Sunday, March 9, 2014

Late Night TV

It’s Not Easy Hosting a Late Night Show

By Jon Gallagher

Suddenly I feel like the TV critic around here. I’m sure there’s an off switch on it somewhere, but till I find it… And that would involve finding the remote.

I was a big fan of Johnny Carson. I loved his dry sense of humor and when a joke bombed, Johnny knew it and had no problem making fun of himself. He had a way of making his guests the star of the show rather than himself, but then again – that was his job. At the same time, he could be very, very funny. He groomed David Letterman to take over his spot, but Jay Leno instead took it over some 24 years ago.

Jay Leno left amidst a controversy as Conan O’Brien took over his show for a while. At the time, I made a prediction for the publication for which I wrote, that in nine months, we’d see a sharp rise in the number of newborn babies. I just didn’t find Conan funny, and actually took a co-worker’s challenge of getting through a week without laughing just one time.

Not only did I make it a week without laughing, I made it a week without even smiling. Jimmy Fallon took over Conan’s time slot and aimed his humor at a younger audience.

Meanwhile, babies only had about nine months to be conceived because that’s how long NBC realized Conan wasn’t funny either, and replaced him with, well, Jay. Jay unretired, Conan got mad and quit, and Jimmy Fallon kept Conan’s old timeslot.

This time around, the networks promise they’ve got it right. Jay has retired, Conan is over on a cable channel being not funny, Fallon moved into Jay’s spot, and Seth Meyers from Saturday Night Live’s weekend anchor has moved into the spot originally held by Conan, then Jimmy.

Confused yet?

After a couple of weeks of watching the new shows, the jury’s still out. Fallon is an unbelievably talented young man who does impressions, is gifted musically, and who is very funny. His interviewing skills have improved immensely since he started, but he hasn’t quite learned his place yet. The interviewer on shows like this are meant to be there to make the “star” or interviewee shine; Fallon still wants to show off his talent. 

He’s also very competitive and often plays games on his shows with his guests. Jimmy wants to win and makes a big deal out of it when he does. Guests may be harder to come by if he keeps that up.

Meyers, on the other hand, tackling his first talk show host gig, looks nervous. On Saturday Night Live, he’s a gem, taking a look at something from the week’s news and doing a one-liner on it. He does that now, but it’s on something that happened that day and he does it as part of a stand-up monologue. I understand they tried to get him to sit behind a desk to do it but he, along with network execs, didn’t want to tie him too closely to his SNL work.

Both hosts say they will continue to do bits that they originated and not reprise things from other hosts. I hope they change their mind. I always loved Carnac the Magnificent (Carson’s turban wearing psychic who would predict the answer to a question held in a sealed envelope). After all, if everyone tried not to copy, then there wouldn’t be any more monologues at all.

Man on the street interviews might not hurt either.

Seth’s first couple weeks has seen him with a shaky voice, and equally shaky knees. The first few nights, it looked like someone needed to be standing in back of him, just in case he keeled over. He’s got a bandleader who seems to be challenging Conan for the title of Least Funniest Person on the talk show circuit.

Letterman, on the other hand (wait, is that three hands???) still stands guard, and he doesn’t look nervous at all. And he’s still doing his top ten lists (which are a hit and miss on the humor scale).

Jimmy Kimmel also has a show on ABC and Arsenio Hall is back on Fox, both of which I've managed to miss. Maybe I’ll catch them online in the next few weeks.

The amazing thing that I found after watching all three programs nightly for two weeks is that most of them do the same jokes on the same topics. I know what they say about great minds thinking alike, but if I were in Meyers’ shoes, I’d have my writers doing a little reconnaissance work over so I didn’t get labeled as a copycat.

As long as TVs and networks survive in their present format, none of the current batch of hosts will ever come close to the longevity records and standards of excellence that were put in place by years ago by King Johnny.

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