Goodnight Dave

This is the kind of blog post that David Letterman would hate.

As the end is upon us for the host’s finale culminating a record setting 33 year run in late night TV, we have witnessed Dave’s genuine discomfort when his favorite guests bid their heartfelt tributes to him. For a very long time, the words heartfelt and Letterman didn’t mix and still mostly don’t. That has changed a bit in the last few years. We undoubtedly saw it when Dave returned the week following 9/11 and created a landmark moment where he somehow found the words to encapsulate the country’s mood. We’ve seen it occasionally when talking about his son Harry. And we’ve seen it with the praise of his staff members and personalities on the program, some of whom have been with him the whole ride.

The readers of this blog may have seen previous posts in which I discuss my personal take on my love of movies.

As I’ve stated before, for so many movie fans, the medium is simply an entertaining diversion. For others like me, it’s much more. Same goes for television and the people and characters who populate it. If you’re not a Letterman fan, this post likely won’t make much sense to you – so there’s your warning, ladies and gentlemen!

Simply put, David Letterman and his show have had an influence on me and not in a minor way. He’s been hosting his show, either on NBC at 12:30 or CBS at 11:30, for my entire cognizant life. His sense of humor has greatly informed my own and not in a minor way.

I count myself lucky to come from a family of people whose humor instincts fall on the side of irony and sarcasm. Like Dave’s. It’s in many ways a Midwestern comedic sensibility and last time I checked, Indiana and Ohio are in that region. David Letterman grew up in the same region of Indiana and at the same time as my mother. I believe she told me once it’s possible they went to the same prom at Broad Ripple High School.

Right around the time I was really getting into movies, I was REALLY also into Letterman. It was around 1993 when Dave moved over to CBS after he lost The Tonight Show to Jay Leno. I would tape his show every night on VHS and watch them usually more than once. He was a comedy genius to me just as he has been to so many. Among those names are people like Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel and Howard Stern. Those kinds of people have considered him to be the real King of Late Night for the last couple of decades and the true heir to Johnny Carson’s throne. No offense to Jay Leno, but his show simply can’t hold a candle to the influence that Dave has had. If you wanna get technical, Leno’s career is because of his exposure on Letterman’s program in the 1980s.

Those endless VHS viewings on Dave’s early Late Show era developed my idea of humor. I was in junior high at the time. Everyday at lunch, I would present a Top Ten List to my schoolmates and it was mostly jokes about our group of friends. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t deliver that list with Letterman’s timing and mannerisms. Don’t get me wrong – I probably failed miserably but it was a helluva lotta fun. So… you could say Dave has been an important cultural figure in my lifetime.

In 2005, I was able to attend a taping of the show at the Ed Sullivan Theater. It was literally as if someone pulled me into my TV set. Surreal. I’ve been fortunate to see some celebrities in my life. With Dave, I was legitimately star struck.

I will leave it to the professionals to write their columns discussing Dave’s amazing history on the air. The classic interviews and musical moments and on and on. I just had to talk a little about what he’s meant to me. I fully understand that just as movies are that perfectly understandable diversion to many, Letterman is only that guy you sometimes fall asleep to. He’s been a whole lot more for me.

David Letterman has paved the way for so many who’ve followed him in the comedy world. That’s called a legacy.

David Letterman has more than carried on the legacy of his idol Johnny Carson and become the most important comedic figure in his format for the last 30 years plus. That’s called a legend.

On a significantly tinier scale, David Letterman has (unbeknownst to him) created endless hours of entertainment and helped a kid in northwest Ohio figure out what he found to be truly funny in this crazy world we live in. That’s called gratitude.

Goodnight Dave.

David Letterman’s Goodbye Begins

This evening brings the beginning of the end for the longest tenured late night host in the history of the television medium. After 33 legendary years, David Letterman’s final run of programs kicks off tonight with five and a half weeks and 28 shows left.

A CBS press release confirmed what many suspected: the final Dave shows will be a very star studded affair. Many Letterman regulars will make their pilgrimage over the next month and change (his swan song is Wednesday, May 20).

That impressive list includes Bill Murray, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Howard Stern, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Robert Downey Jr., Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Short, Don Rickles, Ray Romano, George Clooney, Scarlett Johannson, Will Ferrell, Alec Baldwin, Michael Keaton, Jack Hanna, John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Tina Fey and Billy Crystal, among others. Not too shabby. Musical guests include Elvis Costello, Mumford and Sons, and Dave Matthews Band.

The press release promises more names not yet revealed over the last 28 hours of Letterman’s TV existence. Who could that be? Let’s start with the easy. Foo Fighters are Dave’s favorite band and it is likely they could be the final musical performance. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Dave’s late night brothers come to pay their respects. That list includes Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart and Letterman’s successor Stephen Colbert. I also anticipate an appearance by Jay Leno – something that would truly be an event after their over 20 year history of being rivals and their battle for The Tonight Show after Dave’s idol Johnny Carson retired in 1992.

Furthermore, it wouldn’t surprise me to see politicos such as Hillary or Bill Clinton or even President Obama appear. I will have one more post timed to Letterman’s departure to pontificate on what his show has meant to me and, frankly, my sense of humor. It’s not insignificant.

Until then, it’s going to be an interesting few weeks of Dave bidding America farewell.

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:

 

The Rise of Jimmy Fallon

If you’ve followed my blog regularly over the last near year and a half, you may have noticed that I’ve got quite a keen interest in the “late night wars”. Recently, I wrote a post speculating about who may be in line to replace David Letterman on CBS when the day comes. You can read that here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2014/01/25/the-history-and-future-of-late-night-talk-shows/

In the past week, Jimmy Fallon has taken over “The Tonight Show” following Jay Leno’s second retirement from the program. Fallon has moved into the role without the controversy that involved Conan O’Brien’s brief ascension to hosting duties a few years back. Of course, it was the Conan fiasco that allowed Jimmy to take over “Late Night” five years ago.

Truth be told, when Fallon was announced as host of that program – my reaction wasn’t all that positive. While I admired a good deal of his work on “SNL”, I didn’t consider myself a big fan of his. I had my serious doubts as to whether he’d be a decent fit for the late night talk show format.

Well, folks, I was wrong. Very wrong. As evidenced by his tenure on “Late Night” and his first week hosting “Tonight” – Fallon has mastered the art form. What’s even more astonishing is he’s done it in a way that seems to appeal to the widest audience possible. He has started out of the gate at #1 beating Letterman and Kimmel and I’ll predict that crown will not be relinquished.

Why is Fallon so good? There are several reasons, as I see it. He’s a master impressionist and his sketches playing musical artists are genius… Google Fallon-Jim Morrison-Reading Rainbow if you don’t believe me (or watch it in the link I provided below).

He has an easy rapport with his guests. Leno came off (to me) as robotic during celebrity interviews. Letterman is much better, but sometimes he appears disinterested when the new starlet is plugging her latest mediocre project. Frankly, Dave probably is disinterested. Jimmy succeeds at actually seeming genuinely interested with his guests.

Fallon’s skits (whether musical or playing around with Justin Timberlake, his best guest) have become the stuff of YouTube legend. More than anyone, he has honed the art of web based comedy gold that is watched and re-watched over and over.

Most of all, it’s Fallon’s enthusiasm that shines through. This is kind of harder to explain. Every time I watch him, I come away with the notion that Jimmy is extraordinarily grateful for the opportunities given to him. He seems to love hosting the show. While Dave Letterman has earned his reputation as a somewhat grumpy curmudgeon – Jimmy Fallon is almost always positive.

Don’t get me wrong – I firmly believe Letterman is a genius. And his 30 years of work has influenced comedy more than anyone else – from Stewart to Conan to Colbert to Kimmel and so on. While Dave’s show can still be great – I must admit that there’s a feeling of autopilot from time to time.

Over on ABC, Jimmy Kimmel has carved a nice niche for himself. His show has the loosest feel of them all, he’s a solid interviewer, and many of the comedy pieces score.

Nowadays, though, Fallon’s getting it done the best. And I never would have expected that. I fall into the category of thought that Leno more or less botched his tenure as host of “Tonight”. Jay seemed to try way too hard to appeal to the widest audience possible and what we were left with was a show that usually felt empty and bland and too middle of the road. And I must admit that the whole “Nice Guy Jay” routine felt forced to me, especially when knowing this is the same man who hid in a closet at NBC to spy on his bosses discussions on him and Letterman.

Ironically, Jimmy is in the similar position as most accessible to viewers compared to his rivals. With Jimmy – it doesn’t feel forced. It feels natural. That’s because Fallon is a natural. And for the first time in 22 years, I’m left with the feeling that someone is hosting “The Tonight Show” who is truly an heir to the throne that Johnny perfected.

The History and Future of Late Night Talk Shows

On February 17, Jimmy Fallon will take over “The Tonight Show” chair that Jay Leno has held for two decades. Prior to that, Johnny Carson held the post for 30 years and set up the template for all who followed him. While 99% of my material on this blog has been focused on film, I have held a long fascination with the late night “TV wars” that has produced some serious high drama in the past.

When Johnny Carson announced his retirement in 1991, there was one question that leapt to the minds of TV watchers: Dave or Jay? That would be, of course, be David Letterman or Jay Leno. You see, Letterman had hosted the “Late Night” program that followed Johnny for nearly a decade when the King of Late Night announced he would be stepping down. Letterman grew up idolizing Johnny and many saw him as the heir apparent upon the King’s retirement. As much as Carson had set the example for all future hosts, Letterman would bring in his own ironic and self depreciating sense of humor that has been an undeniable influence on many others. For example, current ABC 11:30 host Jimmy Kimmel has made no secret of the fact that he worshipped Dave as a teen. And the influence of Letterman on Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien is stronger than the influence of Johnny.

There was one thing preventing Letterman from obtaining the keys to the kingdom: Jay Leno. Both Letterman and Leno became known to the masses when they debuted their stand-up routines on Carson’s show in the 1970s. Leno would eventually become Johnny’s guest host when he was on vacation (which was frequently). And Leno’s time guest hosting went over well with audiences and with the NBC brass tasked with naming Carson’s successor. It should also be noted Leno was considered more of a “team player” than Letterman, who had a prickly relationship with network executives.

The decision was handed down that Jay Leno would become host of “The Tonight Show”. This did not sit well with Dave. Nor did it sit well with Johnny Carson, who did see Dave as his natural replacement. In May of 1992, Leno would taking over hosting duties while leaving Letterman to plot about his future. He would receive offers from ABC, CBS, Fox, and the syndicators but would ultimately choose CBS. In August of 1993, “The Late Show with David Letterman” premiered. He would defeat Leno soundly for two years until the summer of 1995 when Hugh Grant, fresh off a prostitution scandal, did Jay’s show. “The Tonight Show” would beat Letterman that night and for the next two decades. The Leno/Letterman feud was so well-publicized that a bestselling book by NY Times writer Bill Carter was released in addition to an HBO movie The Late Shift based on it.

Letterman’s departure created the need for NBC to fills its 12:30 slot. Lorne Michaels of “Saturday Night Live” fame was named executive producer of the program and he would turn to one of that show’s writers to host. Conan O’Brien was a complete unknown to the public when “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” was born. The show would debut to critical scorn and audience ambivalence. After a couple of years, Conan found his groove and the program became a hit.

As years went by, speculation mounted that Conan might jump at the opportunity for an earlier time slot on perhaps Fox or ABC. NBC didn’t want to let him go. In 2004, a deal was stuck with Leno where he would leave “The Tonight Show” five years later and O’Brien would become host. Jokes were made about the arrangement… five years later? That’s, like, forever! Then a funny thing happened. Leno continued his ratings lead over Letterman. NBC was making tons of money from the show with Jay at the helm. However, a deal (and the significant money involved) had already been signed. NBC would announce that Jay would host a nightly prime-time 10PM show that, well, was pretty much “The Tonight Show” an hour and a half earlier.

This would provide the background for one of the biggest television debacles of all time. Bill Carter would write another book about this whole fiasco. When Conan became the show’s host in May 2009, he would fall behind to Letterman (something Jay hadn’t experienced in 14 years). To add insult to injury, Jay at 10 o’clock was a ratings disaster and it couldn’t come close to competing with the network dramas that the other three networks were putting against it. Within months, Conan was out and Jay was back in. Questions abounded as to whether Leno would resume his lead over Dave. He did and it was almost as if the whole sordid Jay/Conan saga had never occurred.

The saga did, of course, create yet another opening for a “Late Night” host on NBC at 12:30 when Conan did leave to serve his ill-fated stint on “Tonight”. Once again Lorne Michaels would turn to an SNL alum and a much more famous one – Jimmy Fallon. He had served as a popular cast member on the show before leaving for an unsuccessful film career. By 2009, he was ready for his late night gig. After a shaky start, Jimmy found his groove too. And the same whisperings about Conan leaving for a better time slot that had caused Conan to take over were heard about Jimmy.

Last year, Leno would announce his retirement which cleared the path for Jimmy to become host next month. For the first time since the 1970s, “The Tonight Show” will be out of New York City (Carson started there before moving the program to L.A. and Jay and Conan would shoot from California).

February will begin to answer the following question: will David Letterman beat Fallon like he did Conan? It’s a legitimate question, but I would bet that Fallon will maintain the ratings lead that “The Tonight Show” had in Jay’s tenure. It could be a bit closer. Some of the older viewers who like Jay may go over to Dave… or may just go to bed. There’s also Jimmy Kimmel, who gets nice numbers over at ABC but is currently third and is likely to stay there.

There is also the very real competition that Comedy Central provides with its 11PM-midnight lineup that has Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report”. There is Arsenio Hall in syndication, who made a return to late night after 20 years away. There is Conan O’Brien at 11 on TBS, where he landed back on his feet with a show that gets decent numbers – though much smaller than anything he saw on a network. There’s Chelsea Handler with her followers on E! In other words, late night is a much more crowded marketplace than anything Mr. Carson ever experienced when basically the whole country feel asleep to his show and talked about his monologue at the water cooler the next morning.

Yet again – Fallon’s ascension to “Tonight” leaves another hole at 12:30 and this time Lorne Michaels has put another well-known SNL vet to take over: Seth Meyers. He has done Weekend Update on the program for years and was an obvious choice to get the gig.

We now move from history to the future and this is where my own speculation became rampant. The question must now be asked: how long will David Letterman stick around? In April, he will be 67 years old. He’s hosted a late night talk show for nearly 32 years now – longer, by the way, than Carson. Dave just recently signed a contract that takes him through 2015. He’ll be coming up on close to 70 at that time. And there is no obvious candidate to replace him. If he does leave when his contract expires, this allows this late night follower the opportunity to speculate away on who it could be. Here’s some theories and I’ll explain my feelings on their likelihood:

1) Craig Ferguson. Prognosis: Doubtful. Scotsman Ferguson has hosted “The Late Late Show” following Letterman for almost nine years. While the show does pretty well, it has been consistently defeated by both Conan and Jimmy Fallon and probably will be behind Seth as well. It’s hard to imagine CBS giving their prime real estate to him seems like a reach and he may have to be content with being the 12:30 guy.

2) Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Prognosis: Shaky and Doubtful. As mentioned before, both guys host successful and critically acclaimed programs on Comedy Central. Also they’re both based out of New York (unlike Ferguson) and could slide right into the Ed Sullivan Theater. Though that might not be a plus as I’ll explain soon enough. Stewart was considered Dave’s natural successor before everyone realized Dave was going to stick around for quite a while. If Letterman had retired five years ago, I think the chances would’ve been excellent that Stewart would be hosting as we speak. Now, I’m not so sure. Stewart has gone into ventures recently including film directing. Plus – he’s got total creative freedom at Comedy Central on a groundbreaking show that wouldn’t fit the format of “The Late Show”. As time has marched on and Dave has stayed put, the chances of “The Late Show with Jon Stewart” have diminished in my view. As for Colbert, it seems even less likely. Main reason: Colbert plays a “character” on his program (mostly sending up news hosts like Bill O’Reilly) and that wouldn’t exactly translate to the CBS format either. If he were to take over, he’d probably have to be “himself” and not the brilliant creation he’s honed for years. I just don’t see it. Plus – if Stewart were to leave “The Daily Show” at any time – “Colbert Report” could move up to 11PM.

3) Conan O’Brien. Prognosis: Not gonna happen. There are some writers out there who’ve floated this possibility, but I would frankly be shocked if this went down. Conan couldn’t keep up with Letterman as “Tonight Show” host and I can’t see him beating Fallon or probably Kimmel either. He seems to be able to do whatever he wants at TBS and he’ll likely stay there until he hangs it up.

4) Seth Meyers. Prognosis: Hmmm – could happen. Seriously, this seems to be the most sensible scenario so far. Meyers will get at least nearly two years as “Late Night” host before Dave’s contract expires. If Meyers does a good job and posts solid ratings in his time slot, why wouldn’t CBS go after him once Letterman exits? For those who believes Seth’s loyalty to Lorne Michaels and NBC would keep him at 12:30 – the money CBS would offer and the earlier time slot could change that very quickly. Of course, if he fails on NBC at 12:30, it’s a moot point. However, I have a feeling he won’t.

5) Joel McHale. Prognosis: Could happen, too. McHale has hosted “The Soup” on E! for nearly a decade and made quite a name for himself. He looks the part of late-night host and has had plenty of experience in a somewhat similar format. Here’s another factor in his potential favor: when Jay Leno leaves, so does “Tonight” in California. As mentioned, Jimmy be live (not really) from New York. So will Seth. And so is Dave. That leaves only Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson (who I’ve said is unlikely to take over) on the West Coast. It would stand to reason that CBS might want their next “Late Show” host in L.A. and McHale is out there. I would put him on an even plane with Meyers and put them as the two frontrunners currently. One caveat: McHale stats on NBC’s sitcom “Community” and has said he may be more interested in being an actor. Again – the CBS contract offer could change those thespian aspirations.

6) Jay Leno. Prognosis: You never know! Think about it. Leno would be in his mid-60s if Letterman retires at the end of his contract. CBS could hold off on the big decision for a younger replacement by putting Jay in for three or four years. He’s been the #1 late night for nearly 20 years. And Jay is a notorious workaholic and made it clear that, once again, he really doesn’t want to retire. By the time of a Letterman departure, Jay may have already found himself another job but probably nothing could be more high-profile than this. Like I said, it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

7) And lastly – I’ll just throw a whole bunch of names out there that seem unlikely. If CBS decided to go the direction of staying in NYC and finding an older host to be more of a “caretaker” for a while before their found their ultimate replacement – perhaps Howard Stern or Jerry Seinfeld could surface. Of course, they’ll both be close to mid-60s and I have no idea whether they’d accept or not. What if CBS decided to break the mold and have a female compete against the Jimmy’s? It could provide interesting counter programming. If that were to occur, could names like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ellen DeGeneres, or Chelsea Handler get in the mix? Again, no clue whether Fey or Poehler would have interest (I would think Handler would) and Ellen’s got a nice thing going with her daytime show. Finally, could CBS go with a total unknown like Conan was over two decades ago? Possible, but very doubtful. And there’s always the chance that Dave could just keep chugging along for years in which case I’ve just wasted over 2000 words of your time. I would say that Dave will leave at the end of 2015 or sign a one-year extension to get him the 2016 election cycle and retire.

All in all, the late night TV landscape over the past few decades has been an evolving and fascinating one and that will continue into the future.