A New Day in Late Night

Jay Leno is out after 22 years as the host of The Tonight Show. Jimmy Fallon is in, and The Tonight Show is moving back to New York to accommodate him. Seth Meyers is leaving Saturday Night Live to take over Fallon’s old Late Night show, and leaving Cecily Strong all by herself at the Weekend Update desk. Last month, John Oliver left The Daily Show to host a show of his own on HBO. The landscape of late night television is changing quickly after remaining stagnant for years. It’s the biggest shakeup since David Letterman left NBC for CBS. While there was some shakeup right around this time four years ago, with Conan O’Brien leaving NBC for TBS, this time there are new personalities in the equation.

Jay Leno always got pretty good ratings as host of The Tonight Show. Unfortunately for him, the business of television changed during his 22 years on the air, and ratings became less important for late night talk show hosts. Watching TV live on television isn’t what’s important anymore. Leno is the vanilla ice cream of talk show hosts, he’s popular because of his broad appeal, but his style of comedy does not lend itself to going viral the way the others do. David Letterman, who is three years older than Leno, has made a career of pushing the boundaries and challenging the norm. They were both on TV during the formative years of the other hosts, but Letterman, along with Saturday Night Live, were the inspirations for Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Seth Meyers, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. Cable shows need to be taken seriously now, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report have been leading the charge for a decade on that front. Letterman is the godfather of modern late night television, and the true heir to Johnny Carson’s prestige, even though NBC chose Leno over him to take over The Tonight Show. This is why CBS will let Letterman go out on his own terms, and not get forced out in favor of younger talent like NBC has done with Leno, and like NBC tried to do four years ago, before deciding to keep Leno on the network.

The way NBC handled the late night situation on 2009 and 2010 was a complete disaster no matter how you look at it. They gave Conan The Tonight Show, but wanted to keep it in Los Angeles. O’Brien had been doing Late Night with Conan O’Brien in New York for 17 years and had to move across the country to entertain the 11:30 audience, while his producer Lorne Michaels (who was also producing SNL30 Rock, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon at the time) stayed behind in New York. NBC also decided to put The Jay Leno Show in the 10 PM slot and only go with two hours of scripted programming in prime time on week nights. The thing about Leno’s shows is that the best part is his opening monologue. He’s a very talented stand-up comedian, but his other bits and interviews are less interesting. The Jay Leno Show ended up being a really bad lead-in for local news programs that air at 11, and there was no appetite for more late night talk shows afterward, which hurt the ratings for The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. Ultimately, NBC decided to put Leno back in his old time slot, and Conan got bought out. O’Brien had his last show right before the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, and got his new show, Conan (which he named so it would be harder for the network to replace him), on TBS later that year.

The botched late night lineup was the breaking point for NBC, and it ultimately cost network president and CEO (and former Harvard classmate of Conan’s) Jeff Zucker his job. Four years later, Leno is moving on, O’Brien is on cable, and Zucker is the president of CNN. Late night wasn’t the only area where NBC has struggled, either. The only scripted shows that were in NBC’s lineup heading into the 2010 Winter Olympics that are still on the air are CommunityParks and Recreation, and Law and Order: SVU, the first two of which seem to be in constant danger of cancellation despite critical acclaim and intense Internet followings. Jimmy Fallon has been the one silver lining from this whole mess.

Fallon is a better talk show host than he was a Saturday Night Live cast member. I mentioned before how viral videos and Youtube highlights are the future of the genre, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon has been the leader in that department for the last four years. From “Balls in Your Mouth” to rapping with Justin Timberlake to dancing with Michelle Obama to singing about Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” with Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Fallon’s brand of humor and showmanship was made for the Internet Age. True to form, Fallon spent his final minutes as host of Late Night jamming with The Muppets. Fallon should be the breath of fresh air that The Tonight Show has needed for years.

I’m curious to see what Late Night with Seth Meyers will be like. Meyers has been a writer and cast member for Saturday Night Live for over a decade, and is best known for being a Weekend Update anchor since 2006. Last weekend was Meyers’ last episode on SNL, and former cast members Fred Armisen (in character as former New York governor David Paterson), Bill Hader (in character as Stefon), Andy Samberg, and his former co-anchor Amy Poehler all came back to send him off. It has also been announced that Poehler will be Meyers’ first guest when his talk show debuts on February 24. Meyers is very good with political humor, and it might play to his strengths to make Late Night more like what Jon Stewart has been doing with The Daily Show, but I’m sure Meyers and Lorne Michaels will be able to make a show that is both unique and one where Seth can succeed. It will be an interesting year for late night television, for sure.

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