Late night television has changed dramatically during the past year with younger hosts such as Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and James Corden taking over the helms of popular shows. Are these new hosts going to change late night in a substantial way? And if so, will they be changes for the better? We talk with a media professor and a former late night talk show star and author about the issue.
- Robert Thompson, Professor of Television and Popular Culture, the Newhouse School, Syracuse University
- Dick Cavett, talk show host, actor, author of the book, Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks
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Marty Peterson: There have been a lot of changes in late night television during the past year or so, and more on the horizon for this year. Jay Leno retired from the long-running Tonight Show, and now former Saturday Night Live cast member, Jimmy Fallon, has taken over. Next spring, David Letterman will exit The Late Show and be replaced by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert. Late, Late Show host Craig Ferguson is also scheduled to step down, being replaced by British actor James Corden. With all of this new, young talent – including Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers – at the helm, has late night talk really changed that much from the days of Johnny Carson? And if it has, is it for the better?
Robert Thompson: In many ways late night is very, very similar, structurally anyway, to the way it was really back to when The Tonight Show was first invented, in the early 1950s.
Marty Peterson: That’s Robert Thompson, Professor of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
Robert Thompson: Before too long the idea of a monologue and then guests at a desk with a band becomes established, and certainly it became established in the Carson era, and most of the people that have done it afterwards stick to that format. What Jimmy Fallon is doing, for all of his different Internet based stuff, and all of his much more modern, younger kind of approach, he still gets out there, tells some jokes, goes to the desk, talks to his band. There’s something incredibly old-fashioned about morning television, which goes back to the fifties with The Today Show, and late night television.
Marty Peterson: The original format of The Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson was for the host to be at that desk for an hour and forty five minutes each night, talking to a number of guests who remained on the couch throughout the program. Thompson says that today, the audiences seem to like something shorter and faster paced.
Robert Thompson: I think a long-form discussion could probably appeal to a small number of people, but these late night comedies or these late night shows are still really trying to appeal to as big an audience as they possibly can: first, the audience that actually watches it in late night, and then they want the audience that are consuming it in little chunks on the Internet in the days afterwards. And television pacing in general has obviously changed a lot since the beginning of the medium. If anybody watches a show, especially dramatic shows, from the sixties, and the seventies, the eighties, know how completely different that pacing has changed compared to what we’ve got today. The same was true of talk shows, it’s true that back then you could have somebody like Cavett doing these really extended conversations that went for long periods of time. And I just don’t think that’s probably how an audience probably, or at least an audience of the size these shows are aspiring to, is going to respond now.
Marty Peterson: It was Johnny, himself, who, in 1980, decided to cut The Tonight Show down to one hour, the format that late night talk shows still follow today. Dick Cavett, who wrote for Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and had his own talk shows on a number of networks, remembers that Johnny initially thought it would be easier to do a shorter program. Cavett relates the story in his new book, Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments and Assorted Hijinks.
Dick Cavett: He did in fact, sort of, shockingly confess to me one of the many times I was on with Johnny on his show, “Richard I don’t think I made a great decision here.” Partly because, and don’t be startled by this, I think Johnny’s only happy hours of the day were when he was working. He always had a complicated private life, and would have a wife on the ledge, and be drinking a lot, and pull himself together so miraculously when I wrote for him, that he stepped out there looking great, having just stood backstage and stomped out the last Pall Mall before the show, of the cigarettes that killed him. And he’d go out there and enjoy himself fully until it was over.
Marty Peterson: These days, guests come on talk shows to plug their music, movie or television show and talk to the host for just a few minutes. Cavett’s trademark is talking with one or several guests for a lot longer. But even during the longer-form Tonight Show, he remembers when the powers that be thought that a long interview with one guest might bore the audience.
Dick Cavett: Once at a Tonight Show meeting, way back on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show, at a production meeting, and I said, “We have a genius talker on tonight, Peter Ustinov, he would talk for a week of ninety minutes, and you have him on for eight minutes, and then you have a dumb singer come on, and then a cooking spot. Why not do the whole show with Peter Ustinov or Jonathan Miller or Orson Welles or whoever in that category of greatness?” And they said, “Are you crazy? You know, people like change.” Well if somebody is fascinating and entertaining I don’t want change, do you?
Marty Peterson: Keeping guests out on the couch when the next guest arrives is also a relic of the old late night shows. Cavett says that Jack Paar told him that a good mix of guests interacting with one another can make for compelling, and funny, TV.
Dick Cavett: Jack invented that, and possibly Steve Allen before him, though I didn’t see much of Steve’s early shows, I was quite young at the time. Guests can produce some wonderful stuff. The late Tony Randall with Bobby Fischer was wonderful stuff. Janis Joplin with Raquel Welch produced some tension and very entertaining stuff. You never know how they’re going to get on. Sometimes a British guest would say to another guest, “What a lot of codswallop and nonsense you are talking.” And I always enjoyed that, and you wouldn’t get that if the guest hadn’t stayed out there. I like that, and Jack’s advice to me always was, “Don’t do interviews, that’s Q&A, and what’s your favorite color and David Frost and his jet lag rand clipboard. Make it a conversation.”
Marty Peterson: Although the structure is basically the same as when Johnny Carson hosted his show in the eighties and nineties, Thompson says that there have been some content changes over the years that have left their mark – most notably those of The Late Show host, David Letterman.
Robert Thompson: When David Letterman started doing late night on NBC in 1982, his show structurally was pretty old-fashioned, the same kind of format we’d seen on The Tonight Show. But the kinds of things he did within that desk, and monologue, and guests, was really, really groundbreaking. And I think all of the late night hosts today are working not in the Carson tradition, Leno was the last guy working in that tradition. They’re working in the Letterman tradition, where the late night television show is now more of a parody of what the late night television show used to be, and Letterman really started that. And he did some stuff at the time that was just so groundbreaking, the show where the camera would slowly rotate so halfway through it would be upside down, the show where the iris would close, so halfway through it would be entirely dark, the show where he had Macy’s Day Parade type color commentators up commenting on what was going on. He was the Dada version of Carson.
Marty Peterson: There was a big change in late night television when Comedy Central premiered The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and later The Colbert Report. These shows were also parodies, but of news shows. Stephen Colbert’s “character” of the conservative blowhard has served him well on his program, but he’s says he’ll retire him when he moves over to Letterman’s chair on The Late Show. Thompson says he’s not too sure that Colbert can keep an audience without his alter ego.
Robert Thompson: I personally think it’s going to be a disaster. And not because I don’t like Stephen Colbert, because I think Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central is brilliant. I think that show has been one of the great shows on American television in its history going back to the 1940s. He inhabited that character and he managed to make that work for a long time, and I think that show was absolutely brilliant, but I’m not sure he’s going to be able to escape the gravitational pull of that character, and I’m not sure that he’s going to be able to pull off the kind of traditional late night talk show without that character to buoy him up. And there’s some evidence of that, he visited Letterman shortly after the announcement was made, and he talked to David Letterman on that show, not in character, and it wasn’t a train wreck of an appearance but it certainly wasn’t one of those appearances that you said, “I just can’t wait until he takes over.”
Marty Peterson: One reason why Thompson thinks he might not do well is because he is branded by his own success.
Robert Thompson: I certainly am keeping my fingers crossed that he’s going to be as funny on Letterman’s old show as he was on The Colbert Report, but maybe Colbert’s biggest, toughest challenge is going to be, he is a really hard act to follow. He’s coming off of this show that was so extraordinary, and his biggest competition may be the memory of himself.
Marty Peterson: Cavett thinks Colbert will do just fine on late night because he has all of the tools to be a creative and engaging talk show host.
Dick Cavett: All he will have to bring to it is his supreme intelligence, his great wit, his quick, super quick mind, his vast education and knowledge, and crippled by those things he’ll probably do a very, very good show. (Laughs) It’s genius what he’s done. The whole business said, I give this character thing he’s going to do on his show, and this current show was new, I give it three weeks. And how many years is it now? I love being his friend, he’s such an entertaining guy and seriously, seriously smart.
Marty Peterson: So who among the current, younger late night hosts is doing the best job? Thompson says that Johnny Carson was able to succeed for so many years because he was so likable, and that Jimmy Fallon seems to have found that niche between creative and familiar.
Robert Thompson: Not only are we asking them to be innovative and unusual and sometimes shocking, but we’re also asking them to be likable, night, after night, after night, and in the case of late night television not only year after year but decade after decade. And Carson was brilliant at that, I always thought Carson was by no means a great comic. I think in many ways Carson’s genius is the fact that he was, and this is blasphemy to many people, but he was as bland as he was. Carson was able to maintain a sort of steady course that made it possible for him to go as many decades as he did. And I think Fallon has so far managed to do that.
Marty Peterson: Dick Cavett says that the late night television landscape is so segmented, that his show on ABC had a larger audience when it went to one week a month than The Tonight Show with Jay Leno had during its hey day. With that being the case, and with the Internet allowing anyone to create a show from their home computer, the idea that any late night host will need to keep an audience for decades is up in the air.
Dick Cavett: It may not pay off much longer. The startling fact that The Late Night and Tonight Show are not the cash cow that they once were, that they may be doomed, and then we would be without them, that would seem like a different world. But Mort Saul, the genius comic, years ago predicted that some day, way off in the future, everyone in America will have their own talk show, and now it’s true.
Marty Peterson: You can read all about the early days of late night television, hear the gossip about famous guests and find out about Dick Cavett’s own life in show business and before, in his new book, Brief Encounters, available in stores and online. He also invites listeners to visit his website at dickcavettshow.com. To learn more about Robert Thompson and the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, log onto their site at newhouse.syr.edu. For information about all of our guests, you can visit our site at viewpointsonline.net.
Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Nick Hofstra and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.
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