Archive for late show

Late Risers

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Culture, TV History, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2015 by Tom Steward

Over the summer, two of the most important seats in late-night television were vacated. Unlike last year, when NBC’s The Tonight Show promoted Late Night host Jimmy Fallon and CBS’ The Late Late Show traded like for like – to maintain the quota of British late-night hosts at exactly one – each of the replacements was not the heir apparent. Host of CBS’ Late Show David Letterman was succeeded by Stephen Colbert, who came in from Comedy Central, having been host of The Colbert Report and contributor to The Daily Show, and not long-time Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson, Letterman’s protégé who had, like his mentor, smashed the orthodoxy of the genre. At least Colbert was recognized as a great innovator and radical presence on TV – as well as a nifty enough entertainer – when he was awarded the Late Show crown. Utterly unlike newcomer Trevor Noah, who was bumped several pay grades when he went from Daily Show contributor to taking Jon Stewart’s job as host. In fact, Colbert was the more likely of the two to take over The Daily Show. Former contributor and frequent guest host John Oliver was a shoo-in to take over until HBO made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. After that, the choice was anyone’s guess. But Noah was no-one’s.

That's Colbert baby!

That’s Colbert baby!

Noah and Colbert have wildly different briefs. To emulate Letterman, Colbert is obliged to be as challenging and groundbreaking as possible while Noah is the steward of a culturally necessary ritual, and cannot dismantle its beloved format. As such, Noah might seem to have the harder job. But Colbert’s fluent presentation masks his deft deconstruction of late-night talk formula. He has replaced the monologue with political analyses. Guests tend to be public figures with cultural significance rather than celebrities hawking their wares. It’s a forum for news and current affairs and a showcase for high culture. Fallon’s breakthroughs by contrast have been primarily vaudevillian and even Ferguson’s reinvention of the genre as burlesque slapstick went in the opposite direction to Colbert. It’s not just the fluency with which these changes have been implemented, but also how assured, joyous and endearing Colbert is while doing it. This he may have learnt from Fallon’s head-start, but Colbert pursues it the name of something far more significant. The sad irony is that Colbert is exactly the personality The Daily Show needed to preserve its legacy, while Noah is not. Two weeks in to Noah’s reign and the added value of Jon Stewart’s easy-going charm has finally been calculated in full. A solid comic mind is simply not enough.

Stewart covered a multitude of sins with his asides and interludes of self-mocking, and without them we can see just how little content there is in the average Daily Show news item. Noah has exposed this, but I don’t level the blame at him. It takes a particularly kind of host – a Letterman or Carson, for example – to engage the audience without losing them when holes appear in the format. Noah has his long, pregnant smile, but to the live studio audience and the viewers at home, it reads as a stumble or a stall, even in the strongest segments like his brilliant mash-up of the Trump mythos with that of African dictatorship. Moments like this reassure us that the quality of mock-journalism has not dropped off, but in this case a pair of safe hands will not suffice. We need someone who can convince us they’ve revolutionized The Daily Show when nothing has changed, not a competent caretaker. Conversely, Colbert’s Late Show coup seemed bloodless, yet was a conceptual genocide. Fallon has proved it’s possible to succeed in late-night television by being a vessel for the greatness of others, and indeed Stewart leaned on Oliver and Colbert in exactly that way when they were Daily Show contributors, so Noah cannot be written off yet.

Oh no, they forgot to change the titles!

Oh no, they forgot to change the titles!

The Daily Show and Late Show are probably the two late-night talk formats that matter most culturally – with the possible exception of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk. The former is so because it is the closest America has to a reliable news source; the latter because Letterman made it a hotbed of comic artistry in the 90s. But because American TV is an inherently commercial animal, they require a certain kind of salesmanship to help audiences buy into them. Colbert’s hate-resistant persona is the perfect medium while Noah’s workmanlike anonymity may not be, at least not in the long-term. But can Colbert sustain these unimaginable highs?

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Letter Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2014 by Tom Steward

After 21 years as host of CBS’ Late Show and another 11 on NBC’s Late Night, David Letterman announced his retirement from late-night television last week. Letterman made the announcement on last Thursday’s Late Show in a characteristically loose and ambling stream-of-consciousness monologue full of pathos, bathos, self-deprecating humour and sardonic wit. It was a welcome contrast from Jay Leno’s mawkish farewell and crocodile tears on the eve of his (second!) departure from The Tonight Show in February. Even in goodbyes, the gulf in class between the two late-night hosts is palpable. Because while Leno’s conservatism (both political and comedic) kept late-night talk shows rooted in the past, Letterman opened up the genre, overturning conventions from within and dispensing with formality in favour of funny.

Don’t believe me? Ok, let’s consider how many people in television have ripped off Letterman since he started compared to Leno. And Bill O’Reilly doesn’t count, he just happens to be a disgusting Republican who’s bad at his job. When you see an entertainment show in which the crew, the audience and members of the public feature as prominently as the talent, Letterman did that. Plagiarism of Letterman was so rife, it even prompted an episode of talk show docu-satire The Larry Sanders Show in which host Larry tries to imitate Letterman’s ensemble of backstage performers against the stern warnings of traditionalist producer Artie’s about the ‘talent moat’. Conversely, Leno was all about heritage and keeping the talk show anonymous, bland and without formal innovation.

Letterman made the tone of late-night talk television casual, its humour offbeat and its attitude embracing of the alternative. His interactions with sidekick and band leader Paul Schaffer were parodies-cum-deconstructions of talk show traditions and his shows meandered in ways that seemed to defy their Draconian time restrictions. Leno’s Tonight Show looked like a corporate junket or infomercial in comparison. Sarcasm, irony and the surreal were Letterman’s calling cards not the flash-in-the-pan satire that Leno used to peddle to appear relevant. Letterman’s skits, like the infamous Top Ten List and Oprah Log, jabbed at the heart of American popular culture rather than superficially brushing it with cosy lampooning, and he incorporated cult and sideways figures (Bill Murray, Harvey Pekar) into the canon of celebrity guests.

Liberace returns from grave as Letterman's last guest!

Liberace returns from grave as Letterman’s last guest!

Leno’s safe, nostalgic version of late-night talk beat out Letterman in ratings for most of the 90s until the CBS host gradually eeked out a lead in the 2000s, consolidating his primacy during Conan O’Brien’s ill-fated tenure on The Tonight Show prior to Leno’s return. However America thought of him in the ‘90s, European TV saw Letterman’s style as the future of light entertainment. Kings of British primetime talk television entertainment throughout the 1990s and 2000s Jonathan Ross and Chris Evans imitated Letterman’s informal, self-referential and participatory approach to television to the letter. MTV Europe’s Most Wanted, an influential music talk show from the early 1990s presented by Ray Cokes, was undoubtedly guided by Letterman’s improvisatory technique and onscreen use of the crew and viewers.

It’s unsurprising that the template for a new generation of late-night TV hosts should come from Letterman not Leno. Leno’s successor Jimmy Fallon is defined by a Letterman-like breakdown of late-night talk show form rather than the previous era’s intransigence. Current CBS Late Late Show host – and legal heir to the Late Show host seat – Craig Ferguson takes Letterman’s leisurely variety of hosting to a new level with his near-formless set-wandering. From Letterman, comedy elite late-night hosts Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert take their spiky personas and dry interviewing style. Although, Letterman isn’t done yet. In the closest thing to a real-life episode of Columbo, Letterman’s 2012 interview with David Cameron exposed the British Prime Minister as the vapid, disinterested moron he is.

By contract and tradition, Letterman was supposed to inherit The Tonight Show following Johnny Carson’s exit from the host seat in 1992. Letterman was beaten out by Jay Leno who ruthlessly made himself NBC’s preferred choice in the course of brutal negotiations. Leno would deny another Late Night host the right of ascension after forcing out Conan O’Brien from a brief Tonight Show tenure in 2010. Currently, Letterman’s CBS late-night follow-up Craig Ferguson stands in the position Letterman did 23 years ago, with a contract specifying that he should take over his network forerunner but facing the possibility of being bought out and replaced by a ringer. For the sake of innovation, creativity and comedy, I hope that TV talk show history doesn’t repeat itself.

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