Entering the next generation of late night

David Letterman

David Letterman will retire from the Late Show on CBS in 2015.

When David Letterman announced his retirement last week, I wrote this note on social media:

For about six years I watched Letterman every night. I don’t know what that means, or if the numbers matter, but it feels to me like this mattered a lot. I hope this doesn’t come across as silly, but when I was spending my nights on the cot in the damp old basement of our house south of Eveleth watching Carson and Letterman, and then Letterman and Conan, I felt like I knew what I was supposed to do with my life. And, with some detours, I continue to do what I hoped I would back then. So congratulations to Dave on his retirement announcement. I haven’t seen his show very often in recent years, but I’ll never forget what it meant to me when I needed it.

Late night television is to me what sports or even news are to “normal people.” It’s a specific art form that I’ve always loved. I’ve always been comforted by the notion of “the show.” Even though I no longer watch all the shows (no time!), the only consistent thing about my TV habits since I was a kid is some intake of late night variety shows.

So as you can imagine, these are interesting times. Last month, Jimmy Fallon took over the venerated Tonight Show on NBC. I must admit, in a couple weeks Fallon has won me over as a viewer. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, the way Johnny Carson was, but he’s so dynamically talented and fun that it’s hard to turn away from the show. His monologues are weaker than Jay Leno’s or Carson’s, but he keeps them short and is off into an amped-up twist on late night comedy that even the great ones didn’t have the music chops to try.

Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy Fallon performs during a comedy show. His ability to incorporate music and physical comedy sets him apart.

While I was checking out Fallon, my old hero David Letterman announced his retirement. Thursday, CBS quickly announced that Stephen Colbert, best known for his satirical character by the same name on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report,” would be taking over Late Show.

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert will be the next host of Late Show. PHOTO: Anders Krusberg / Peabody Awards

Many people had hoped CBS might shake up the late night landscape with this decision. Colbert is a talented comedian, but he’s a middle aged white guy like every other late night host. If you can think like a network, though, you can see why the Colbert choice might have been both safe and profitable.

For one thing, Colbert is in the same corporate family; so they know not only about his on-camera talent, but whether they can work with him behind the scenes. Second, some of the best female candidates mentioned: Tiny Fey (who would have been my choice), Amy Poehler or Ellen DeGeneres are all tied up in their own successful shows or movie careers. Plus they’re all longtime employees of other networks.

Secondly, with Fallon cleaning up with young viewers (he’s crushing the ratings since his debut), there remains the large, reliable older audience that propelled Jay Leno to his late night success as Fallon’s predecessor. Fallon is a little more edgy; and I can imagine that audience looking for a more mature program. Perhaps Colbert could provide the show that plays for both young and old? Colbert’s real personality is much more friendly and humble than his bombastic right wing persona on “The Colbert Report.”

Since 1993, the late night competition has been described as Late Show vs. The Tonight Show. But 2014 realities show that there are five or six shows all angling for this same audience. I haven’t even mentioned Conan O’Brien, another longtime favorite of mine, whose TBS show is solid entertainment (even if it’s buried on basic cable). Jimmy Kimmel on ABC’s newer Live program and Arsenio Hall remain players, along with Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and a new show from Daily Show alum John Oliver on HBO.

These are just the 10 or 10:30 shows (central time, yo). The *really* late night shows are a whole other thing. I still haven’t seen Seth Meyers on NBC’s Late Night. Craig Ferguson on CBS’s Late Late Show is a great monologist and interviewer, but is likely to leave the show after his current contract.

I can’t watch all these programs, and the sheer number of competitive shows means there will never be another figure like Johnny Carson who unites the nation’s viewers for an hour every night. In some ways, the legacy of David Letterman is that he proved you can push the boundaries of the late night talk show format: but that means the audience’s taste will allow for many different styles.


  1. David Gray says

    I’m suspicious they’ll regret the Colbert decision, for reasons linked to what you write above. Colbert’s comedy to date has a distinctly partisan edge that may not sell well, particularly with an older audience. Fallon is very talented, as is O’Brien. Maybe Colbert can successfully remake himself but I suspect he’ll find it hard to do so.

  2. The Colbert character and the Colbert Report are distinctly and purposely political. Colbert himself hasn’t shown his range yet. Rather than remake himself, he simply needs to go back to himself. I’m pretty sure most of his current audience is younger than he is, and that he is so in tune with himself and the flow of life that he will kill. Break a leg Mr. Colbert.

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