Cut the cameras. Please.
The late-night talk show is dead.
This declaration may sound a little premature, but the industry—one that pumps out clip after clip of celebrities lip-syncing to hits from a decade ago, or encourages ceaseless, tired political commentary masking as “jokes”—is on the decline, and they refuse to change.
Late-night television, as it exists now, is inseparable from cable, and, as we all know, cable is another dead tech walking. Late-night used to serve as the common public’s source for celebrity news—a hub for tell-all interviews, funny sketches, and witty commentary on current events. Whether the hosts of old were better than current hosts is up for debate, as the conduct of many hosts we now think of as “greats” can be looked upon, in retrospect, as problematic (for instance, when David Letterman sucked on Jennifer Aniston’s hair).
However, with the ever-increasing presence of the internet in our daily lives, the late-night talk show no longer serves this purpose. Thanks to social media, access to celebrities is less limited now than ever before, rendering the channel of the late-night talk show host useless. The wall between the average person and the celebrity is crumbling.
We don’t need a middleman anymore.
Culture of Abundance
In this new digital age, a culture of abundance has developed. As consumers, we’re bombarded daily with an overwhelming amount of content, from both “traditional” creators and the next generation of creators making a name for themselves online. Frankly, when stacked up against the options, late-night doesn’t hold a candle. Young people aren’t going to sit through commercials at midnight on a Tuesday to watch Jimmy Fallon live. If they tune in at all, it’s to watch the cut-up clips posted to YouTube the next day. Even then, most of the interviews and skits are forgettable, lost in the flood of content available on the platform.
If the late-night industry had any forethought, they would be attempting to modify the formula. Conan O’Brien, one of the few successful late-night hosts left, almost lost out on his career. But, due to his insight and genuine comedic talent, he adapted, even after being iced out (despite public outcry over the decision) from The Tonight Show in favor of reinstating Jay Leno—who didn’t last too much longer after the fiasco.
This bungling of the transition—and eventual release of one of the only remaining tolerable personalities in late-night—is a prime example of the industry’s stubbornness when it comes to change; in the end, they put the ego of a host in front of their survival.
O’Brien then went on to develop his own self-titled show, which—in spite of its relatively lower rates of viewership—is a consistently acclaimed rendition of late-night TV, and has evolved with the demands of the culture, rather than against it. Recently, O’Brien shortened his show from the expected hour-length to a more succinct half-hour cut, proving that quality will always reign over quantity in a world of reducing attention spans and instantly accessible breadth of content—something that other late-night hosts have yet to learn, considering the bulk of lower-tier content they produce with relatively little gain.
While O’Brien is now stepping back from the late-night cable sphere, he’s not disappearing for good; embracing the rise of streaming, O’Brien has announced an upcoming HBO Max variety show.
Conan O’Brien has proven his grasp on relevancy. As for the rest of late-night—not so much.
Is Late-Night Even Funny?
Comedy is subjective. That’s unarguable. But it’s also undeniable that the brand of comedy heavily favored by late-night TV doesn’t resonate with a large chunk of its intended audience.
Polluted by tone-deaf political commentary and cringe-worthy, recycled jokes, the monologues of these late-night hosts—a staple of the talk show—are almost unwatchable. The delivery is dry, rehearsed, and, worst of all, unoriginal. In 2018, a mocking video floated around on YouTube, showcasing a collection of different late-night shows reusing the same jokes—on the same nights. Either they were all using the same writers, or the jokes (mostly political in nature) were such predictable, cheap shots that anyone could have thought of them. And, obviously, every single one of these late-night writers’ rooms did.
Instead of unique, original, thoughtful comedy, late-night chooses to gift us with yet another uninspired joke about how Trump looks like a Cheeto.
While I think the downfall of late-night has been coming for a long time, the political “corruption” of these shows has certainly sped up the process. In fact, the increasing politicization of late-night seems to have bred tiresome—but unsurprising—consequences: in response to mainstream late-night’s alienation of viewers, right-wing late-night is on the rise. Fox News has now dipped their toes into the field; Gutfeld!, a late-night talk show hosted by The Five’s Greg Gutfeld, recently skyrocketed in ratings, second only to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Late-night, in a disappointing turn of events, has turned into a divisive tug-of-war between liberal and conservative humor—and neither side is funny.
The Problem with the Hosts
Political commentary aside, the rest of the late-night comedy landscape is bleak.
For one, the hosts are bland. Under any given YouTube video of The Tonight Show are bound to be comments griping about Jimmy Fallon’s “fake laugh”, unprofessional interview techniques, or generally lacking demeanor (one damning interview that comes to mind was Dakota Johnson’s—infamous talk show host destroyer—2019 appearance on The Tonight Show, in which she calls out Fallon for consistently interrupting her).
James Corden is another host who has been under fire for what seems like years. The internet seems to hate him, and yet he keeps cropping up everywhere, as if the media is trying to convince us of his unassuming, teddy-bear likability. And let’s not forget that Corden once apparently advocated for lower wages for late-night staff writers at a Writer’s Guild of America meeting. An anti-union host with a lack of regard for those who work under him? Fits right into the narrative of a dying industry.
Jimmy Kimmel also has a relatively shady history in television. Back in 1999, he and Adam Carolla created The Man Show, which was—you guessed it—a show for men, by men. Featured in their half-hour episodes were scantily clad women dancing for male audience members, monologues about pop culture’s “attack” on masculinity, and sketches about reversing the 19th Amendment. Astonishingly sexist, derogatory programming disguised as “comedy”. Maybe Kimmel’s educated himself since then—he does have two daughters, after all—but, seeing as he still maintains that The Man Show was “satire”, that might be asking too much of the late-night giant.
As for the remaining hosts populating the late-night playing field—the majority of them white, and almost all of them men—the leftovers are underwhelming. There’s a dearth of charisma; the fact is, more often than not, when people watch late-night, they’re not watching for the hosts.
This lack of incentive for viewers is shaping up to be the final blow for the industry.
In case you’re out of touch with late-night, or are still unconvinced of its impending demise, the ratings should speak for themselves. Johnny Carson, once the indisputable king of late-night, averaged anywhere between 6-9 million viewers per night during his thirty-year reign hosting The Tonight Show. During his final week on air, he pulled in close to 20 million viewers each night—one-third more than the amount of viewers Stephen Colbert accumulates in a good week.
For further particularly depressing reference, James Corden—the darling the internet would seemingly love to kill—averages less than a million views a night.
The showy, glamorous façade of talk shows might have you convinced that late-night is a thriving empire, when, in reality, it’s a kingdom on the brink of collapse. In an impressively unamusing display of futility, Kimmel, Colbert, and Fallon—and now, even Greg Gutfeld—are all clawing for a crown that might as well be made of dust.
If late-night doesn’t rewrite its boring, outdated script, it won’t last much longer.
The Way Forward
In 2012, Eric André shocked viewers when The Eric Andre Show premiered on Adult Swim. The show was a bizarre, surrealist, and bitingly derisive parody of the late-night talk show. In the opening of every episode, André demolishes his flimsy, plywood desk—the enduring symbol of the late-night host. His wickedly funny back-and-forth with co-host Hannibal Buress immediately draws viewers in, along with the strange, outlandish, unpredictable antics that unravel in each episode.
In the early seasons, André and Buress were only able to secure D-list celebrities to interview—and, in most cases, torment—and yet people still watched. Clips from the show quickly blew up online, proving that energy, originality, and the powerful stage-presence of a good host are enough to grab and keep our attention. It helps that, while The Eric Andre Show aired live, it was also available to watch on Adult Swim’s website, and later premiered on streaming platforms such as Hulu. The episodes are short, only about ten minutes long, and snappy—a testament to entertainment that’s becoming increasingly faster and easier to digest, ensuring the longevity of the show for a few years to come.
Late-night is dominated by men, but Chelsea Handler was and continues to be a refreshing presence in late-night circles. One of her multiple forays into the industry was the direct-to-streaming Netflix show Chelsea, which embodied all of the elements missing from late-night shows on cable—including the utilization of a shorter format, distilling the spirit of late-night into fast-paced thirty-minute episodes.
Her approach to interviews is quick-witted; she’s known for asking seemingly irrelevant questions, and her talk show host persona is bitter and sarcastic, a technique designed to throw people off and elicit hilarious reactions from unsuspecting guests. Her 2017 interview with Harry Styles went viral for a reason.
Even Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, a scripted take on the low-budget, late-night talk show, offers more entertainment packed into its under five-minute episodes than all of Jimmy Kimmel’s monologues combined. A celebrity in his own right, Galifianakis isn’t afraid to insult his interviewees, quipping with them through awkward jests and self-deprecating humor (all jokes that the guests are in on, unlike on Eric André’s show). The bite-sized aspect of the show works in its favor, offering us a glimpse into the potential, hopeful future of late-night: short-form, quick, and clever.
It’s unlikely that big networks like NBC and ABC will course-correct anytime soon; cable seems intent on holding on by a fraying thread until it’s entirely too late. More and more opportunities for new, fresh reinventions of late-night will continue to present themselves, and network executives will continue to turn a blind eye. Late-night TV will go out, not with a bang, but with a fizzle—probably to the tune of a roaring laugh track.
However, with comedic innovators like Eric André and Chelsea Handler—as well as a plethora of increasingly relevant online content creators—forging ahead with their interpretations of what late-night can be, we can rest easy knowing that funny, original, and accessible entertainment isn’t going anywhere.