The State of Late Night TV as Letterman Makes His Exit

My friend Jennifer took note on Facebook of the "Last week countdown of the Late Night Top Ten List" That prompted me to make a comment. In turn Jennifer and I had an exchange that resulted in me posting am overview of late night TV, which to me reflects a certain state of Pop Culture. 

Jennifer got me to thinking.  With a preface and then quoting the exchange in full, here's what occurred.  

I posted a comment, "Letterman has absolutely been on fire in these final weeks of the show. Makes it all the more poignant how good he is and how much he'll be missed."

Jennifer responded, "I'm sad about the end of Dave's reign. Fallon isn't a bad guy but he certainly isn't running an interview show. After this and Craig, the complete absence of women on this platform, I am done."

 Wow, did that ever get me thinking!

I miss Craig Fergusen.  He was different from all the others in late night.  And he went out with a bang, on his own terms.

Suddenly we are in a moment of note in Pop Culture.  Late night has been underoing a change, one that began with Leno's first retirement (what a phrase, eh? "first retirement") and the Conan fiasco. Conan found a new home, and in doing so displaced George Lopez. The hope then was that the one-twopunchof Conan then Lopez would bring a strong and youthful audienece, sustaining the audience and bringing about commercial success.  But by two years into the experiment saw Lopez Tonight with ratings too low to justify continuation of the show or its production costs.

 Leno came back and once again NBC showed him the exit door.  Fallon moved to 11:30 and Seth Meyers took over the later slot.

In 2012 ABC swapped the time slots of Nightline and Jimmy Kimmel, effectively entering the 11:35 PM race for younger viewers and a wider audience.  It became a three way network battle of similar shows, plus Conan on cable.

Comedy Central had carved out a place for itself from 11 to Midnight with the Jon Stewart/Steve Colbert tandem.  It was politics, a take on the news and social issues with a wry, satiric and clearly an attitude.   Now, with Colbert gone as he prepares to move to CBS to take Letterman's slot, and Jon Stewart announcing his departure, it is risky times ahead for what had emerged as an alternative to the usual Big 3 network fare. 

 Letterman brought a certain gravitas and wisdom to late night TV.  At 68 he is mucholder than the Jimmys, Colbert, Conan, and teh recent arrival Corden.  And in the final month of programs he's never been stronger and more at ease. None of the others, except perhaps Jon Stewart, even approach Letterman's level when it comes to dignity or strength of character. 

Here's what I posted on Facebook in reply to Jennifer's "I'm done" statement: 

Letterman represents the last of the intelligent hosts of a variety style show. I don't count Jon Stewart as a variety show host. Colbert could preserve intelligence, but his transformation from satirist to host might be a process of maturation.

Jimmy Kimmel strikes me as targete
d far younger than Letterman or Fallon. In some ways he might be the hope for intelligent talk, but it will take him years to cultivate the audience and grow the trust and depth of acceptance. His audience will grow. If he grows as an entertainer and public figure as they age, he might at some point be in the same position then as Letterman is now.

Fallon is, to me, a let down. He seems like a cross between David Brenner and Arsenio Hall. Show biz insider like Brenner, friend to all like Arsenio Hall. And never a caustic or edge like word out of this mouth. He plays it safe, he yuks it up, But there's no deep basis, it's just a show.

Seth Meyers, who may have the deep seated smarts and attitude closest to Letterman, seems to me to function more as an NBC product than as a freewheeling and creative artist. He writes, he performs, he has many side projects, But he is under the guidance and production of Lorne Michaels and NBC. This means he is paid well and soaking up opportunity. But not, my guess is, using the majority of his gifts or talent. Perhaps he will leave and do a nightly show on Netflix. That would be good.

 The absence of women is no surprise, The big 4 have had one woman of note, Joan Rivers. She was the difficult talent who paved the way and yet at the same time blocked some of the future opportunities for a powerful woman ate night TV host. Chelsea Handler is too far over the top and her exhibitionist ways put her more in the Kim Kardashian camp than on a par with Tina Fey or Amy Schumer, They are intelligent, funny, and of wide --and commercial-- appeal.

I suspect that James Corden fail sh
ortly. I commented to Mrs.Yankfan that it seems an embarrassment to CBS that he is what follows Letterman. Will CBS replace him with a woman? It is a possibility. CBS is the older-demographic network, Colbert followed by an edgy woman could bring a younger audience and offer cross promotion and other opportunities. CBS and VIacom, while separate entities, are both majority owned by Sumner Redstone. The heads of those two companies might find a middle ground that uses Over The Top distribution to bridge the broadcast/cable divide, and a talent to accomplish such a task. Amy Poehler would do well in such a case. There are certainly others. Being well known and established would be helpful. But in a day and age when myriad outlets of various forms of distribution exist, some celebrity is perhaps sufficient. There are "YouTube Famous" performers who might be right. There's no shortage of women in that category.

 Don't give up hope. Change is a constant in the media business. I understand that the choices ("the pickings") may be quite slim once Letterman is done, but someone new, or new to late night, will eventually emerge. And Colbert on CBS is only four months away.