and refused to follow Stern's vitriol. A handover date of 2014 is agreed and Leno is talking about getting back to stand-up full time and enjoying his car collection - surely it won't happen again?
Clearly, NBC fear that Leno will lose younger viewers now that he is in direct competition with Kimmel and note just how clever Fallon's team is at using virals and clips to publicise his show. They see the savvy, lovable Fallon and want the man they think can beat the rise of Jimmy Kimmel. From Dave versus Jay, we are now into Jimmy versus Jimmy. Yet, Letterman has his eyes on going past Carson's record of 30 years as a host and a contract with CBS, him and Ferguson, until 2015 - when Leno leaves will his older audience flock to Letterman?
It was fifty years ago...
Fallon's show is ultra hip and is ruthless in following trends. It's at its best in occasional tomfoolery and musical interludes like the one above. He, like Leno, just can't interview people without sounding like a helpful PR assistant and no cutting element exists in his whole show, even the sometime painful monologues. Kimmel, on the other hand, has learnt well from Letterman with the ability to get dark and the willingness to employ satire when he wants. Sadly, sometimes his shows are cliquey and make you feel like you are chumming around his fabulous address book.
These days, Leno is still king of the monologues, superbly crafted and rehearsed. His shows are places to plug with broad obvious sentiment and more than a suspicion of artifice. Letterman, in turn, is far less likely to surprise, is the better interviewer and the wittiest of all off the cuff. Which leaves Ferguson, who in his own words is a "lounge entertainer or "the late night douche", and in rare moments of sincerity "de-constructing the whole late night thing". He retains a delightfully cutting and often surreal style that I'd characterise as the Seinfeld of talk shows - a "show about nothing"
His monologues tail off into none effort, his cold opens are nearly 100% improvised and the audience spends most of the show "oohing" him as double entendres and dubious remarks fly high sometimes before landing on often stony ground. He outdoes Letterman with the flirting, revels in his low budget, calls his boss a racist and press-gangs interns, make-up staff and producers into the silliest of ideas. At his worst the show limps to the finishing line like co-host Secretariat in snow shoes, but at its best the show brings out a side to interviewees you never expected and transcends all of your daily shit with rank nonsense and a dippy jolliness.
Fifty years after Carson started, the format of the show is almost the same and it is still, bar Handler, Arsenio and the fired Lopez, delivered by a white guy in a suit, but at least one of those guys still makes it worth watching. However practised Leno or Letterman are, however good at catching the zeitgeist Kimmel and Fallon are, give me one Scottish American, his robot skeleton sidekick and his cocaine snorting equine friend.
The Late Late Show is not available in the UK. There's a petition here to put that right. Until that happens you can rely on youtube or try the CBS website with that media-hint addon Nick mentioned here