Late night TV is a strange beast, it seems with 300 million plus Americans the stations have realised that even the wee hours of the evening give access to enough potential viewers. Viewers that buy stuff they see on lucrative commercials.
The risk being that when you deal with the 11 pm to 2 am timeslot there is the constant possibility that half your viewership could fall asleep at any moment, or that they are a bunch of unemployed people, or students, or insomniacs. You know, people who don’t shop much.
This conundrum means that the late night shows are run on the cheap and are personality driven. These middle aged likable white men (hey they all are) know the formula and don’t wanna mess with it too much, because apparently late night devotees fear change.
Last year provided a chilling example of the desire for televised inertia with the botch job ‘handover’ of the Tonight Show from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien.
Jay had run the Tonight Show as a tight ship for decades and NBC decided for him that he must be bored, announcing a transition to Conan O’Brien, only far enough in the future that everyone could come to terms with the reality. This is just like how wives sneak in unpalatable outings to unsuspecting husbands; ‘in 4 weeks we’re visiting my sister and watching her new Blu-Ray of Titanic’. As a husband we can’t be arsed with the argument right now, and as we know 4 weeks away never comes…
‘Wait. It’s THIS WEEKEND!?! Dammit, shoulda listened.’
In any case details of the hatchet job are now well known. Jay tweaked his show, moved to prime time and quickly watched ratings plummet, leading to him back-flipping and demanding his old gig back. NBC execs asked Conan to push his show back to later in the evening – he refused – they paid him out a bunch of money and off her went to TBS. And the whole painful process proved the fodder for comedy gold for David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and in the latter stages even Conan himself, who emerged with an even stronger fanbase once even casual viewers decided to side with the tall energetic redhead over the mighty chin and symbol of corporate America.
The formula for any late night TV show is simple;
The monologue – a lighthearted look at the news of the day, made all the more easy in the internet age where viral videos are everywhere, providing cheap fodder for jokes.
Running time: 10 minutes is spent on the intro and monologue.
The skit bit – after the monologue usually comes the second prepared comedy section of the show. For Letterman it’s small town news and the Top 10, Ferguson has the Tweets & emails segment, Leno the Headlines and Jaywalking and Fallon, O’Brien and Kimmel mix things up a little, with familiar bits coming back periodically. Braver shows will integrate one of the evening’s guests into proceedings here when they can.
Running Time: Another 10 minutes or so.
Guest 1 – the bigger name guest, usually spruiking a movie or new season of their TV show. Big guests do their segment and leave, smaller (or nicer) guests hang around for Guest 2. (Christian Bale is not hanging around for a sit-com actress.)
Running Time: Another 10 minutes or so.
Guest 2 – this is where things can get a bit more tricky. This spot can be filled by almost anything or anyone; animal specialists can bring their menagerie onset, celeb chefs can run quick cooking displays, or more quirky guests get the chance to shine, people that aren’t that famous but who are interesting – at least for 8 minutes or so.
Running Time: Another 7 minutes or so.
Musical Guest / Comedian – time is short, so our last 4 minutes are spent introing the band or stand up and letting them put a bow on this sucker. If the show runs long – and the band / comedian aren’t big names – these guys can easily be ‘bumped’ to another day. Craig Ferguson usually doesn’t have them, favouring a 1 or 2 minute wrap up, that’s about the only deviation from the norm.
Running Time: About 4 minutes or so.
End of show
More commercials. Or as Craig Ferguson is so fond of saying ‘time for boner pill ads and informercials’.
Can you see just why these shows are so important? In a one hour slot 18 – 20 minutes are taken up by paid ads, of the 40 odd that remain another 4 or 5 are eaten away by opening and closing credits, a few more getting into and out of commercials. In reality we have around 30 minutes of show, with 10 taken by actual comedy, and the other 20 by guests promoting something or other.
These shows are cheap (by comparison) to run and quite profitable if the right number of right people tune in, which brings us to the hard part…
The hard part is finding someone funny and (mostly) inoffensive, someone easy to watch that can deal with the egos and idiosyncrasies of actors, musicians and personalities. Someone who can be embraced by the appropriate demographic and convince these potential viewers that hanging around until well after sensible people go to sleep is a worthwhile exercise, even though you know you’ll feel like shit the next day.
I started watching these shows in around 2000 with Letterman doing his thing, Leno still running the Tonight Show and Conan still in New York, years before the ‘change’ was even announced. Ferguson was still berating Drew Carey in an English accent, Kimmel was still pandering to bonehead men alongside Adam Corolla with The Man Show… and Jimmy Fallon didn’t exist as far as I was concerned.
Things have changed since then. But then again they haven’t. We still watch the usual monologue – skit – guest 1 – guest 2 – outro stuff, and the host’s role is still to distract us from the fact that there isn’t much to the show.
Today’s aim is to identify which of the current six white guys do it best within the restraints of the format. Let’s look first at the candidates in a non-wikipedia assisted summary of what I actually know about them, (alphabetical order):
Let’s meet the hosts.
Ex Saturday Night Live fake news guy renowned for his inability to hold back laughter while doing his shtick. This was initially endearing, and rapidly annoying. ‘Starred’ in a ‘film’ called Taxi with Queen Latifah (I’ve seen it, I am being generous with both terms). Given the hosting job to fill the shoes of Conan who was in turn moving into Jay Leno’s old seat.
Tech-savvy and a gifted impressionist. Seems a smart guy, but ‘loves’ everybody and gushes over every guest openly to the point of audience retch ‘oh my God Taylor Lautner I just love you so much’.
Could be gay but apparently married. BFF with Drew Barrymore. The guy who women want as their son and guys don’t really want as their son.
Scottish American, naturalised a few years ago and proud of it. Openly detests his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, sports and the ‘Hollywood game’, but at the same time his openness about his hatred makes this somehow OK. Patently refuses anything other than a cursory attempt to promote the guest’s new product – and when he does it is often derisory – and makes a point of being the anti-talk show.
This results in some noticeable tweaks, there is no house band (and the most minimal set to be honest), he mocks his audience openly and won’t let them give ovations for the usual dumb stuff, his sidekick is a gay robot and he tears up a symbolic question card in flamboyant fashion prior to every unscripted interview, all of which go where the mood takes them.
Craig is a recovered drug user and alcoholic – something he openly discusses a little too often – has two kids and is on his third marriage. Again something he doesn’t bother hiding.
Happy to acknowledge his inability to act and resistance to standard set-up / punchline jokes, Ferguson is also a novelist. (I’ve read his book, the first half is brilliant before it tails away a little).
Once host of The Man Show. A seemingly proud family man who uses his own family and long time friends in the show – his whole show homage to the late Uncle Frank was very moving – he uses his Aunt Chippy as the ‘ascerbic voice of the people’ and Cousin Sal as the ‘man on the street’.
Kimmel also uses everyday folks more than anyone else, his security guard Guillermo has become his unwitting sidekick over the years, the homeless people who dress as superheros And pose for photos with tourists for money are regulars, and he often does impromptu competitions featuring passers by.
A divorced father of adult kids, Kimmel famously dated Sarah Silverman for a few years before an amicable split… apparently.
Raised in Las Vegas, loves to cook and loves LA sports teams.
Married for a million years to wife Mavis. No kids. Loves cars and owns millions of dollars worth. Won’t eat vegetables. Seems to wear denim 23 hours of every day, with the other hour being the suit for the show. Famous for his large chin.
Inherited the Tonight Show from the legendary Johnny Carson. Agreed to the handover to Conan and moved to a new variety show in prime time, when that didn’t work asked for his old job back and ultimately won.
Still does stand up gigs regularly and has been in the business long enough to have worked with every stand up in history, in every stand up venue ever built.
And that’s about it. I think Leno is genuinely that simple a man.
In his 60s, married with one youngish son. Letterman is famous for not meeting with guests before the show to give a more ‘fresh’ non-rehearsed appearance. Aside from that the only things I know about Letterman are that he left NBC many years ago after a contractual dispute, he delivered a fascinating rambling story on air that ended with him admitting to an affair with one of his interns (for a long while the audience didn’t know if it was real or a stunt – it was real), and he poked and prodded Jay Leno so mercilessly during the Tonight Show debacle that there seems to be obvious animosity between the two.
Letterman gets some of the guests no-one else gets due to his longevity and reputation, including Bill Clinton, Bruce Willis and Bill Murray, and is wickedly sarcastic to some of the more precious ‘celebrities’, most famously Paris Hilton who he mocked so openly that for a long while she refused to return.
A writer from The Simpsons plucked from obscurity to helm the show left vacant after Letterman left in unfortunate circumstances. Conan is an intelligent, energetic whirlwind of quips and self-deprecating comments, who seems embarrassed by the limelight but similarly addicted to acknowledgment – something the doco ‘Conan O’Brien can’t stop’ highlighted.
Conan is married with two kids and negotiated large severances for his staff in the wake of the Tonight Show events, including a whacking great big one for himself.
He is tall and pasty with a coiffed shock of red hair and gangly movements, all of which he maximises onstage by using a stationary camera as his own play stage for such buffoonery as the ‘string dance’ and pretending his hair is a shark. Essentially dumb stuff that suggests itself so dumb it’s actually funny.
Conan is effervescent and always either moving or talking, and has now attained geek god status after emerging seemingly unscathed from the Tonight Show debacle (though he is obviously effected). His fans draw, sculpt and paint pictures of him and he has embraced this through his website and on twitter alike.
Possibly the most savvy and calculated of the hosts.
The Battle Lines
Now we know who we are dealing with, here are the 12 categories that I used to separate the wheat from the chaff;
1/ The Host: Quite an ambiguous descriptor I know. Essentially I look for traits that will compel me to watch night in night out for weeks at a time. Interview style and conversational ability in a talk show is obviously important, but also things like handling difficult situations and even making potentially bland situations entertaining count.
Also, small annoying quirks become grating if done every night for weeks on end. That hurts.
Winner: Jimmy Kimmel.
Kimmel runs a tight ship, he obviously likes most of his guests and can make difficult interviews with inane gits (Paris Hilton, random Kardashians, in fact reality stars period) better by adding little pre-taped bits to distract us from the fact that these are often reprehensible idiots.
Jimmy only laughs when he thinks something is genuinely funny and keeps mugging for the camera at a minimum. A huge plus and something he only shares with Craig Ferguson.
Ultimately Kimmel won this category thanks to his entertaining one or two sentence intros for his guests that are often as witty and funny as the interview.
2/ Monologue: That first 8 to 10 minutes is our intro to our host and often the determinant to whether we hang around for the last 30.
Winner: Jimmy Kimmel.
Kimmel again, though this time by default. His jokes aren’t necessarily better but he deadpans them, no fake laughs or mugging here. (By comparison: Leno, Conan & Fallon – fake laughs & mugging. Ferguson & Letterman – mugging galore.)
Kimmel has also embraced the viral video thing (but doesn’t let the video do all the work), and he is happy to call an idiot an idiot.
3/ Skits ‘n’ bits: Often the 10 minutes between the monologue and first guest contain the bits you’ll describe at work the next day.
Winner: Jimmy Kimmel.
A few years ago this would have gone to Conan thanks to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, but in the last year he has only appeared a few times. Fallon occasionally has an inspired skit but already tends to merely trot out duplicates of what worked before, ditto Leno and Letterman, though they’ve been doing it forever – does anyone talk up the Top 10 jokes or Headlines the next day? Thought not…
Kimmel has the bits that are emailed around, the Hottie Body Hump Club was hilarious, and his episode directed by Michael Gondry was amazingly creative and daring for a talk show.
4/ Best Sidekick: Because the host can’t be expected to carry the entire load, and because sometimes it’s handy to have someone to riff off during flat moments.
Winner: Craig Ferguson – Geoff Peterson.
Hands down. Geoff the gay skeleton robot has one working arm, glowing eyes and a steel Mohawk. His field of vision is perhaps 90 degrees, not that he can ‘see’ anyway. The man voicing Geoff is a brilliant impressionist and an exceptionally quick wit. In 2011 he grew into his persona and now happily belittles both guest and audience.
Geoff and Craig have at least a few minutes of unscripted banter in each and every show, usually around a point on the monologue or some random factoid. Sometimes it works a treat, other times it fails dismally, but it’s always fascinating regardless.
A few weeks back the normal ‘voice’ of Geoff took a couple of weeks leave and he was voiced by a rotating cast of minor celebs. I may never forget when Larry King took his turn beneath the Mohawk, but only because it failed so dismally that it was somehow hilarious.
5/ Funniest show: it’s nice to be liked and charming and all that stuff, but for goodness’ sake please make me laugh a time or two.
Winner: Craig Ferguson
In truth Kimmel has more good jokes, but the occasional moments that make me laugh out loud in surprise are why Ferguson gets the gong here.
Example? How about on his recent twitter feedback section where he answered a generic “how do I get this girl to like me?’ question with ‘Manipulate the clitoris’. It doesn’t matter how late in the evening is, comments like that will wake you up.
6/ Smartest host: Who is quickest on his feet and able to take advantage of an opening with a killer one liner or barb?
Winner: Tie. David Letterman and Craig Ferguson.
Fearlessness is the key here, to deliver a classic retort or joke you can’t sit back and wonder how the guest (or censor) might take it, and you need the brains to come up with the line on the fly.
Letterman gets his trophy for making Joaquin Phoenix (who was filming a mock doco about his rap career) break character by closing a bedraggled catastrophe of an interview with “Well Joaquin it’s a shame you couldn’t be here tonight”.
Ferguson is the most likely to randomly drop a guest to the floor with a comeback or joke from the blue, with Geoff always on hand to help create the opportunity.
7/ Watchable: Once you make a choice you’re gonna have to watch a couple hundred episodes a year, that’s a big commitment.
Winner: Tie. Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson.
I like Conan too but his dud shows are excruciating and it is often obvious that his antics are a reaction to moments of boredom. It’s admirable that he tries to keep the mood light and the energy high, but sometimes it is better to let it go.
This leaves the potential train wreck that is a Ferguson show, or the smoothly run and seemingly effortless likability of Kimmel. One consistently funny, the other potentially jaw dropping. I can argue the case for either.
8/ Guests: It’s a Talk show silly, the host needs to interview someone, might as well be someone interesting… or at least famous.
Winner: Tie. David Letterman and Jay Leno.
Seniority rules, Letterman seems to have a handshake agreement with some of the more hermit-like stars (Willis, Murray etc) and Jay runs the Tonight Show – everyone wants to be on the Tonight Show – and is so inoffensive and nice that everyone knows he won’t make fun of them or allow them to look bad.
Also both manage to make interviews with non-celebs interesting, though I could say that about the rest too. After all they all talk for a living!
8b/ Best Interview: Cos’ um, it’s like the point of the show. You book the guests, might as well talk to ‘em.
Winner: This is more clear cut than you think. When you work sans script the first minute or so is absolutely crucial. Ferguson always opens with a hug or warm handshake/hug combo, even with guests he has never had before. Importantly he lets the guest dictate the direction of the chat, putting them at ease and essentially allowing them control.
This occasionally necessitates that he rein the convo in, like when the chat gets a little bawdy or random, Ferguson manages this at times by being disarmingly frank about himself, or just saying ‘look we’re outta time’ and moving towards the end point with his slapdash series of options that include the guest playing a mouth organ or answering a random question for cash.
The beauty of having no scripts and no formal questions is that dud guests can be moved off quickly using this method, conversely when Ferguson is enjoying the conversation he occasionally gets the hurry up from the producer – as in ‘finish up please’.
9/ Best house band: Usually live music is a staple of the shows, with a band playing to keep the studio audience amused and provide a bridge between segments. Often the band members become part fo the show and get involved in skits and such.
Winner: Jimmy Fallon – The Roots.
It’s both a triumph and a crime that Fallon has one of hip-hop’s finest at his disposal. Good because they deserve the coin provided by the gig, bad because they are THE HOUSE BAND FOR JIMMY FALLON!
In other news Letterman and Jay ‘enjoy’ painful interaction with their band leaders (though I know Letterman and Schaeffer are actually good friends), Kimmel’s bandleader is his childhood friend and Conan missed Max Weinberg – well he should – the band has faded out since he left.
10/ Beer: ‘Connecting’ with the audience seems vital. If they don’t like you then there’s no chance they’ll watch unless it’s to see you fail. The acid test might be ‘who would you like to share a beer and a chat with’.
Winner: Craig Ferguson.
Let’s just say off the bat that most hosts have checkered pasts and probably wouldn’t imbibe in any case. Letterman, Ferguson and Leno all don’t drink. In any case I wouldn’t have a beer with Fallon unless The Roots showed anyway, and Conan would be too jittery and loud to relax anyway. Letterman seems too aloof, Leno would be nice and harmless, ultimately a little too harmless like he’s doing you a favour.
This leaves Kimmel and Ferguson, and again I can’t separate the pair, but the fact that Ferguson can riff on practically anything gives him the edge.
The Final Verdict
And the Winner of the Best Late Night TV host for 2011/2012 goes to; Drum roll please…
Craig Ferguson: The Late, Late Show.
This acolyte of David Letterman has gradually forged his own path over the past couple years as the anti-talk show host, and I must say even though he obeys most of the rules the feeling of working without a parachute is refreshing and occasionally produces inspired moments.
Ferguson gets the edge thanks to sidekick Geoff Peterson his gay robot skeleton sidekick, who at the moment is the difference between a ‘standard’ show and an irreverent and unexpected masterpiece.
I love his multi-lingual bleeps to cover up his swearing and more bawdy comments – including making up sexual position titles to test the censors – the random appearance of two interns in a crappy horse suit to dance in and out of the studio and the 15 second intros to the tweet & email segment, all of which work the phrase ‘Ass: Mode’ into proceedings.
The problem just might be now that they are finding their groove it might not be long before the groove turns into a rut.
The other problem is that the adulation and fawning from many guests will inevitably lead to Ferguson becoming self aware. Once that happens the self aware person starts worrying about his image, fans and continuing to find the spark.
Until that happens though I am happy to hitch up to ride.
Of the others:
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Probably a superior choice in many ways and I am grateful for his unforced style and deadpan delivery. He never ‘sells’ a joke, you either get it or you don’t, and if it’s muffled by the crowd laughter too bad – he ain’t repeating it. His show is also more creative and daring than the rest of the field (he frequently takes potshots at Oprah, Leno and Tom Cruise), but you can Youtube his best moments if you hear about them.
(The best part of Ferguson’s style is that you never see the highlights coming.)
I watch Kimmel as often as I can, which is hard in Australia as he seems hardest to track down.
The Cone Zone has suffered with the last couple years but has a die-hard group of fans as a result, and it is fair to say that his show is far from broken.
Right now though things are most entertaining when they do break. Conan knows this, which necessitates that he fly as close to the sun as he can, tempting tragedy and confusion for entertainment value.
Like Jackass this seems to require that he go further and further, until ultimately he risks either becoming irrelevant or settling down and joining Dave and Jay in their nice comfy ruts.
This aiming high results in Conan’s show having both the best and worst skits on TV. I watch Conan when I can, but it’s fair to say I fast forward bits of his show more frequently than the others.
Letterman and Leno
The choice of the old generation, both too stuck in their comfortable rut. Letterman is more likely to get ornery with a guest at times – and is far more likely to be involved in a personal scandal – but that still leaves the 98% of other shows that are at best decent and at worst bland.
Jay’s rep took a deserved flogging with Conan emerging the clear People’s Choice, and his new format comes across telethon-ey. Jay is now the safe choice for the cautious mainstream.
I only watch Leno or Letterman when they have a ‘big’ guest (Leno had Obama recently and if Letterman has Bill Murray I might check it out).
I used to watch his show occasionally in acknowledgment of The Roots, but it made me sad. Some of Fallon’s skits used to be good, but they were too few and far between to justify the rest, and his constant pandering and hero worship of guests was disgusting.
Let’s face it, if Fallon didn’t have The Roots I wouldn’t put him in this list.
So for now it’s hats off to Craig, time will tell if he holds onto the crown. As the past decade plus has seen me ordain (in order) Leno / Letterman / Conan and Kimmel as ‘must watch’ Late Night it seems unlikely that Craig and the Robot will reign supreme forever.
Only my continued bleary eyes will be the judge of that.