I remember coming home after a little league baseball game I played in on a Friday night in May of 1992. After a quick shower, I walked downstairs to have a late night snack and my parents had the TV on Johnny Carson, host of the Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992. It was his well publicized last show as host and around 50 million people tuned in. The prestige of the event was evident even to 11 year old me and the ratings mentioned earlier were further evidence to how much people would miss the former “king of late night.”
David Letterman, whose 32 year career included “Late Night” on NBC and “The Late Show” on CBS, will host his last show on Wednesday. How many of you are reading this for the first time? Though the recognition has picked up somewhat this week, it is truly amazing how little pub the end of the run of such a significant figure in the history of late night is having. And did anybody reading this watch Jay Leno’s final “Tonight Show?” Though it did have a decent rating, it’s audience was a fourth of the size of Carson’s audience and the buzz for it was next to nothing. So why are the ends of the 30 plus year runs of Leno and Letterman on late night television lacking the fanfare of their predecessor? Here are a couple of speculations on my part as to why the pomp around their exits has been significantly less.
1. The Expansion of the Late Night Universe
When Carson was “king of late night,” no one was really competing with him. Letterman came on the same network following Carson and the other networks answered with their own alternate programming (for example “Nightline” on ABC). Now, three of the four major networks have a late night show (NBC and CBS have two). Plus, there are numerous offerings for the late night audience, whether it be Conan on TBS, the Daily Show on Comedy Central, or creepy adult cartoons on Adult Swim (just to name a few). The saturation of the Late Night market has definitely lessened the buzz of these two departed late night legends.
2. Excitement for Their Replacements
When discussing this article with fellow 4LN writer Cam Clark, his thoughts were “I can’t wait for Stephen Colbert (Letterman’s replacement on the Late Show) to take over.” His comments were an exact quote from me when Leno stepped down, except for replacing Stephen Colbert’s name with Jimmy Fallon’s. When Carson retired, Leno had only been a substitute host on the Tonight Show and Letterman came on after many who watched the Tonight Show went to bed. So when Carson stepped down, there was an air of uncertainty surrounding the new hosts. Thanks to social media, Fallon’s shenanigans on “Late Night” were well known and built up quite the buzz for the eventual taking over of the coveted “Tonight Show” spot. The same could be said for Jimmy Kimmel, whose own brand on ABC was already making waves in the final years of Leno and Letterman’s shows. And while we can’t say for sure what Stephen Colbert will look like as host of the Late Show, viewers will have a strong familiarity with him from his years hosting “The Colbert Report” in the same time slot. The buzz surrounding the current crop of late night hosts have been so significant that it has greatly overshadowed those who are stepping away.
3. Online Streaming
The emergence of YouTube and internet streaming happened right in the middle of the transition between the old and the new guard of late night. Jimmy Fallon figured this out early, breaking his show down into bits that could be consumed just as easily in 7 minute clips online as they could on the air. Kimmel and Conan do similar bits that can stream to anyone at anytime, not just those who stayed up to watch the first viewing. This change happened while Leno and Letterman were still on the air. And while both men added social media pages and posted some shenanigans online, their brand of humor never adapted the way those whose shows immersed themselves in it from the start. As much as anything, the internet helped build the excitement for the new guard, making us forget about the men who came before.
4. The Frosty Relationship Between Leno and Letterman
The decision to replace Carson with Leno proved to be a permanent point of contention between the two hosts. Letterman believed his work on “Late Night” was enough to qualify him to replace Carson. So when Leno was chosen by the brass at NBC, Letterman took his talents to CBS and a late night ratings war (with words and with viewers) was born. Compare this to the many hosts in the coveted spots today, who while competing with each other, have yet to resort to the verbal sparring Leno and Letterman practiced.
5. The Conan Debacle
Some of you may have been screaming this one from the start of the article. And while I don’t think it’s the only reason for the quiet parting of these two men, I definitely believe it is the primary one.
NBC’s master plan to replace Leno with Conan in the “Tonight Show” spot was a disaster. To keep Conan with the network on “Late Night,” NBC agreed to turn the “Tonight Show” over to Conan in 2009 (the deal was made five years before this date). But when the time came to pass the torch, Leno was unwilling to bow out. Instead of retiring or moving to another network, Leno convinced the brass at NBC to put him into a nightly primetime spot. The disaster of Leno’s new show plus poor ratings for Conan on the Tonight Show created an issue that NBC resolved by putting Leno back on “The Tonight Show” and canning Conan (though Conan actually ended up quitting because of NBC”s proposal to put Leno on for 30 minutes before Conan). Leno made a lot of enemies with this move and, as much as anything, is why Leno bowed out quietly.
But Letterman did himself no favors by jumping into the fray. Maybe it was just too much for Letterman to resist, having his longtime enemy make such a selfish move. The following are Letterman’s comments criticizing Leno for his handling of the situation:
You may have noticed this video was titled “Vol. 1.” I found ten volumes of this while looking for this clip online. If Letterman would’ve only spoke up this one time, maybe the effect would have been minimal (this one clip is actually very funny). But the nightly rants really wore on some previous Letterman supporters. In contrast, here are Conan’s closing remarks on his final tonight show:
Talk about a different tone. And has it turned out, this may have been the best thing that ever happened to Conan. He turned his misfortune into a successful comedy tour and a new gig on TBS in a slot that is more fitting to O’Brien’s style of humor. But the biggest winner of the entire episode was NBC, the network responsible for the debacle in the first place. They ended up with Jimmy Fallon and his game-changing late night antics for “The Tonight Show.” But there will be plenty of years to praise the new king as well as those who very successfully navigate the waters of late night television today. But I was a regular viewer of Letterman in my teen and college years and while I have not found the man funny in awhile, I still think he deserves some props for the influence he’s had on the generation of hosts with us today. So here’s to the end of David Letterman’s run on late night television, now when does Stephen Colbert start?