Friday, November 13, 2015

Late Night TV Checkpoint

It has been a few months since the new late night TV hosts had an almost 100% turnover. As a long time connoisseur of the genre, I feel qualified to weigh in on how the new guys are doing. I also realize that I am nowhere near the target demographics for these shows. 

Jimmy Kimmel is now the dean of network late night TV. He has been doing his Jimmy Kimmel Live! show on ABC since 2003. He does a pretty good show but can not be considered one of the new guys at this point.

So let's begin with a recap of who took over which show in the last year or so. Jimmy Fallon took over from Jay Leno, Seth Meyers took over for Jimmy Fallon, James Corden replaced Craig Ferguson and Stephen Colbert took David Letterman's slot. I'll tackle these new hosts in chronological order. There was also a shakeup at Comedy Central late night which I'll also address.

For the second time, NBC pushed Jay Leno out of the chair at the Tonight Show. The first time was in 2009 when he was replaced by Conan O'Brien. That change failed and Jay got his gig back in 2010. Leno kept that job until Jimmy Fallon took over in 2014. That means Fallon is just into his second season as host. I watched the first few shows last season and couldn't stand it. The only bright spot was The Roots, the new house band. Fallon was absolutely terrible doing the opening monologue. He was uneasy doing interviews, overly fawning of the guests and the show was mostly a mess. After the first week of shows, I quite watching. I only tune in now if there is someone on that I am interested in or all the other late night shows are reruns. Fallon is still awkward doing the monologue and he still is overly enthusiastic with his guests. Everybody who comes on is his favorite, best in the business, most accomplished actor/singer/performer/author in the world and whatever project they are promoting is the best movie/play/musical/album/TV show ever. I will give Jimmy credit for coming up with some good skits. He has musical and impersonation talent, but he is not my cup of tea. 

Since Jimmy Fallon was hosting the Late Night show before moving to the Tonight Show,
NBC needed a new Late Night host. They picked another Saturday Night Live (SNL) Weekend Update anchor for the job. That would be Seth Meyers. Remember I mentioned that Fallon was awkward doing the opening? Well, Meyers was way worse. In his first few shows he was lucky to get a small chuckle from the studio audience. He was stiff, awkward, unfunny and it was uncomfortable to watch. The set for his show looked like they got the furniture at Goodwill and the band is very mediocre. Like the Tonight Show, I stopped watching after a couple of shows. Apparently I wasn't the only one who thought the set was ridiculous because they changed it after a few weeks. I recently saw an episode or two and Seth has abandoned the stand-up monologue, good move. He now opens at the desk with a fake newscast type bit. Seth comes up with some good jokes, but I don't find him very likable. He also is not a great interviewer. I would say he is the least talented of the new late night guys.

One other point about the NBC late night lineup, Lorne Michaels, the force behind SNL, is the executive producer of both shows which have SNL alums as hosts. Amazingly, the shows are full of current and former SNL cast members as guests. Seems a little like nepotism to me.

Over on CBS, Craig Ferguson cashed it in on the Late Late Show after 10 years. During the summer James Corden took over. He entered the job as a mostly unknown British actor. He also had a rough start sprinkled with some very good bits. James was weak on the opening monologue. He had a tough time with the cue cards or teleprompter. He was and is overly enthusiastic about his guests and their projects although not nearly as bad a Fallon. On the plus side, he has come up with some very good bits and obviously puts a lot of work into those. One difference of his show is that he has the two or three guests come out at the same time and sit on a couch for a group interview. This is a hit or miss tactic. The interviews are always disjointed as Corden jumps from guest to guest. Sometimes there is chemistry among the guests and the sum is better than the parts. Other nights it is just a disjointed interview or worse yet there is awkwardness among the guests. Overall the show is mostly watchable. I was a huge Craig Ferguson fan so anyone following him would have a tough time in my view. Given that Craig is not coming back, Corden is OK.

Finally this fall, Stephen Colbert took over the Late Show after over 20 years of David
Letterman. Those are big shoes to fill. Besides Letterman's run on Late Show, he also hosted Late Night on NBC for over a decade. Overall he hosted a late night network show for 33 years. Full disclosure, I probably watched most of those 33 years of programs by Letterman and was a fan. I watched Letterman and Ferguson most nights for the last decade. I also watched Stephen Colbert's Colbert Report on Comedy Central most nights, so I was very familiar with him when he took over the Late Show. I thought Colbert's first few shows were a little hyper and crowded. Probably understandable. He does a shorter monologue than Dave or Jay or Johnny did and not with the same skill but it is OK. Most nights he does a faux newscast in the mold of his Comedy Central show but without the fake idiot persona. He is mostly a better interviewer than his peers. Colbert also has more unusual guests. In addition to the usual celebrities, he has had politicians, authors, scientists, CEO's and other offbeat guests that match his interests. It is refreshing. You can tell that Stephen is whip smart, curious and informed. He has calmed down a little but I think he still tries to pack too many different segments into each show. Overall though, I think Stephen is a worthy successor to Letterman.

Over on cable, Comedy Central also had turnover to their late night lineup. First to go was Stephen Colbert, host of The Colbert Report. Larry Wilmore was chosen for that timeslot with the new Nightly Show. Larry is a longtime veteran of TV comedy as a writer, producer and performer. Prior to this new show, he was the "Senior Black Correspondent" on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His new show is somewhat similar to the Daily Show and the Colbert Report that proceeded it. The emphasis is satire on the news of the day with a liberal bias. Larry's show has a black/minority slant too. I think the show got off to a rocky start. Wilmore seemed uncomfortable and the format was less than ideal. There was a short commentary on the day's headlines and then a roundtable discussion with Larry and four guests. The roundtable was too long and the guests weren't always great. It seemed forced. Over time, the top of the show commentary has increased, there are more skits and the group discussion has decreased and is now usually limited to three guests. Another change is that at least one and sometimes two of the roundtable panel are Nightly Show staff members. They also now do some one-on-one interviews. The show is better now than the first few weeks. I mostly like it although it has not risen to the level of the show it replaced, The Colbert Report

The other Comedy Central change was at The Daily Show. After around 15 years as host, Jon Stewart stepped down. He has been replaced by Trevor Noah, a South African comedian. The show's format has remained the same. It is based on a fake newscast with Trevor as the anchor and pieces by field correspondents. There is usually a guest interviewed by Trevor. It is almost impossible to replace Jon Stewart. He built the Daily Show brand. I somewhat question the choice of Noah as the replacement. This is a mostly political satire show dealing with the often ridiculousness of US politics and its players. Noah is a rather recent immigrant to our country and can not possibly know the history as well as someone like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. A foreign perspective is valuable, but maybe more suited to one of the field correspondents than the anchor/host. I still enjoy the show but I am having a hard time warming up to Trevor and his style.

It has been a tumultuous year or so in late night TV, almost 100% turnover. The jury is still out. Is it better, the same or worse? Time will tell. For the most part, I think it is mostly worse. Some of that may just be getting familiar with the new guys. Letterman was around for 33 years, Leno for over 20, Stewart for over 15 and Ferguson and Colbert, in his old gig, for ten years. They were all comfortable old shoes. The new shoes are taking some time to be broken in. Check back with me in a couple of years.


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