Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Late Night TV Changes

by Bill Holmes

February 6, 2014 will be Jay Leno's last night as host of the Tonight Show. The Winter Olympics late night coverage will be on in that time slot for three weeks. Then on February 24th, Jimmy Fallon takes over as the host. Besides a new host the Tonight Show will be moving back to New York City. This will be the first time the show will be based in NYC since Johnny Carson moved it to California in 1972. Replacing Fallon on Late Night will be Seth Meyers. He's the new player in the mix.

This is just one more change in the long history of the Tonight Show, It started in 1954 with Steve Allen, went in a different direction with Jack Paar in 1957 and reached cult status when Johnny Carson hosted from 1962 to 1992. Those were the golden years. Jay Leno took over in 1992, was relieved of command in 2009 by Conan O'Brian and then Jay recaptured the show in 2010. Now NBC is pushing Jay out once again. What did Leno do wrong? He foolishly had the top rated late night show on TV most of the years he was host as he still does now.

I have always been a night owl. I have been watching The Tonight Show since the Steve Allen days. Obviously I didn't watch Steve and his gang every night when I eight years old but I do remember seeing it on occasion. I watched Jack Parr a little more often. Probably during the summer when there was no school or on Friday nights. I was in high school when Johnny took over and watched him most nights. I've also read several books about the Tonight Show, late night TV and the various hosts.

Now looking back I don't know why my parents let me watch Johnny. We lived on the east coast then and the Tonight Show didn't come on until 11:30. In the very beginning it came on at 11:15 until the local news expanded to 30 minutes. In the early days it was on for 90 minutes. That's 1:00 AM when it ended. Not an ideal bedtime for a high school student. Somehow I got up in the morning and was able to function. Maybe I napped during Latin class. That was my worst subject and often is what kept me off the honor roll.

Here was the family routine. Mom would go to bed when the local news finished at 11:30, if not earlier. Dad would stay up for Carson's monologue. My dad and I would laugh together at the jokes. The monologue was one of the few things we enjoyed together. Sometimes he would stay up a little longer if the first guest was somebody he was interested in. Dad would would say goodnight and always tell me to wrap it up soon and go to bed. I hardly ever did. Then it was just me and Johnny. I'd turn down the volume and move to the chair right next to the TV. Some nights I'd laugh until I had tears in my eyes. Sometimes I'd throw in the towel before 1:00 AM if the last guests weren't of interest to me, but not very often. Sometimes a crappy guest brought out the best in Johnny. Those were the best years of The Tonight Show.

My viewing diminished drastically when I was in college. We had other late night activities and also didn't always have a TV available. After college I mainly worked night shifts for eight or ten years. I still watched The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson whenever I could. He was great until the very end of his run although by then he was only working three nights a week and had what seemed like six months of vacation time.

After Johnny left, I mostly watched The Late Show with David Letterman on CBS. Letterman had the Late Night show that was on after Johnny before moving to CBS when Leno got the Tonight Show. I never much liked Leno.

I've watched Jimmy Fallon on Late Night several times. At first he was unwatchable. While he has gotten better, he is certainly no Carson and probably no Leno.

If you want some real late night entertainment, watch the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, my favorite. The other night when my son was visiting, he and I were laughing out loud at Craig. It reminded me of the times my dad and I would laugh at Johnny. He told me Ferguson is his favorite late night show. My youngest son is a night owl just like his dad and apparently enjoys the same humor. Sometimes the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Besides the change in hosts at The Tonight Show, the move from LA to NYC may be significant. The current pecking order for guests is if in New York you go on Letterman first then on Fallon the next night. If the celebrity is in LA they usually go on Leno first then maybe on Jimmy Kimmel's show. Craig Ferguson doesn't normally participate in the movie du jour promotional hype.

So now that The Tonight Show and Late Show are both in New York who gets first crack at the biggest stars and best guests? I suspect there will be fierce competition. NBC will be trying to get Jimmy Fallon off to a big start. CBS will see an opportunity to take over the ratings lead now that Leno is gone. Then there is Jimmy Kimmel mostly by himself on the west coast. One other unknown is what will Jay do? He didn't retire on his own terms, he was fired by NBC for the second time. Will he show up again somewhere in a few months? Seth Meyers is taking over the spot Fallon now holds down at Late Night. He will also be based in New York. Seth is another Saturday Night Live alum as are Jimmy Fallon and Conan O'Brian. I'm not sure this lineup will work. I see Jimmy and Seth as kind of the same guy with the same background. On CBS you get Letterman and then Ferguson. Totally different shows and approaches to humor. Do you want two hours of SNL humor or a little variety with Dave and Craig? There is always the Jimmy Kimmel choice too.

It will take a few months for the new late night landscape to shake out. I'll watch Jimmy F. and Seth and give them a chance. I suspect that I'll continue to watch Dave and Craig most nights. I also realize that I'm not anywhere close to the demographic the TV networks are trying to draw. They really don't care what I watch.

There are two things I do know. There will never be a better late night TV host than Johnny Carson. No one will ever hold down the number one rating spot for 30 years against all comers. Some of Johnny's competitors were Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Joan Rivers, Jerry Lewis and a few others. They all faded away as Johnny remained the ratings king.

Now that we have 300 cable channels, the network late night shows are not as important as they used to be. Carson's monologue was once the subject of almost all the water cooler discussions the next morning.

I don't know how many more years I'll be able to stay awake past 9:00 but hopefully I'll be able to watch late night TV for a few more years. If I can't stay up, maybe I'll record the shows and watch during the day. Of course I'll have to remember to set the DVR and then remember to watch what I recorded.

I'm pretty sure there will be more posts by me on this subject after the changes. Stay tuned.

Let the late night battles begin.


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