Letterman’s Retirement

David Letterman has announced that he will be retiring next year. He’s been the star of The Late Show With David Letterman for 21 years.

It’s interesting that Letterman’s retirement announcement came shortly after Jay Leno — Letterman’s chief rival for recognition as the successor to Johnny Carson as the King of Late-Night Television — retired. Letterman is another TV icon whose “top ten list” became part of the national zeitgeist. But I long ago stopped watching either Letterman or Leno, and I can’t remember the last time either of them had something significant or novel to say or do about America or the world. For years, they seemed to be living on past glory, attracting the habitual viewers who had watched them for years but not bringing in anyone new. Their shticks got old. People who were comfortable with them stuck around; people who were looking for something different looked elsewhere.

It will be interesting to see whether the late-night talk show format ends up passing into TV history, just as Jay Leno has done and as David Letterman will be doing next year. As I’ve noted before, it’s amazing that talk shows — a format that began at the dawn of TV, more than 60 years ago — are still around. If you’ve seen the commercial where a guy walks out of his kitchen eating a bowl of cereal or ice cream and finds himself on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, you’ve seen that talk shows are to the point of self-parody. Maybe Fallon’s spoofing of himself is supposed to be one of those new, ironic bits of humor that 50-somethings like me don’t get, but I see that commercial as an implicit recognition that late-night talk shows are trite and banal.

I wish David Letterman the best in his retirement, but maybe his decision to hit the road will allow the networks to finally come up with a new approach to late-night programming.

The Twilight Of Talk Shows

Last week Jay Leno stopped hosting The Tonight Show. I was amazed to see that he had been the host of that venerable show for 22 years. That means it’s been 22 years since I last watched The Tonight Show.

I’ve got nothing against Leno, who could capably tell a joke and mug for the camera. He’ll be replaced by the smug Jimmy Fallon, whose claimed talents have always been lost on me, and I won’t watch the show then, either. It’s just that the talk show concept seems so trite and formulaic, it takes a gigantic talent and iconic figure like Johnny Carson to make it watchable. None of the current crop of hosts even comes close — which means the appeal of late-night talk shows is strictly limited to insomniacs.

At the dawn of TV, the staples of programming were westerns, variety shows, news documentaries, and talk shows. The Tonight Show, for example, started in 1954 with Steve Allen as its host. Sixty years later, the westerns and variety shows and documentaries are gone from the airwaves, but the talk shows remain.

In 60 years, the creaky format of talk shows hasn’t changed much, either. We’ve seen Jack Parr, Carson, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, and countless others I’ve long since forgotten sitting behind their desks and coffee cups, with some phony backdrop behind them. There’s a monologue, a skit or parody, and some banter with the band leader or sidekick, and then the guests come out — a film star pitching her movie, a new comedian trying to hit the big time, and perhaps a political figure or quirky character who won a yodeling contest or collects rocks that look like U.S. Presidents. A few rote questions, some banal conversation, and its time to move down the couch and bring on the next guest.

Why are talk shows still on their air? Do people find some comfort in the familiar format? Why is a vintage concept that began decades before the internet, CDs, streaming video, and Netflix still around, when everything else about our popular culture has changed so dramatically?

The Tonight Show, Carson, and Conan

I heartily agree with Richard’s post on CoCo and The Tonight Show.

I think Jay Leno is pretty much unfunny.  He was a lame successor to Johnny Carson, and I think when he took over The Tonight Show he tarnished the brand of that show.  It used to be “must see” TV for anyone staying up after 11:30 on a weeknight.  You would watch Carson’s monologue, see who he had on as guests that night, and probably stay tuned until at least midnight.

Carson was one of the five most classic TV personalities of all time.  Indeed, he was one of the few TV figures of my youth who probably would still be tremendously popular today.  Unlike many of the stars of the early days of television, Carson was not active, but reactive.  He might occasionally get a pie in the face, but for the most part Carson’s humor was laid back and responsive.  The great laughs on The Tonight Show were typically due to Carson’s priceless reactions to a bad monologue joke, to a bird perching on his head and taking a dump, to Ed Ames inadvertently hurling a tomahawk into some outlined figure’s crotch, or to George Gobel unwittingly getting ashes flicked into his drink by a lubed-up Dean Martin.

Leno is different.  He is more like a vaudeville comic who mugs for the camera.  He doesn’t have the sly, sardonic reactions that made Carson so well-suited to the TV medium.  Conan O’Brien, in contrast, does have that quality.  He is comfortable behind the host’s desk, and is willing to let his guest be funny or interesting, without intruding.  Conan is a “cool” figure, is great at reaction, and clearly is more consistently funny than Leno.

I’m not surprised that Leno’s prime time show was a dismal failure, and I think it is criminal that NBC is going to push The Tonight Show back to give Leno some late-night time.  I say:  “I’m with CoCo!  Give him a chance!”

I’m With Coco

Back in college, when someone made a lame joke, my friends and I would say “you should write for Jay Leno.” We always thought of Conan O’Brien as the antithesis of Leno’s cute, unfunny, middle-of-the-road humor.

It’s too bad NBC didn’t give Conan’s new show much of a chance. It usually takes Tonight Show hosts a while to settle in – supposedly it did with Conan when he started in ‘93, as well as with Jay Leno. Sure, Conan’s new show was a bit awkward at times. He and Andy Richter never got comfortable enough in their positions to have the banter they should have had. But the show was still really good, much better than anything Leno ever did. Maybe Conan just doesn’t have Leno’s mass appeal, which might be a good thing.

In the statement he released today, Conan says he will not go along with NBC’s plans to have his Tonight Show start at 12:05 because it would “seriously damage” the “greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.” That’s another tragic part of NBC’s planned switch. A show that has entertained America and contributed to its culture for 60 years will more or less disappear.

If he is forced out of the show, and it looks like he will be, I hope Conan finds something to do that is worthy of his talent and intelligence.

Some of my favorite moments from Conan O’Brien’s show, off the top of my head:

Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s visit to the premiere of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Triumph asks a pregnant woman in Star Wars regalia if it’s a girl or a boy. She says it’s a boy. Triumph asks when she’s due. She says in a few months or so. Triumph says, “that will be the last time he sees a woman’s vagina.”

Triumph the Insult Comic Dog chats with the members of Bon Jovi before their concert. He says to Jon Bon Jovi, “I heard you’re playing a vampire in a movie coming out soon.” Jon Bon Jovi confirms this. Triumph says, “finally, a role which requires for you to suck!”

Conan checks out a 19th-century style baseball game reenactment. He ends up wearing an old-style uniform and a handlebar mustache and almost gets into a fight with the “hurler” (a.k.a., pitcher). When a plane flies overhead, he freaks out, yelling “ho, what is that devilry?”

Conan tricks Andy Richter into walking on the set of the Today Show naked. Staged, of course.