12/30/2004 Entry: "What Ever Happened to Late Night TV?"
When I was a kid, and got my first black and white TV, I started watching late night television. Channel 20 had Benny Hill at 11, and then usually I'd watch Carson if I couldn't sleep. When I got married, I started watching the Channel 4 news at 11, and then we'd fall asleep to Carson. That was until 1992, when ol' Johnny retired. Then late night TV slid into mediocrity.
What happened to the news? God, it's turned into junior-high level tabloids. Channel 4 is the lesser evil, but now I watch the Daily Show with John Stewart. We started watching that show when Craig Kilborn was hosting it, and we didn't think he could be topped, but Stewart did a smart thing: he didn't try and imitate Craig, he came up with his own stuff, and made the show his own.
I rarely watch Leno or Letterman. I used to LOVE Letterman if I could stay up late enough back in the 1980s, but his show has been coasting on inertia for a long time now since the change in TV companies. When Dave first started, he was nuts. He was tossing stuff from buildings, had crazy guests, edgy comedy, and I still say some of his old, old catch phrases in my head, like "Them bats is smart, they use radar!" But now it's just the same crap over and over. Leno never quite made the Tonight Show his own, and what's left is a flabby, cheap sex joke factory with media guests that are made uninteresting by the maudlin environment. Conan O'Brien always seems a bit scared to really take his comedy over the edge, so he gets 80% there before most of his schtick falls short of the finish line. But he's the best NBC has right now.
I miss a lot of the older zaniness. Not the planned kind, but the half-planned kind,where anything could go wrong and often did. I miss people trying new stuff. I miss guests who came on half drunk or stoned, or interacting with other guests like it was their own living room. I miss running gags that were subtle, which made them funny, and then they stopped before they became overplayed and unfunny.
I also don't like the newer trend shows have that send some guy on the street to act like a jerk or make common people look stupid with rolled eyes and straight lines. It makes those with odd talents seem less like individuals, and more like losers who had nothing else going for them. That guy may look funny because he can imitate owl calls or play flamenco guitar with a hand mixer, but he's got people who love him, good friends who know his secrets, and fond memories of his childhood. Give him some respect.
If I had a late night talk show, I'd have guests pile up on the couch. I wouldn't introduce them one at a time, I'd have all three of them come on in the beginning and then take turns speaking to them for an hour. I'd let other guests ask questions. I'd take one or two from the audience. I wouldn't have skits, I'd have running gags that framed the show, but I wouldn't play them into the ground. I'd have fake commercials like SNL, but only once a week, and keep people guessing. I'd have bits where things blew up or got destroyed in a violent manner. I'd take suggestions by e-mail. I'd never make fun of guests, audience members, or people on the street. My opening monologue would be short, and in front of a curtain, kicking it old school. I would never make fun of people's physical features, love life, or something that could easily be construed as a personal attack. My monologue would introduce a theme from some recent news story, and carry the theme throughout the show. I'd have a sidekick, maybe a small band, but no big number.
It would flop in the ratings, but hey, I'd have a good time.