As regularly as David Walton is signed to do another sitcom, the talk-show genre emits a burp of rumor, some spittle of spite, an expectoration of change. Recent fur balls coughed up from the crevices of Couch Land include Jimmy Fallon taking over The Tonight Show as early as February 2014 and Jay Leno calling NBC a pit of "snakes" on the air shortly after it was reported that NBC Entertainment president Robert Greenblatt complained about the Tonight Show host joking about the network's loser ratings. There's Jon Stewart's recent announcement that he's taking summer leave of The Daily Show to direct a movie (why does this make me think of an idea Garry Shandling would have rejected for The Larry Sanders Show?). And don't forget the rumors that Howard Stern or Seth Meyers might replace Fallon. Wait around another week and we'll probably hear that David Letterman, forsaking a prolonged Johnny Carson–style on-camera farewell tour, has resigned by burning his double-breasted suits in his Westchester backyard so that Jimmy Kimmel will finally achieve his life's dream of following in his idol's shoes for a future of endless editions of "This Week in Unnecessary Censorship."
The late-night genre is the only one whose legacy means more to the on-camera talents than it does to the audience, at least on a conscious level. Where the actors in sitcoms, dramas, and daytime talk shows are forever trying to justify, alter, or subvert the old forms, only talk-show hosts take upon themselves the burden of history, vowing to carry on the tradition of Carson (who is most frequently cited), even as the demo they seek to reach says, baffled, "Carson? Carson Daly?" Those who successfully break with the tradition do so by taking on another genre guise; currently, that would be the news format and thus The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
As late-night television now exists, there is no center, no one show around which pop culture gathers and accumulates. For more than half a century, viewers have decided whom they preferred and stuck with that man (sorry, Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes, Chelsea Handler, Nikki & Sara). You chose teams, were a Letterman or Leno fan. Before that, you were a Johnny Carson or Dick Cavett person. Before that, a Jack Paar or black-and-white-movie insomniac. Now, each of us essentially builds his/her own talk show on any given night (or following day), assembling via DVR and network websites the best bits from Stewart's and Colbert's opening segments, Fallon's post-monologue taped bits, Letterman's and/or Kimmel's interviews, and Craig Ferguson's most adroit bit of horsing-around whimsy. Late night is as blasted a landscape as anything dreamed up by J.G. Ballard, or Timothy Olyphant after a Justified moonshine-hill shoot-out.
Letterman's retirement feels increasingly imminent; his contract is up in two years, he'll be 67, he likes to play at home with his son (one imagines Dave-as-Godfather–Marlon Brando stuffing orange rinds into his gap-toothed mouth to amuse the lad in their backyard), and his decision will doubtless be a combo of personal choice and Les Moonves strong-arming. When Letterman does retire, the entire history and mythology of the nighttime talk show will finally come to an end. No one other than Dave does it with the same combination of intent to further precedent, awareness of lineage, and motivation to unite a mass audience that began with Steve Allen's Tonight. (Carson changed the name of the company store to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.)
Letterman is the last man in front of the camera who carries the whole history of the genre in his head; he both honors and fucks with the tradition on a nightly basis. Conversely, his CBS nightly following act, Craig Ferguson, is the odd man out in any speculation about talk-show succession because the Scottish anarchist is least connected to the tradition, and as a novelist/actor/screenwriter, he's the lesser of the neurotics in his trade and the only host assured of a viable post-talk career. Thus, even though his contract reportedly stipulates he gets right of first refusal should Letterman exit, Ferguson's eccentric, devil-may-care attitude probably inclines him to take a well-compensated pass.
Which makes Jimmy Kimmel the smarter, more logical choice to jump networks and replace Letterman, and perhaps even hasten the latter's departure. Given Kimmel's extravagant, sincere appreciation of Letterman, it is ironic, even poignant, that his recent move to 11:35 on ABC1 may end up hurting his hero if Jimmy Kimmel Live! continues to attract a younger audience than Dave does. (I'm not going to cede any part of this piece to a ratings analysis — that's a mug's game. Better reporters than me get bollixed up daily parsing the rises and falls in demos, shares, reruns vs. originals, and year-to-year comparisons of all the late-night shows. Even more than in prime time, it's gut and heart, on the part of hosts, executives, and audiences, that end up determining these men's fates.)
The flaw in Kimmel's trick bag as a longtime host is his blind spot for a crucial aspect of Letterman's enduring allure as a great TV personality. Since he was a kid, Kimmel "got" Letterman's irony, the early edge Dave applied to the talk-show format. Kimmel has emulated Letterman's deconstructive approach to the job. (This is in contrast to Jimmy Fallon, who — shrewdly, it is now clear — has taken the opposite approach, opting for an unironic enthusiasm that continues to distinguish the atmosphere of his show from all the others, just as Craig Ferguson's outsider-art, Scottish-import absurdism places him in a context uniquely his own.)
Kimmel has proven to have a talent for Letterman-esque sarcasm, impish impudence, and an insistence upon calling attention to the tropes of talk-show structure. (His amazingly sustained kidnapped-by–Matt Damon show in January was especially impressive.) Yet he's never picked up on the other side of Dave, which is a core of seriousness that has enabled Letterman to surge ahead of his genre colleagues in moments of national drama, whether it's presidential politics or the entertainment industry's vexed reassertion into post-9/11 American culture. Bill Carter quoted an anonymous executive in Monday's New York Times as saying, "I always wonder how the younger hosts will handle being in the heat of a presidential election where they have to be accountable and ask tough questions." Well, we've just gone through a rather warm presidential election and we already have our answer: Neither Kimmel nor Fallon showed much stomach for entering this arena. Fallon has slow-jammed the news with President Obama, but his interview with Obama didn't press him on issues dividing the country.
Kimmel, to compete in the cultural conversation at 11:35, would do well to try his hand at broadening his context — why not book the occasional politician, or a controversial public figure such as NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre? Kimmel's reluctance to publically display interest in anything beyond show business is a trait he shares with Leno. (Well, to be fair, Jimmy also likes to talk about good food, and Jay extols vintage cars.) This is ironic indeed, given that the one thing Kimmel has been seriously vehement about in his professional life is his contempt for Leno, whom he sees as having inflicted unnecessary pain upon both Letterman and Conan O'Brien.
With reports that Fallon is reaching out to Leno to talk succession, this could be one of the rare smooth transitions NBC will experience, presuming the network doesn't find some way to botch it — always a possibility. Fallon is like Leno in these respects: He is an anodyne jokester, one whose most ardent desire is to avoid alienating anyone who's watching or sitting across from him. He's also, like Leno, a gleefully dreadful interviewer. Not only has Fallon never shed the habit of laughing at a guest's mildest sally with a lurching, hold-my-stomach hysteria — he's turned it into a trademark, guffawing at everyone from Nicolas Cage to Selena Gomez as though he were a constant, grateful witness to the resurrection of Richard Pryor circa 1982. And his proud anti-intellectualism as a bonding agent with his audience is dismaying: "I love it! I love 'stupid'!" Fallon crowed to Steve Carell after a clip from the stupid-humored Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Both Fallon and Leno josh and converse as though their role in this enterprise is to set up the guest to deliver the two amusing anecdotes agreed upon during a staffer's pre-show interview, along with the unswerving motivation to make the interview arrive seamlessly at the introduction of a clip from the star's latest movie or TV show.
But Fallon's differences from Leno are what make him seem, superficially, like a fresh, logical, next-gen version of the Tonight Show host: If you like smiley before bed, Fallon is the smiliest, most cheerful man in late night. His SNL sketch-comedy background makes it logical for him to speed up the trend for shorter monologues (partly from joke exhaustion and partly from unacknowledged shame that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have made others' "timely" monologues irrelevant), as both Leno and Letterman have truncated theirs in recent years. The way Fallon has built in more sketch, audience visits, and taped shtick is by far the best stuff he has contributed to the format. Whether spoofing Downton Abbey or Neil Young, Fallon and his writers exhibit an assiduousness lacking in other aspects of his show. Then, too, his ease with technology (his comic tweets; his Mac laptop always open on his desk) makes him seem hip compared to his elders. The closest Leno gets to technology is when he upgrades some doohickey in one of his classic cars, and Letterman plays up his technophobia in his fallback persona as an old coot.
Howard Stern in the 12:35 slot is, if we can indulge a wild rumor for a moment, a good idea if a dicey risk. My next-door neighbor, a serious satellite-radio Stern fan, insists that taking anything other than 11:35 is an insult to and diminishment of Stern's popularity and skill, but I disagree. Like everything Stern does, should he choose to enter a late-night network format, the result will either be brilliant or an easily explicable disappointment. No one has ever done more celebrity-demystifying, forensic show-biz interviews than Stern. The problems with Stern and television are, first, his self-consciousness about his appearance on camera (even after all these years, he's still distracted by his own aging heavy-metal stork visage) and, second, the exigencies of time in a commercial hour disrupt the flow Stern needs to seduce and pry open a guest. If Stern would approach a 12:35 time slot the way Tom Snyder did in the 1970s Tomorrow Show — keep the set dark; don't allow a studio audience; engage with one guest at extended length — he might well find himself with a great talk show that, in the history-free minds of many viewers, would seem revolutionary.
Stern has done his best to shoot down this rumor, and Seth Meyers has the inside track as a Lorne Michaels employee. Maybe Meyers would show a more intriguingly nettlesome side to himself than "Weekend Update" permits, and he was charming as a Regis replacement on Live!, but right now, he's a rather unexciting prospect. Other alternatives: I like Andy Greenwald's notion of letting a cadre of the madmen and madwomen from Upright Citizens Brigade and Adult Swim take over, even if that way lies The Wilton North Report. And may I really spit in the wind and suggest that maybe, finally, for the love of God and Totie Fields, maybe it's time (once again) to give a woman a chance behind the desk? My suggestions would not be from the ranks of female comedians necessarily, but rather performers who've evinced brainy quickness: Paget Brewster, for example, who's proven a terrific guest who can turn the tables by questioning the host, with her background in improv before, during, and after she had to pay the mortgage by circling serial killers on Criminal Minds. Or how about Julie Klausner, podcaster and Twitterist extraordinaire, star of finely funny interviews on Vulture? And even if Parks and Recreation were canceled, God forbid, I suppose there's no chance Amy Poehler would submit herself to the grind of talk-show hosting, but a guy can dream, can't he?
The Tonight Show format was conceived by Steve Allen — not, as legend has it, NBC president Pat Weaver, a gifted producer who did create The Today Show DNA; Weaver was smart enough to let Allen transpose the trappings of Today's then-local New York City show to a national stage. It was Allen who bequeathed us the desk, the big microphone, the outside-the-studio stunts, the zany recurring characters (portrayed by himself or a changing team of comic regulars), the celebrity interview as either hushed entreatment or playful badinage, the showcasing of new talent in the final segment. Allen always maintained that what he'd created required further experimentation. In a now-poignant interview for the Archive for American Television in 1997, he said of his Tonight, "It was a talk show, but not every night, nor should it be. Even now, wouldn't you like to see Jay Leno introduce a symphony orchestra next Thursday just for a switch? Doesn't mean his show is bad, but he could give you a little more variety … " Although we've reached the point when the introduction of a symphony orchestra on a late-night show is less likely than Kim Kardashian giving birth in the middle of one, Allen's point remains well-taken and ill-heeded. (Again, the exception is Ferguson: Who else now would give over an hour to chat up Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as Craig did in 2009?)
After the neurotic hiccup that was Jack Paar (1957-62), Allen's bits and innovations on Tonight were adapted and outright stolen by Johnny Carson (Allen's Answer Man became Carson's Carnac, for example). Allen's legacy, his record of innovation, was permanently obscured when some sad sack with no eye for immortality "started burning," as the late Allen said, kinescopes of his show in an economy move in the late 1950s; for the most complete summary to date of Allen's achievement, you have to go to Ben Alba's 2005 book Inventing Late Night: Steve Allen and the Original Tonight Show.
Allen never went as far as you or I might in accusing Carson of theft, but he did remark upon the stylistic differences between Paar and Carson, noting that Paar was "a much more interesting fellow than Johnny because he let all of his emotions out." Steverino allowed himself to be full-on wacky, and to collapse into spontaneous giggle fits when someone else amused him. Johnny was Johnny even when he was feigning the fool as huckster Art Fern — Carson never let you forget he was only allowing you to laugh at him for the duration of this or that sketch; otherwise, obeisance was to be paid, or (if you were a guest) you'd never get booked again.
Letterman appreciated the nuttiness of Allen as filtered through Carson, but in his soul, he really identified with Carson's control and, above all else, power, which at its most interesting and least harmful level meant the creation of a mystique of aloofness. Fundamentally insecure, shy, and guilty about his success (all traits of Carson as well), Letterman used his initial NBC late-night success as a way of accumulating a power that would occasionally lead him astray (one word: interns) and more often manifest itself as simply a hearty enjoyment in seeing others squirm. (I witnessed this firsthand when interviewing Letterman in 1995, when, mid-interview, he ushered in his then agent, the notoriously fearsome Mike Ovitz, and invited him to "come on in and scare the hell out of someone." I seemed to be the only person in the room to think this was a bit creepy, which only serves to explain why I'm not a multimillionaire showbiz figure.)
Jon Stewart's top-of-the-show "fake news" segment — a nightly "Weekend Update" with research — regularly makes Leno and Letterman seem like the toothless old men Stewart's core audience thinks they are anyway. Less successful are Stewart's interviews, which tend to be just as fawning as anyone's when he's got a big star, and that trait is, if anything, even more pronounced on The Daily Show because it is returned so heartily by so many guests: Never underestimate the way stars, especially younger ones, love basking in the presence of someone whose work they respect and believe to be cool. With politicians and nonfiction authors of books-of-the-moment, Stewart overthinks his questions into circular logic: He tries so hard to be the anti-anchorman that he ends up being a disdainfully mediocre one whose overtime spillage is frequently posted online for either a tad more edification or more tedium. For a time after his 2004 takedown of Crossfire while a guest on the CNN show, Stewart seemed rattled by his new power, but these days, he's all too comfortable with it. And perhaps tired of it; certainly taking time off to direct a movie may prove a more creative use of Stewart's noblesse oblige than the 15-weeks-per-year vacays Johnny Carson used to take to sail and race cars.
Stephen Colbert is, for me, working on a whole different level from anyone else, and is currently the most consistent, deeply satisfying late-night host. Colbert's ability to joke and conduct interviews on The Colbert Report while inhabiting a persona antithetical to what is probably a profoundly decent person beneath that smirk 'n' makeup is the most sustained piece of performance art ever. I'm not saying he's greater than Letterman was (and still can be) at his best, but that they both inhabit roles (for Dave, the ironic rube; for Stephen, the cheerfully evil asshole) as utterly as Daniel Day-Lewis.
Intriguingly, it's been a long time since anyone has tried the format of Carson's only true contemporary competitor — if not in ratings, at least, fleetingly, in influence: Dick Cavett, still another Midwesterner with a reserved manner and a silly side. The Dick Cavett Show (1968-75) had legendary moments that were done without a desk, and brought together sometimes disputatious guests during a time when people would spend an hour watching famous authors go at each other's throats. The 1971 Mailer-Vidal verbal brawl, into which Cavett inserted himself by siding with Vidal against Mailer, who admitted he'd been drinking quite a bit before coming onstage; the 1979 Lillian Hellman–Mary McCarthy rancor, in which the latter later said of the former, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'" — oh, for such days of TV brawling, so dissimilar to contemporary non-moments such as the mere snobbish petulance of Jonathan Franzen badmouthing Oprah. We always think of our own time as more vulgar and degraded than the pop culture that preceded it, but there was a period in talk-show land when talking meant something other than selling one's latest movie/TV show/book.
Let's see, let's see … who am I leaving out here? Oh, yes: Conan O'Brien. Remember him? Carrot-topped fellow with a persecution complex? Since his crucifixion by Judas Leno and NBC, his self-assisted martyrdom, and his resurrection performed by TBS, the decline in O'Brien's quality has been quietly shocking. For all the anger and energy and fan fervor on display in the 2011 concert documentary Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, the O'Brien brand no longer has much fizz, and certainly no buzz. You won't hear his name on any list to replace Leno or Letterman now. Somewhat overrated in his heyday and yet underrated now (O'Brien and his truly invaluable sidekick, Andy Richter, continue to engage in exquisitely silly dialogue nightly), O'Brien simply hasn't aged well. Conan is actually more like Cavett than any other earlier host model: sidelined, marginalized Ivy League boys (Cavett, Yale; Conan, Harvard) bitter around the edges, too clever for their own good (ratings- and humorwise) yet not as clever as they think everyone thinks they are. Also, they've aged in a similar manner, which is to say that rather than put on mastodon weight (Leno) or go silver skeletal (Letterman), their faces seem to have shriveled and shrunken, as though impaled by a voodoo god of talk shows.
Let's face it: It's a tough gig, but one that continues to intrigue. Even Leno becomes a more interesting presence the longer he's around, huffy and defensive and beetle-browed and self-pitying. ("The guy had a knife in his back for three years," Leno said last week during a monologue. "He must have worked at NBC, too.") Jay is now something more than merely the paranoid toady to which his haters reduce him. As Jerry Seinfeld said to the studio audience on The Tonight Show recently, "It's amazing that this person has been accepted by America." The longer we know them, it's amazing we've accepted any of them, at least as far back as Paar.
Now let's move them all around, and also find someone new to overanalyze.
Ken Tucker is a critic for National Public Radio. He has written about TV for, like, years.