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Friday, May 22, 2015

SPECIAL COMMENTARY: David Letterman and the State of Late Night TV

I don't typically write about late night TV but I'm a regular watcher of it so I wanted to say a few things that have been on my mind with the retirement of David Letterman this week.

I've been a casual Letterman viewer for years. I'm too young to remember his beloved and groundbreaking NBC show or his highly publicized move to CBS. But I've seen enough youtube clips and read enough articles to know he was a true innovator. His departure this week felt nostalgic for many, especially those late Baby Boomers and the Gen Xers, and he was TV's last link to the legendary Johnny Carson. I read somewhere about someone saying that even though he didn't watch Letterman regularly anymore, it was comforting knowing he was still there. It's weird to me that I can't just flip his show on at any given weeknight. Following the departure of the mainstream Jay Leno and the truly unique Craig Ferguson last year and with the impending exit of the voice of the era, Jon Stewart, in August, it truly feels like a seismic shift in late night.

Before Letterman announced his retirement and had a well-deserved swan song including a star-studded final month, the general consensus was that the genre had passed him by. Newer talents like Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel were creating viral sensations. Fallon, Seth Meyers, and the new James Corden are bringing a genuine happiness and "good guy" feel to late night in contrast to the often curmudgeonly Letterman. In recent weeks, writers have lamented these changes with statements along the lines "Dave was the last genuine star" or "he didn't rely on gimmicks like lip sync battles." There was the famous saying that people watched The Tonight Show for the guests but they watched The Late Show for Dave.

The truth is somewhere in-between what people felt about Dave vs. the rest of late night a little over a year ago and what we've read recently. There is not one right way to do a late night talk show but what hosts need to do is play to their strengths. No one thinks that Letterman's CBS show was quite as good as his NBC show because Dave didn't quite have the passion he once did over the last decade plus. But he never lost his skill for monologues and especially for interviewing and he adjusted to a new network, a new timeslot, and aging. He may not have been velcro-ing himself to a wall or throwing things off buildings anymore (which, by the way, would have been viral if there had been such a thing in the late 80s and early 90s), but he was still worth watching. He evolved over the years and that's normal.

Which is why I don't get the recent swipes at somebody like Jimmy Fallon, who is to millenials what Dave was to Gen X-ers. I've read articles that almost sound bitter that Fallon is the new face of late night because he's not as "real" as Dave was. Sure, Jimmy may not be as thoughtful as Dave is about issues of the day, but he's also 28 years younger. Jimmy is a showman, more than Dave ever was, and he is absolutely playing to his strengths with his Tonight Show more of a variety style. He's not making viral video moments just to make them or to be gimmicky, he's doing that because that's what he's good at. Getting celebrities to do silly games and impressions. Sure I wish he was a little better of an interviewer, he still fawns a bit too much, but he's such a genuinely nice guy and that shows. When Dave aired after Johnny Carson, Dave was a huge contrast with his irreverent bits. Now, Jimmy is a contrast to Dave and that's OK. Jimmy is making a show that fits his personality and the era we're in. Just as Dave did in the 80s on NBC and again in the 90s on CBS.

Kimmel, Meyers, and Corden are also playing to their strengths to varying degrees of success. Kimmel is probably the most true successor to Dave with more of a biting wit than the others. Meyers is topical and a "nice guy" while Corden is bringing his goofy personality to his new show. Kimmel and Corden are nearly as good as Fallon at creating viral moments and that's pretty essential for today's TV watchers. Even though I wasn't a Leno fan, he played to his strengths of punchlines and simplicity and it clearly worked since he won the ratings battle for decades.

When Carson left, people said late night would never be the same and it wasn't. Letterman switched networks and there were suddenly two voices with their own ideas and very different personalities. Late night will also never be the same as it was with Dave and we have many voices in the genre. Many owe a degree of success to Letterman, who in turn owes success to Carson. As long as hosts continue to embrace the era they're in and play to their strengths, they'll have success. Johnny did it. Dave did it. Jimmy's doing it. Late night isn't dead by any means, it's just evolving. It may seem like we'll never mourn a goodbye like we did for Letterman but I have a feeling 20+ years down the road when Jimmy Fallon leaves The Tonight Show, we'll have the same wistful feelings we have now, which are the same ones we had when Johnny Carson left. So whether you like Fallon, Kimmel, Corden, Stewart, Meyers, Conan, or the upcoming Stephen Colbert on the Late Show, enjoy them while we have them. Because we'll miss them when they're gone.


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