Monday, March 4th, 2013

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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  • Becker

    Letterman already broke Carson's record

    • Becker

      Dave surpassed Johnny on September 24, 2011:
      Johnny: October 1, 1962 to May 22, 1992 = 10,826 days
      Dave: February 1, 1982 to September 23, 2011 = 10,826 days

      Johnny also employed guest hosts with far more frequency than Dave, so Dave is comfortably ahead of Johnny at this point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/parmahn Par Mahn

    Once he lost the tonight show he seemed to have lost enthusiasm for his show. I was so excited when watching the first episode of the TBS show expecting some crazy out of the ordinary twist on late night, since having been freed from the obligatory format, but was disappointed to see the standard configuration of late night still in practice. Over 2 years in nothing has really changed, and I unfortunately doubt it ever will. He just doesn't have the same spontaneous hysteria that made him unique anymore. What's he got left to prove?

    • http://www.facebook.com/kk.akuoku KK Akuoku

      I don't really think it was the actual loss of the show that caused him to water himself down. The move to 11:35pm meant that he had to clean up a great deal, probably even more so now that he's on 30 minutes earlier than before. Also, I can't really rule out the move to L.A. either, especially since tiny little smatterings of his old Late Night-era glory manage to creep into his bits whenever the show travels to either Chicago or back to NYC.

      Nonetheless, it goes without saying that present-day Conan isn't really the same guy that left me reeling in pain from laughing when I was 14. What made him so fantastic was the fact that he always eschewed the late night comedy norm of reviled celebrity/inept politico-bashing and aimed for the off-kilter & bizarre. But now, it feel disheartening to see him resort to the hackneyed anti-Kardashian/Jersey Shore/Justin Bieber shtick

  • Kevin

    Like it or not, Jay Leno wins all the ratings, so there's no reason for him to retire.

  • http://www.facebook.com/morganevans Morgan Evans

    It's a tremendous shame there are no longer guest hosts. Guest hosts invigorate the franchises, give much needed attention to the hosts of the future, and allow the regular hosts time to unwind and come back stronger than ever. It's very strange to me that they quit doing this and now instead go on long hiatuses. I can't believe I'm commenting on the internet.

  • grayzip

    Conan O'Brien is a writer. Worse still, for the purposes of this discussion, he's a Harvard writer. So in him we have someone absent any star magnetism or even common background with his audience. Sure his bits are often funny; I didn't say he was a bad writer. He just has no business offering himself up as a performer, and no matter how long he keeps at it he never will. As they say in the biz, ya got it or ya don't.

    It's easy to see why he wants to be a celebrity. It's the same reason Seth MacFarlane leverages his clout to force himself upon us. Talk about fun, talk about access — especially compared to being another graying, schlubby writer. But it's still delusional narcissistic striving and we end up paying the price by having to look at them.

    • poop

      wow i really couldnt disagree more. I mean i respect your opinion because you seem to have thought it out and "get" comedy but I think Conan is a fantastic performer. His improvisational abilities are top notch. Watch the first five minutes of his inside the actor studio. Hes got a catalog of comedy formulas and schtick ready at a moments notice and hes also a great physical comedian. He does a lot of great anti-comedy, a la steve martin, sometimes appearing childish and slapsticky but always remaining elevated and cerebral. AND unlike other talk show hosts (sparing stewart) Conan has a well developed persona: repressed, insecure, etc that he wears on his sleeve and plays to a tee. Watch his interviews with Jeff Goldblum for example. So I guess if by star magnetism you mean good looking, no hes not especially good looking. But conan connects with his audience better than any host of any show. The people who watch him (including myself) feel as though they "get" him. Hes a comic's comic and miles ahead of leno, fallon and letterman intellectually.

    • Jay Cathcart

      I must disagree not only his Conan a great talk show host he also is a hilarious performer. Have you ever seen him host SNL it was one of the best ever. His tour he did was one of the funniest things i've ever been to. Dont get me wrong I am not as happy with his new show, but the man is doing what he was born to do no doubt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BusterAbbott Buster Abbott

    The move to California sapped the life out of Conan's show….there was just so much more genuine energy on Late Night amidst the NYC audiences. Also, this could be just my opinion since I started watching Conan in 2000 so I'm used to him as a solo act, but Conan seems better without Andy Richter around as a crutch.

  • Don Reed

    I watch none of these people any longer. It's the same process as outgrowing Mad Magazine at about the age of fourteen.
    What A Crew.
    Letterman's a dirty old man. Leno, once brilliant, is now pathetic. O'Brien (see photo above) is starting to look like AR-nuld. Kimmel is the worst monologist in 100 years. Stewart is frozen in time. Colbert you have to call ADT to turn off. Chelsea is sandpaper for the eyes. And Fallon is the 3rd worst monologist in the last 100 years (bested by Obama; Kimmel, watch out!).

  • A.Whitney

    "Jon Stewart, Craig Ferguson, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler, and Jimmy Fallon continue to take risks…" —– Chelsea HANDLER?! I see what you did there – very sly, very sly placement indeed.

  • Jay Cathcart

    Wow I thought it was just me, I love Conan I am actually going to watch him in Atlanta in a few weeks. But when he was on NBC me and my fiance never missed a second it was such a great show. I literally cried when he did his last episode. Once I heard he signed with TBS I was so excited because not only was he coming back he was on TBS so he could be more edgy. It just hasen't happened and now I find the shows building up on my DVR from time to time and I just watch them in bulk when I get board. Really hope it changes