In my dissertation, one of the iconic aspects of NBC that I investigate is late night television, particularly the influence of Lorne Michaels on the post-11:30 pm programming. He made Saturday nights appointment viewing, and he has completely changed the face of NBC’s talk shows as well. Following the lead of the New York Times‘ Bill Carter, I also have to keep an eye on the offerings on the other networks, especially NBC’s perpetual late night rival, CBS.
So the news of last week definitely changes the game. Letterman appealed to younger, more acidic audiences. He wasn’t afraid to be a little meaner than Leno, and he did it well. As has been said numerous times in the past two weeks, Letterman inspired two generations of comics, first from Late Night on NBC, then from Late Show with David Letterman on CBS. As Stephen Colbert pointed out, his first year in college marked Letterman’s first year at Late Night. Letterman begat comics like Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien.
I’m a big fan of Colbert, and I have enjoyed his work long before The Colbert Report, including Strangers with Candy and The Daily Show. However, many express concern that he will not be as popular when he drops his Report persona and moves on to being the real Colbert. I call foul on this line of thinking. Colbert is not a one-trick-pony. He is smart, well-trained in comedy (including time at The Second City), and has the potential to be a great interviewer. Consider Fallon. We never saw the “real” Fallon prior to his time on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He was always playing a character (and usually laughing while doing so), and thus, who knew what kind of successor to Conan* he would be. Fallon has proved to be warm, affable, and very likable during his time on the late night shows. I even met Fallon once prior to his ascension to Late Night. I liked him, but was annoyed as his tendency to break on SNL. I had no idea what NBC was thinking (but who did during that period). When I met Fallon at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, he noticed that I kept looking at him. I was trying to figure out if it was him, or just a guy who looked a lot like him. He waved to me and motioned me over. We talked for probably a solid 5 minutes, mainly with him asking me questions about myself. He was genuinely nice, and from that point, I knew he would succeed on Late Night.
There has been a distinct generational switch in late night. The old guard is really moving out, while those comedians who have put in their time are finally getting some mainstream recognition. I will be watching these new trends closely, and hopefully I’ll have something more profound to say as it all develops.
– The Lady Americanist.
*Side note: I am a Conan O’Brien devotee. Team Coco for life.