Late Night Hosts: Does Anyone Get Out Alive?

David Letterman must be exhausted.

In January he hosted, counting both Late Show and Late Night, his 5,600th show. Last March CBS extended his contract until 2014, thereby ensuring that next year Letterman will surpass Johnny Carson as the longest running late night talk show host in history. If Letterman extends his contract past 2014, David Letterman will easily achieve the 6,000 show milestone. David Letterman’s even surpassed Oprah by over 1,000 shows.

As Splitsider wrote two years ago, David Letterman had hoped to retire by February 2013. After 31 years, who would have blamed him? Performing comedy every day for years is a grueling job; many talk show hosts even work when they’re sick. And although Jimmy Kimmel’s warm tribute to David Letterman at the Kennedy Awards last year was quite moving, it also bolstered the opinion many comedians have held for years: David Letterman is a comedy legend whose brilliance and patience has faded.

As of January 2013, the following late night hosts have hosted the follow number of shows:

David Letterman: 5,615 shows
Jay Leno: 4,386 shows
Conan O’Brien: 3,091 shows
Jon Stewart: 2,277 shows
Jimmy Kimmel: 1,816
Craig Ferguson: 1,653 shows
Stephen Colbert: 1,142 shows
Chelsea Handler: 1,032 shows
Jimmy Fallon: 774 shows

David Letterman is so busy packing his bags, he doesn’t even bother to phone it in anymore. And if any one lesson can be learned from The Tonight Show debacle of 2010, it’s that some late night show hosts (cough, Jay Leno) are pathologically loathe to admit they’re past their prime (cough, Jay Leno). Fortunately for America, the remaining talk show hosts – the Jon Stewarts, the Craig Fergusons, the Stephen Colberts, the Jimmy Kimmels, the Jimmy Fallons – still continue to inject late night comedy with enthusiasm and creativity.

And then there’s Conan O’Brien.

Bruce Handy recently wrote in Vanity Fair that Conan O’Brien – whose “antic whimsy and gleeful absurdities were a breath of fresh air” on The Tonight Show – is frittering away his talents on TBS. A former Saturday Night Live writer and no stranger to comedy himself, Handy writes:

“Why is [O’Brien] still hosting a standard-issue talk show with a monologue, a desk bit, two guests, and a music act or maybe a stand-up? Why is he still telling jokes about Lindsay Lohan’s driving and Bill Clinton’s horniness and L.A.’s wacky weather?”

Handy further argues that by electing to host a traditional late night show, O’Brien is setting himself up for the same mediocre twilight years of comedy currently inhabited by Letterman and Leno.

“I can’t help thinking of all the great, weird movies O’Brien could have written, or sitcoms he could have created, over the last couple decades. I get wanting to host the Tonight show — it’s like being the President of Comedy — but I’m not sure I get persisting on TBS. I hope for O’Brien it’s a passion and not a compulsion”

Conan O’Brien still continues to create some of the most innovative comedy on television, as evidenced by last month’s surprisingly entertaining “Occupy Conan” episode. However, far too many groundbreaking sketches on Conan are sandwiched between tired monologue jokes about Bruce Jenner and interviews with starlets du jour. This refusal to alter the traditional talk show format — as opposed to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert — runs the danger of exhausting O’Brien and worse, making him irrelevant.

Three years ago, a friend and I made a 6-hour pilgrimage to Las Vegas to watch — nay, experience — Conan O’Brien’s “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.” Conan had left The Tonight Show three months earlier, and decided the best way to deal with his simmering creative energy was to convert it into a live comedy tour. Anyone who saw the show will admit that it was Conan O’Brien at the peak of his form. The show had a kinetic energy to it. The comedy was raw, weird, contagious, and most importantly, thoroughly entertaining. There was no format to the show. There was no desk and there were no celebrity interviews. The best comedy is that which cannot be predicted; there was nothing predictable about “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.”

Thus, it’s that much more disheartening to see Conan O’Brien — arguably one of the most brilliant comedic minds of the past 30 years — settle for ordinary schtick on Conan. Between the predictable monologue jokes and the fast forward-worthy interviews, the show has earned the worst epithet possible in the comedy world.

It feels ordinary.

Jon Stewart, Craig Ferguson, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler, and Jimmy Fallon continue to take risks and break comedy ground on a weekly basis. Considering that his TBS show is still only a few years old, O’Brien still has the potential to push the envelope and snap out of the mediocrity that currently plagues him. Bruce Handy empathizes with O’Brien, and hopes he’ll take the necessary steps that have eventually lead Letterman, Leno, and even comedy godfather Johnny Carson, to late night host purgatory. Says Handy:

“It would be even more painful watching late night leech the life out of [Conan] the way it did Carson and the way it has Leno and Letterman. Does anyone get out alive?”

For the sake of Conan O’Brien, let’s hope so.

Ryan Shattuck is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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