Late Night

“As long as they’re funny.”

Posted on Posted in Pop Culture, Television

by Arturo V. Leon II

Comedy is beautiful.

Supposedly, anything is art if it elicits emotion. Although this definition is very vague it holds up pretty well to scrutiny and criticism. While everything that elicits emotion is not art, everything that is art does cause some emotional response from the participant interacting with the art form.

Since there have been records society has placed artist on pedestals. Make us laugh, make us weep, make us think and we will applaud and celebrate you. Artist speak to a primal, and often instinctual, piece of our souls. An infant does not need to be taught to cry, laugh, ponder, explore, or to desire to feel. All of these emotions are in our DNA. As humans we seek out experiences that drive our senses to these beautiful places. Comedians not only strive to bring out our laughter but they challenge us on how we think of the world. Even in the most basic sense, the court jester or sad clown, both tragic figures in their own right, comedy causes us to pause and respect the spectacle that we are witnessing. A comedian exposes their soul in order to reach out and move our own soul. And while this is evident in nearly all art forms, there is something bold about the self-exposure a comedian will go through for a simple, or not so simple, emotion. You see, comedy is, in fact, beautiful.

Which, when all is considered, makes perfect sense why our country so naturally feels at ease going to sleep with a comedian flickering on their TV. The late night television show, an infant in the grand scheme of art forms, somehow finds itself in the American lexicon with such ease and commonality that one would think late night TV is as American an institution as baseball or apple pie. And yet, in 2014, we found ourselves without a woman on a major network’s late night programming. Although bound to be a winding road, this is the story of how CBS is poised, if they want, to break ground in American TV, comedy, & potentially in gender perception.

With the newest incarnation of The Tonight Show going live tonight [NBC 11:35 pm est] I find it fitting to make a commentary on the “late show” institution. The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon probably will not break the mold of what is the traditional late night model; monologue, sketches/comedy bits, one or two guest, musical guest, and the band [a tip of the hat to Mr. Fallon and the producers of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for bringing the Roots, one of hip-hops greatest groups, and Philadelphia natives, into millions of American’s homes five nights a week – Mr. Fallon has made an influential change to the “late show orchestra/band” idea but that credit is pre­-The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon & therefore I will stand by my original statement, “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon probably will not break the mold of what is the traditional late night model”].

Mr. Fallon’s closer, Seth Meyers, has a fighting chance of making a ripple of how the format looks with his version of Late Night. No matter the effort though, Mr. Meyers will also struggle to change or revolutionize how it sounds, feels, and resonates into our American homes. Late Night has, and will always be, a show aimed at, and for college age students. The show is symbolic of their transition from youth to adult hood as marked by their willingness to stay up and/or be up at 12:35 am to the years where 11:35 pm is more reasonable and will be better pandered to by whomever is holding the Tonight Show mantle. Since 1982 Late Night has seemed cutting edge and ready to revolutionize the format of late night TV. Whether it was Dave Letterman or Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Fallon the Late Night host always seemed, on the surface, to be on the brink of changing to format. But a deeper look shows they just fine tweaked a song we already know. Even with his rebellious attitude toward the late night format Mr. Letterman, due to his Late Night contract, was bound to the need for a monologue and an orchestra/band. Even when freed from Mr. Carson’s production company he stayed true to the model he had grown comfortable with [to his credit Mr. Letterman’s production company, World Wide Pants, did not place those same restrictions on Mr. Craig Ferguson]. Mr. O’Brien has never been shy about his respect and love for Mr. Letterman’s show & style. It is obvious then that his Late Night was a his ode to Mr. Letterman’s wilder days on Late Night. Mr. Fallon, ever the TV historian and appreciative star, worships at the altar of the comedians and pop culture icons before him would never stray too far from the mold made famous by Mr. Letterman and made mainstream by Mr. O’Brien. Both men are also adamant fans of the late, and great, Mr. Johnny Carson. By extension, Mr. Fallon’s Tonight Show will bare a stronger resemblance to Mr. Carson’s Tonight than Jay Leno’s version ever could.

Moreover, and here lays our problem, every person mentioned [and we have only touched on NBC’s late night players] are all of the following; white, mid-late 30s when they first hosted [Mr. O’Brien was a spring chicken when he first started on Late Night at age 30 while Mr. Meyers will be 40 when he starts], college educated, and television journey men. Key word…MEN. It is hard to revolutionize something when the keeper of the keys looks the same, sounds the same, and comes from the same world. In the late night world the story, although there are outliers, have similar narratives. Just look at birth places of the current crop of late night players; Mr. Kimmel [NY], Mr. Letterman [IN], Mr. Leno [NY – recently retired he will pop up I include him in this list], Mr. Fallon [NY – Bay Ridge, Brooklyn to be exact – the same birthplace of Mr. Kimmel], Mr. O’Brien [MA], Mr. Stewart [NJ], Mr. Colbert [SC], Mr. Maher [NJ], Mr. Meyers [IL], and Mr. Ferguson [Scotland]. Seven of ten men born in the eastern United States. Six of those ten in the North Eastern United States. All six in New York or Massachusetts. Two of the ten in the mid-West and of course, one immigrant. A white Anglo-Saxon immigrant. We could spend more time here examining the other similarities between these men, but for the sake of time and your boredom let us not.

Let me now say, that I am not trying to blend these ten men in one mold, each is unique in their style, humor, delivery, definition of funny, comedic priorities, and what they deem important to relay to their audience. My larger point is to say that in order to break the mold that is late night TV the mold need not be broken on the set, but rather by who is placed on that set, and therefore, what is brought to the set.

I stand behind the choice of Mr. Fallon to hold the keys to The Tonight Show. He will do a great job. He will bring the show into our homes, and while our parents & grandparents made comment of Mr. Carson’s monologue, guest, and the legendary invite to the couch, our generation will speak of Mr. Fallon’s musical talent, willingness to make us laugh, and his comfort with his guest. This point being, The Tonight Show will be a cultural institution not because it’s supposed to be, as it was under Mr. Leno, but it will be a cultural institution because it will again EARN its place there [see my future post on SNL]. Mr. Fallon will do well in holding on to a great American television institution as did Mr. Allen, Mr. Paar, Mr. Carson, Mr. Leno [say what you will – he did not break The Tonight Show, he just lived for twenty two years under Johnny’s shadow and the stench of his backdoor entry into what many, including Mr. Carson, thought should be Mr. Lettermen’s show], and ever too briefly Mr. O’Brien before him.

In fact, I believe Mr. Fallon will hold on to The Tonight Show for a long while. And when it is time NBC will be ready to pass along the torch, not to the next TV man in line, but rather to the most qualified funny PERSON [imagine Ellen DeGeneres hosting The Tonight Show…let it sink in]. Unfortunately, Mr. Meyers is an veteran comedy man of NBC [in fact a year older than his lead in, Mr. Fallon] and unless Mr. Fallon fails at 11:35 pm [I find it hard to imagine – his style is easier to translate to 11:35 pm than Mr. O’Brien’s was in 2009 and he does not have Mr. Leno lurking at 10:00 pm] Mr. Meyers will more than likely be 55-60 before NBC lets go of Jimmy. At which time NBC will want to go younger [although not at both time slots – 11:35 will go to a mid-30’s to late 40’s established comedian/host/writer with a “brand” to bring to The Tonight Show – also I can see Mr. Fallon bringing back the “guest-host” in his later years to test run different host in his spot].

Which, finally, leads to me explain how CBS can break ground and actually make late night TV interesting and competitive. David Letterman is now 66 and with his contract good through 2015, I can see him retiring after the frenzy of a new Tonight Show host is over and the late night waters are stable. As the elder statesman of late night and a well-respected comedian of his generation, his retirement will bring dozens upon dozens, if not hundreds of stars wanting to pay their respects. He can, although his modesty and apparent dislike for formalities might prevent this, milk his retirement and ride out as the number one late night show. This will mean that CBS will need to replace their 11:35 pm host for The Late Show.

It is here that I will break to say, or better said, forewarn, that it gets zany from here on out.

Let us assume, that CBS [and Dave Letterman who produces both his show and The Late Late Show] does not choose Mr. Ferguson as the replacement in the 11:35 pm CBS time slot. We are now looking at a situation in which two brand new host are needed. Both will rival the Fallon/Meyers block as well as Mr. Kimmell who has a growing and passionate following and Mr. Colbert [a genius] on Comedy Central.

[Ready for crazy pants here?] Mr. Stewart has as solid lock on 11:00 pm both in a 0.7 ratings [“According to in-home viewing figures from Nielsen Media Research for the week of Feb. 3-7. Ratings refelect “live plus same day” date from Nielsen Media Research unless otherwise noted. Season-to-date figures are averages of “live plus seven day” data except for the two most recent weeks, whch are live plus same day.”” –] and more importantly culturally. In fact Mr. Stewart’s 0.7 [] stands pretty well against most of his competition. However, Conan O’Brien’s Conan is suffering a 0.4  [] and cultural banishment. His online following is strong and present but he is a cultural shadow of what he once was when hosting Late Night on NBC. This should be righted. Mr. O’Brien is both immensely gifted and passionate about his craft. He deserves to be in the cultural awareness. He was scorned by NBC and passed over for a show that should have been his, The Tonight Show. Who else, I mean really, who else can possibly and rightfully step into Dave Lettermen’s Late Show than someone who both idolizes Dave Letterman and share a similar story and back ground with NBC. In short, Mr. O’Brien should return to 11:35 pm by replacing Mr. Letterman in 2015.

Which, finally, leads us to the forward thinking and easily obvious choice at 12:35 am. CBS will hire a woman to host the Late Late Show in 2015. Mr. Ferguson is talented, funny, and genuine [if you have not seen his heartfelt eulogy to his father see it now part one  & part two . No really. Stop. Go see it now. Then finish reading this…actually…watch this too . I said Mr. Colbert was a genius, now let me add, deeply human & simply a good person]. The natural move would be to give Mr. Ferguson a freer, more open, and less censored space to do his show. Mr. Ferguson is a gifted story teller and comedian and has done a wonderful job turning the traditional monologue on its head. 12:35 pm is not allowing him to expand to his full potential nor does it fully utilize his talents. A venue like HBO would be perfect for him [which after seeing what HBO does in April with John OIiver I may recant this or write a whole other blog on it].

So. We finally end up where we started. CBS is poised, if they want, to break ground in in American TV comedy, & potentially gender perception. Mr. O’Brien will offer a perfect foil to Mr. Fallon and a wonderful lead-in and mentor to the host of the Late Late Show [Mr. O’Brien’s foil to Mr. Fallon may be expanded on at a later date. I feel like I have a bit to say about it…we shall see]. For anybody struggling to think of how well a woman can do hosting a major network late night show I; 1) ask that you smack yourself, 2) go to the interweb and type “women of comedy”, & 3) enjoy the free education.

I will start by saying I am going to fall short here, but the list of women that can brought up to prove that if they would have been placed as a host of a late night show, that they too would draw huge audiences and would have had an impact of changing what is the late night show. Their impact would staggering. Let me list just ten to make a point; Lucille Ball [I should just stop there. Ms. Ball would have been a perfect late night host. Goodness.], Carol Burnett [just look at what she did with her variety show], Tina Fay, Amy Poehler, Ellen DeGeneres, Janean Garofalo, Betty White, Bea Arthur, Jane Curtin, and Gilda Radner. The list of young funny women in comedy right now is growing daily. It makes sense to want a woman as a late nigh host. As a major channel [the big four; ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC] you have everything to gain. And to show how loved a woman in television can be I point back to the wonderful and talented Ms. Lucille Ball. While pregnant on The I Love Lucy Show America did not turn away from the show, rather they became fascinated. “Little Ricky” was not just Lucy’s baby, it was America’s baby. Imagine for a second, the comedic gold that would come from growing older, year by year with a female host of a late night show. As silly as it sounds, how much of an impact could having a woman on TV, with the spotlight on her, go through a pregnancy and child rearing in front of a national audience. For a country that is behind in its pay, treatment, and respect for women in the work place, a female late night host can create small steps in the bridging some of these gaps.

And for anybody who is having a knee jerk reaction to the thought of a woman hosting one of the late night institutions remember “as long as they’re funny” is all that really matters.

Oh…one last thing…

Dear CBS,

Just make sure her pay is not 77% of Mr. Meyers.

Isn’t comedy beautiful?

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