It feels appropriate to piggyback on recent themes and complete somewhat of a trilogy. First I rated my all-time favorite stand-up comedians. Then, upon the retirement of the venerable David Letterman I bid a melancholy happy trails to my childhood of the 1980’s. And now I shall close the circle by pontificating about late night talk show hosts.
I’ve always been a night owl, even as a child. My mother knew that one of the best ways to punish me when I’d been mischievous was to send me to bed super early. I had a set bedtime on weeknights anyway, but making me go to bed an hour or two early was akin to what a modern youngster might feel like if they had their iPod taken away or their game console privileges restricted. It was as if I was afraid I was going to miss something. I don’t know why some folks are nocturnal while others are early risers. I am sure there is some sort of scientific explanation, but long ago I just decided to go with the flow and embrace who I am. I feel energetic & creative when most of the world is fast asleep. The vast majority of the things citizens of The Manoverse read here are produced after midnight. When combined with my affection for laughter and predilection for comedy over drama the affinity for late night talk shows makes much sense. So I thought it might be fun to discuss the hosts of these shows. The guys whose names are on the marquee. The engine that makes each program go and largely determines its success. I have my preferences, and if you like late night TV as much as me I am sure you have yours. Maybe we agree…maybe we don’t. But with all the darkness & misery in the world it is atleast a casual & pleasurable topic to ponder. Therefore, may I present…..
from the home office in Ha Ha Bay, Newfoundland, Canada…..
The Superfluous 7 Favorite Late Night Television Hosts:
7 Craig Ferguson
I will always regret that I was late to the Ferguson party. I was somewhat familiar with him from The Drew Carey Show in which he played Carey’s boss Mr. Wick from 1996-2004. When he took over CBS’ Late Late Show in 2005 my 12:30am allegiance had long been with Conan O’Brien’s Late Night program on NBC and my memories of Mr. Wick & The Drew Carey Show were hardly fond enough for me to switch things up. I’m either loyal or stubborn & inflexible…you decide. At any rate, it wasn’t until I quickly became bored with Seth Meyers’ incarnation of NBC’s Late Night franchise in the winter of 2014 that I decided to give Ferguson a whirl. Sadly, just a few weeks later, he announced that he’d be leaving the show by the end of that year. Though I only had about 9 months with Ferguson I thoroughly enjoyed that time. It is likely that had I began watching him a few years earlier or he’d not abdicated his throne as the clown prince of late night TV that he’d rate much higher on this list. To call Ferguson irreverent would be inaccurate, because I always felt that he had a deep respect for his job, his guests, & the audience. However, like a quarterback who uses his playbook only as a general outline but mostly improvises, Craig Ferguson kind of made up his own rules. His monologue was always an extemporaneous stream of consciousness. Usually fun, sometimes serious, always sincere. His sidekick was an animatronic robot skeleton named Geoff Peterson (voiced by gifted impressionist Josh Thompson). He ripped up whatever kind of notes he had about his guests and ad-libbed interviews, making them more like a genuine conversation between two real people. There was no house band. It is almost impossible for me to accurately describe Ferguson’s show. Like other gentlemen we’ll be discussing one watched Ferguson’s program for the talent & charm of the host…the guests were almost unnecessary. Supposedly Ferguson had decided to leave the show before news of Letterman’s retirement was announced. Maybe that is true. Maybe he is the restless type, a vagabond who doesn’t like to stay in one place too long and yearns for new challenges & adventures. However, I think it is very possible that he felt disrespected when the idea of him moving to 11:30pm was almost immediately dismissed. Whatever the truth may be, the fact is that the late night landscape is less interesting without Craig Ferguson, and I hope that maybe one day he might get the itch…and the opportunity…for a welcome comeback.
6 The Jimmys – Fallon & Kimmel
Guess what folks…you better either love these guys or learn to like them as much as possible because they are likely to be the foundation of late night television for possibly the next 20-30 years.
I first became familiar with Kimmel in the late 1990’s when he hosted both Win Ben Stein’s Money and The Man Show on Comedy Central. He’s a natural for late night TV. One can tell that he grew up a fan of Letterman and emulates him in a kinder, gentler way. Unfortunately ABC painted his show into a corner from the very beginning, airing it at midnight for its first decade of existence due to misguided & outdated loyalty to Nightline. ABC corrected their error a few years ago, but it’s put Kimmel behind the proverbial eight ball, as if he’s ten years behind and perpetually trying to catch up. Jimmy Kimmel Live!, despite its name, doesn’t air live anymore but that’s no big deal since neither does anything else. In the early days Kimmel used to have a bar in the studio and various celebrities would be his “guest co-host”. I recall Snoop Dogg getting plastered on live television one night, which was hysterical. Mostly the show follows the standard late night outline, although certain elements are individually underwhelming. Cleto, the bandleader, and Guillermo, the sidekick, are both forgettable. Jimmy’s Uncle Frank was the show’s security guard & sidekick until his death a few years ago and he is missed. Kimmel is sardonically affable, and that what has kept the show afloat. There still seems to be something missing, but it’s a solid alternative that may yet gain momentum and become the go to show in late night.
Fallon, obviously, gained fame from his stint on SNL and starred in a few movies. He took over NBC’s Late Night franchise for about 5 years and it was awesome. The host himself is genial & engaging, and at 12:30am his comedic sensibilities were spot on. Sidekick Steve Higgins is sneaky talented…a more versatile Ed McMahon. I’ve never been a huge fan of house band The Roots, atleast partially because I don’t understand why they are introduced as “legendary” when I’d never heard of them previous to Late Night, but they are talented and good at what they do. I love Fallon’s Friday night staple “Thank You Notes”, and at 12:30 audience participation games like “Models & Buckets” & “Dance Your Hat & Gloves Off” were goofy fun. He has his finger on the pulse of pop culture and effectively utilizes social media, which is a double edge sword. Millenials and people like myself who atleast try to keep up with the times enjoy the humor, but older folks my father’s age don’t connect with it at all. I was excited when Fallon took over the Tonight Show more than a year ago, but my delight quickly soured. At 11:30 Jimmy comes across as annoyingly enthusiastic and somewhat narcissistic. While many games & comedy bits on Late Night were silly, harmless entertainment, on the Tonight Show they often seem juvenile, forced, & not all that funny. I can’t imagine that celebrities who are there to promote a movie, book, album, or TV show really want to participate in such childish activities. Having said all that, just like his counterpart this Jimmy has time to modulate and find a more stable formula, although I may be the only one pining for such an adjustment since the show’s ratings and Fallon’s popularity are thru the roof and probably will continue to grow with less competition for the next few months.
5 Bob Costas
Yes, that Bob Costas…the one who has been a foundation of sports broadcasting for three decades. From 1988-94 he hosted a show that aired for 30 minutes at 1:30am on NBC and that I ranked 18th amongst my 50 Favorite TV Shows of all time. There was no monologue. No jokes. No sidekick. No comedy bits. No house band. It was just Costas doing a cozy one-on-one interview with a single guest…and it rocked. The host himself was always engaging, articulate, & attentive, and if the guest was interesting that was icing on the cake. The show was occasionally mesmerizing and almost always compelling. Studies have shown that night owls are intelligent & creative, so, while on the surface it may seem like any show is doomed to fail at 1:30 in the morning, the truth is that this kind of program, when packaged correctly, is a fantastic solution. It’s a unique departure from the typical late night menu and a format whose return is much needed. There are only so many jokes to go around and a plethora of options to be entertained in that manner. We have comedy shows. We have “infotainment” like Entertainment Tonight and Extra. We have cooking & lifestyle shows. ESPN has a full lineup sports talk shows. We have mind numbing stupidity like Maury Povich, The View, & whatever poor NFL Hall-of-Famer Michael Strahan is forced to endure with the tiresome Kelly Ripa every morning. I wouldn’t mind a bit if someone would revive this show so I could once again look forward to something cool every night.
4 Jay Leno
The whole Leno thing is sort of complex. Things got off to a bad start for him when Johnny Carson retired in 1992 and NBC couldn’t decide who should get the Tonight Show gig. Leno ultimately got the job, but lost supporters along the way. It didn’t help when a book called The Late Shift was published in 1994 and exposed just how insecure & desperate he had been about keeping the job. And then after nearly two decades of solidly entertaining the masses Jay was dumped after a 5 year transition plan that the knuckleheads at NBC had to have been drunk to even fathom might work. Why would you replace a guy that had been winning the ratings?? To keep Conan O’Brien?? Really?? Anyway, once again Leno came out looking bad after eventually “taking back” the Tonight Show instead of doing what he should’ve done…tell NBC to shove it and walk away, likely right into a new show on Fox or in syndication. On top of these controversies Jay Leno was often criticized as being lame & old-fashioned. That criticism isn’t necessarily invalid, but I think it’s a bit harsh. He certainly never pushed the envelope and rarely did anything wacky. I think in his mind the Tonight Show had been successful for many years and he wasn’t going to even try to re-invent the wheel. He believed that the formula that had worked in the 70’s & 80’s would still work. Did it?? The ratings seemed to indicate that it did, but you’d probably have no problem finding folks who will claim fervently that Leno sucked. His monologue was topical and often political, although I thought he was usually even-handed, especially in comparison to his competition. He had been a successful stand-up comic so obviously it was a strength. I thoroughly enjoyed “Headlines” on Monday nights, but there are those who will cite the bit as a prime example of Leno being old & out-of-touch since newspapers had become archaic, while the aforementioned Fallon was making copious use of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. Over the years he made hay with big news stories like the OJ Simpson trial & the Hugh Grant hookerpalooza. His interviews were solid. I understand why NBC chose Jay Leno in 1992. He was a fun, comfortable, approachable, safe presence at 11:30pm…just like his predecessor. Society may have developed a thirst for edgier, more rebellious entertainment, but there is still a place for laid-back, pleasant, old school amusement. Leno gave us that. People may not really miss him all that much, but we’re fortunate that he filled a void as well as he did for as long as he did.
3 Tom Snyder
God I miss Tom Snyder. He was The Man!! I was too young to have caught him on Tomorrow, a show that aired on NBC at 1am on weeknights throughout the 1970’s. Apparently he also had a program on CNBC in the early 90’s, but I believe I was still a drunken frat boy at the time. At any rate, I became familiar with Snyder when he hosted the inaugural incarnation of the Late Late Show at 12:30am on CBS in the mid-90’s. It still ticks me off that some genius at CBS thought it was a good idea to replace Snyder with former ESPN snarkmaster Craig Kilborn in 1999. What drive-thru is Kilborn manning these days?? Is he still alive?? Does anyone care?? Snyder’s Late Late Show was a one-on-one conversation much like Costas’ Later, but the hosts couldn’t be more different. When I did my 50 Favorite TV Shows a few years back, I ranked Later 18th and Snyder’s Late Late Show 25th. In retrospect I believe I might reverse that simply because Tom Snyder was such a matchless presence on the TV screen. He had a deep, resonant voice and a smoky, infectious laugh. He had the gravitas that comes with decades spent as a radio & television reporter, but didn’t seem to take himself too seriously. He could conduct a thoughtful interview or relax & have fun…sometimes both within the same hour. Snyder was the kind of guy that one suspects drank & smoked a bit too much in his down time, but he came from an era when that was acceptable, even cool…not the politically correct, health conscious, information obsessed, afraid of everything 21st century. Snyder had no sidekick or house band. He’d just banter with unseen beings, presumably producers & directors of the program. He’d slyly encourage the audience to enjoy a beverage while watching/listening, calling the theoretical drink a colortini or simultini (because the show was simulcast on radio & TV). And he would tell stories. Tom Snyder had been around. He knew people. He’d done things & went places. I could have listened to him laugh & tell stories for hours. The dude could have done a boxed set of CDs filled with him simply talking, chuckling, & telling stories and 15 years after he left the air I’d still be listening to them. Thank goodness for YouTube.
2 David Letterman
I don’t know what else I can say about Letterman that I haven’t already said. His tenure in late night television can be neatly divided into two periods…the decade he spent at the helm of NBC’s Late Night and the two decades+ that he hosted CBS’s Late Show. The NBC years were fresh, innovative, & funny. The CBS years can be further divided, with the first half being a slightly more mature yet just as amusing version of what Letterman had accomplished at NBC, and the latter half being somewhat stale comfort food tinged with cynicism and bereft of the originality that had made the host a star. Early Letterman was groundbreaking, must-see TV (if I may borrow a phrase), and old Letterman, even though he was resting on his laurels & coasting to the finish line on fumes, was still better than most of his peers. Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back I think that NBC probably made a mistake all those years ago. Dave probably should have gotten the Tonight Show, and Leno could have been rewarded with the 12:30 show. How would late night have looked if that’d happened?? The obvious casualty would have been Conan O’Brien, who’d probably still be a comedy writer for various TV shows. I would have been okay with that…no great loss. CBS & ABC would probably still have ended up getting into the late night game eventually, and guys like Fallon & Kimmel probably would have ended up with hosting gigs somewhere. But the 1-2 punch of Letterman & Leno on NBC could have been a juggernaut thru the 90’s and into the 21st century. Ahhh what might have been.
1 Johnny Carson
The undisputed King of Late Night. Unmatched. Unchallenged. Oh there were people that tried…Chevy Chase, Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall, Pat Sajak. They all failed. Television was different during Carson’s reign. There were fewer channels. Nothing aired 24/7. Obviously we didn’t have The Internet. It is fair to say that Johnny had little legitimate competition and ponder whether he’d be as successful now. However, that’s probably an unfair question. Almost everything…music, television, clothing, technology…is a product of its time. Very few things are timeless. Letterman wouldn’t have clicked had he came onto the scene a decade earlier. Leno, accused of being obsolete & unfunny by some, might have been considered edgy & daring if he’d been center stage in the 80’s. Half of Fallon’s shtick revolves around ideas that weren’t even around in the 90’s. It’s all relative. Johnny Carson was the right man with the best job at the exact time in history that happened to be a perfect fit. He was 2/3 of the way thru his run on the Tonight Show by the time I became a fan. I never sensed the weariness in him that seemed to hinder Letterman’s stretch run, but then again I don’t recollect the early years that would enable a comparison. All I know is that throughout my childhood, through high school, & into college Johnny Carson was as much a part of Americana as fast cars, mac & cheese, rock n’ roll, and fireworks on the Fourth of July. Other late night hosts have come & gone. Several are still plugging away, doing their best to make us laugh every night after the local news. But Carson is the measuring stick, the gold standard. He always has been and likely always will be.