The Late Night Carousel and Jon Stewart

For longtime followers of my blog, you may know that I’m endlessly fascinated by the nowadays seemingly constant shifts taking place on late night comedy TV. This evening, we were informed of yet another seismic shift in the medium.

Some context: when I was very young, there was essentially only one late night talk show in town and it belonged to The King of Late Night, Johnny Carson – who hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years. Competitors such as Joan Rivers and Alan Thicke, among others, tried and failed to take him on. Only Arsenio Hall managed some success against him in the waning years of Johnny’s run.

Of course, for many years, it was the man who followed Carson that was seen as his obvious heir apparent upon retirement: David Letterman, whose innovative Late Night show followed Tonight. When Jay Leno (one of Dave’s favorite guests) began filling in for Johnny as he began to vacation more, the paradigm shifted. It was Leno who would succeed Johnny in 1992 amid much controversy. It prompted Letterman to move to CBS the following year. For two years, Dave would reign supreme as the new King of Late Night until Leno (with an assist from Hugh Grant who appeared immediately following his shocking arrest with a prostitute) became #1 for nearly two decades.

Oh… There’s more! The Letterman departure to CBS as Leno’s competitor left a void at the 12:30 Late Night slot that’d be filled with an unknown SNL writer named Conan O’Brien. And in yet another highly controversial media frenzy some sixteen years later, Leno would reluctantly “retire” and hand Conan the Cadillac that is 11:30 on NBC. It didn’t go as planned. Jay would end up with a 10pm nightly program that failed badly. Conan’s ratings couldn’t match what Leno brought in and NBC let him go with a reported $40 million payout. He would eventually end up at TBS where he remains today and Leno would return to The Tonight Show.

Oh… There’s more! When Conan did first jump to 11:30, it once again left a hole at 12:30am and SNL vet Jimmy Fallon was named. By 2014, Leno would once again depart (for good this time) and Fallon was moved up. In the year since Jimmy has taken over, it’s gone considerably better for him than Conan. Fallon has kept The Tonight Show at #1 over Letterman and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel.

And of course Letterman announced his retirement that will take place in May after 33 years at Late Night and Late Show. His successor will be Stephen Colbert in September. Colbert, along with Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, John Oliver and many others, owe their careers to one program and one man…

Jon Stewart. You knew I’d get there eventually, right? Of course that would be the news of the day. The man who’s hosted The Daily Show for 17 years announced he is stepping down this year as host. There is no doubt that Mr. Stewart, like Dave and Johnny before him, has forever changed American comedy and late night. It changed the way people thought about news and received it (especially among the coveted 18-49 audience demographic).

What some younger viewers might not know is The Daily Show existed before Jon Stewart. The first host was former ESPN anchor Craig Kilborn. He left to host The Late Late Show, the talk show airing after Letterman. Kilborn’s eventual departure paved the way for Craig Ferguson, who also announced he’s stepping down this year and that has set up James Corden to be the new host who will follow Letterman successor Colbert.

Most importantly, Kilborn’s Daily Show exit led to Stewart in 1999. You also may not be aware that this wasn’t Stewart’s first talk show. It was his second. His first aired on MTV and then in syndication and was canceled after two seasons. On his final show on that program, he nabbed his biggest guest: his comedy idol. A man named David Letterman.

Conan and Kimmel and Stewart were all Dave disciples, in the same way Letterman was a Johnny disciple. Yet Stewart brought something new to his iteration of “The Daily”. He turned it into must see TV very often. His political satire could shape people’s views on stories and politicians. As mentioned before, it provided his correspondents a platform to big things whether on film or the small screen.

There will be breathless speculation as to who will take over The Daily Show. Had Stewart made the announcement last year, my guess is John Oliver would be the easy choice. After all, he filled in for an extended period of weeks when Stewart took a sabbatical to make his directorial movie debut with Rosewater. Oliver did such a great job as guest host that HBO quickly snatched him for his acclaimed weekly Sunday evening program. He’s likely to stay put. So is Seth Meyers at Late Night, who succeeded Fallon.

My hunch is that Comedy Central will look to their current crop of Daily contributors which includes Jason Jones and Aasif Mandvi. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they go with their current longest tenured correspondent Samantha Bee, giving a much needed late night female face among the two Jimmy’s, Stephen’s, Seth’s, etc…

One thing is nearly certain: while Johnny Carson was not the first host of The Tonight Show and Jon Stewart was not the first Daily Show hosts, these two landmark television programs will always be linked to them, even as the Late Night carousel keeps spinning.

And here it is. Your Moment of Zen:

 

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