All this week, Uproxx’s Late Night Week will take a look at late-night past, present, and future, from talk shows to late-night comedy, and beyond. Here’s our long chat with comedian and actor Allan Havey who, prior to his eye-catching roles in Mad Men and Hail, Caesar!, hosted a late night talk show on Comedy Central’s predecessor unlike anything before, during, or after its time.
Before its rebranding as Comedy Central in 1991, HBO’s Comedy Channel offered American television viewers an array of funny programming. Films, stand-up specials and segment shows like Short Attention Span Theater — which was hosted by Jon Stewart and Marc Maron on separate occasions — dominated most of the new channel’s daily block of airtime. However, instead of shutting things down completely after hours like most other cable channels, this particular network decided to offer its viewers a totally new take on the late night talk show.
As former host Allan Havey tells us, the New York-based cult hit Night After Night “wasn’t even on in New York” during its first year. The 62-year-old stand-up from St. Louis isn’t entirely sure why his program wasn’t pushed on its own locale at the time, but considering the loyal fanbase it quickly developed during the late ’80s and early ’90s, he doesn’t really care. Nor does he care that his program was largely forgotten by mainstream audiences who praise Late Night‘s Seth Meyers for performing his monologue from behind his desk, or The Late Late Show‘s James Corden for doing away with the desk altogether.
How did you land the Night After Night hosting gig?
I think they auditioned every comedian in New York and Los Angeles for hosts. They had about five or six slots. I think they originally thought of it has “comedy MTV” — showing clips of movies and comedians. That wasn’t really going anywhere, because once you’ve seen a movie clip for the 15th time, or the same comedian… Comedy’s not like music. You’ll hear a bit a few times if it’s great, but you want to hear fresh stuff.
So I auditioned. It was an open audition. I went in and it wasn’t really something wanted. I didn’t want to host a talk show, since at the time my stand-up was going well and I’d done a few movies. I was more into acting. So when I went in, I’d prepared some stuff but was mostly apathetic and didn’t give a crap. Michael Fuchs, who was head of HBO then, said “There’s our late night guy right there.” I was hesitant, but figured I could do this for the next three months and make a little money. No big deal. It went on for just over three years. We made somewhere around 480 episodes. Now it’s buried on VHS tapes in a nuclear dump.
Sure, but at least it’s a New York City dump.
It wasn’t even on in New York the first year. I had to fly out and do junkets at pie-eating contests and golf matches. Anything to get the word out there about this new comedy channel. They had me working hard, but looking back, the only regret I have is that it was canceled due to politics. If the ratings had been bad, we’d burned out, or I just hadn’t done a good job and it wasn’t being received well, I could’ve accepted that. That’s part of the business. We went out at the top of our game and I think that says a lot.
Losing the show probably didn’t feel so great.
It was tough the lose the show. Once I got into it, it was nice, but I knew then as I know now that it was the best time for it. I even told some of the younger people — because I’d been in the business maybe eight or nine years then — that this was very rare. Just about everybody looks back on those days fondly. We were having a good time, for the most part, and it was fun because we got to do anything we wanted. HBO gave us complete, total creative control. I think once in three years they asked me not to say just one little thing.
I hired Scott Carter, who was a friend of mine at the time, and he was my producer. Then Sue Fellows came on. As our budget and popularity grew, we hired about five writers. Of course Nick Bakay was just a golden hire, because he was a great sidekick. He was a great writer. He played characters. That was a huge get for us. The dynamic between Nick and myself, as well as Dave the Weather Man and the Audience of One, really made it a unique experience.
When did you know Night After Night was really striking a chord with its audience?
Warren Zevon was supposed to be on the show, but he canceled the night before and did David Letterman instead. According to what I heard later, Letterman went up to him after the show and said, “I’m glad you only do our show.” When I asked, Zevon’s publicist said he had a cold. Everybody was bummed out but I said no, this show is real because Letterman didn’t want Warren Zevon to do it. That puts us in the big leagues. That makes us a legitimate threat, and I was really happy about that.
Night After Night sticks out, more than anything, because of how random it seems. Was that part of the plan, or did the format just sort of happen?
Arsenio Hall was on at the time, not to mention Carson and Letterman, and everybody was sitting behind a desk. I decided to do the opposite. I got out in front of my desk. Plus they all had these big studio audiences, whereas I just had the crew in the studio with me. Everybody came in to watch the show. If anybody wanted to wander in from the bullpen, where people worked at their cubicles, they could hang out and watch the show. If somebody did something funny — an intern or someone like that — we’d have them on the show. We were pretty wide open. Sometimes we had four minutes to kill, so we’d think of something random and goofy to do.
Ultimately it was just doing the opposite of what everybody else was. That, and I think the attitude I had going into the audition was the right attitude to have. Don’t feel under pressure, just do your thing, and let it work itself out. Slowly over the years, the director became a character, some of the writers got involved as characters. Especially Nick who, before he left for Dennis Miller’s show, was a huge part of it all. We had a lot of fun.
But it wasn’t completely random. There must have been just as much, if not more, preparation for the show as for your stand-up.
The thing with stand-up is, you have a job to do. You’ve got to make the audience laugh. You want to do a good job. That’s a totally different animal than a talk show. We did prepare. I prepared more than it probably looked like because I had to do a daily show. The writers wrote bits. Dave the Weather Man wrote his bits and Nick wrote his own stuff. The writers wrote the news segment, and they also had other pieces to do. The monologue I did while sitting down and facing the camera, however, was stuff I came up with the night before and that morning. You can’t sweat over that. I wanted it to be more conversational, and it morphed into something that was really relaxed.
Did you model that preparation on any of your fellow talk show hosts?
If you watch my stand-up, especially the early stuff in the ’90s, you’ll see a lot of Carson in me. But the monologue I kind of modeled on the old Tom Snyder show [The Tomorrow Show], which he would open by talking to the camera without an audience. He’d talk about what he did that day, like picking up a pretzel on the street or getting his teeth cleaned. He talked about whatever was going on in his life. I didn’t get it directly from that, but that’s the kind of feel I wanted for Night After Night.
I wanted it to be relaxed. Besides, no one wants to just sit at home. Maybe there was one person at home that time of night, maybe two, and I wanted it to feel I was talking to that particular person. That’s why I’d always do that PSA at the end, the “Hey You!” That’s where my focus was. When I do stand-up there’s an audience — they’re right there and they’ll let me know how I’m doing. It’s a totally different animal. I’d do stand-up every weekend during Night After Night because it helped me get control, and get an actual response.
The typical talk show format remains, desk and all, though younger hosts like Late Night‘s Seth Meyers and The Late Late Show‘s James Corden have implemented small changes. Meyers delivers his monologues from his desk, whereas Corden has no desk and interviews all of his guests at once. Do you think they’re giving Night After Night its due? Or ripping it off?
We were ripped off directly early by certain people, but not by Seth Meyers or James Corden today. They’re too young to have ripped me off. I think the changes they made are just natural progressions with the format. You know, the things a talk show producer will reference when asking, “What else can we do?” Maybe I had a little influence at the beginning, or maybe there are producers still out there who remember the show. Early on we were kind of ripped off a little bit, but I look at that as a compliment. There are so many talk shows now that follow Johnny Carson’s format, and that’s because it still works. It’s a great format. Meyers, Corden and people doing other things — I’m sure they just want to do something different. I don’t feel that we were the big bang of comedy talk shows, but I do think Night After Night had some kind of influence on comedians. I hear from comics and actors all the time who say they really loved watching the show.
Night After Night isn’t remembered as much these days, especially with there being so many late night shows. That said, your fans are some of the most dedicated people on the planet.
We had great fans, especially the “Audiences of One.” We had a reunion where we couldn’t fly them in or put them up, but 160 people came back anyway. That’s the one show that was kind of like a typical talk show. It’s certainly a better show in hindsight. I’m glad people have good memories of it, and I’m glad there aren’t complete shows left, because I never watch old clips of myself. Sometimes I watch an old stand-up special whenever HBO runs it, and I’ll watch Mad Men and Hail, Caesar!
It’s kind of fun now to think about it. When I first got to New York, I wanted to get on Broadway. That was my goal. Instead I got into stand-up, did the talk show and started doing more acting. So my life’s almost this perfect balance between stand-up and acting. I still haven’t made it on Broadway, but I’ve done just about everything else.
It’s still an impressive resume, though Night After Night wasn’t your first television gig. Weren’t you working with Lorne Michaels at one point?
When I was younger, in ’84, I was cast by Lorne Michaels in The New Show. Nobody remembers it. I worked with Steve Martin and John Candy and all these great people. It was a really big break. Not everybody, but I could sense from some of the older comedians — people who’d been in the business longer than me — that I’d gotten a break I didn’t deserve. I could feel their anger and bitterness, so I made myself a promise: “Listen, you’re going to be in this business a long time, so whatever happens just be grateful for it and move forward.” My father taught me when I was a young guy that, if another man has a job or a woman you want, they didn’t take that away from you, so be happy for anybody who has anything. You’ll get yours.” And it kind of stuck with me.
That’s a great attitude to have, especially since — and I’m sorry for bringing this up again — you and your Night After Night were so unceremoniously dropped in ’92. In a subsequent interview with the Chicago Tribune, you displayed as little bitterness as you’re displaying now.
Listen, I was very disappointed when the show was canceled because it was political. Our ratings were going up. There was no need to cancel the show. They brought some new nitwit in who got fired within a year. The show could’ve kept going. It was fun, but like I said when I first auditioned, “Maybe it’s just going to last three months.” It lasted three years. I got to interview a lot of my heroes, including Alan King. I met some great people. Everyone on the show was fantastic. I was the host, but I couldn’t have done it without the producers and writers I had, or the fans. There’s just no way.
There were many times I stepped back and said, “Wow. I’m really happy. Everybody’s working.” They offered me to leave three months early, and they still would’ve paid me, but not the crew and the writers. So I stayed an extra three months since I really — even though maybe I didn’t always show it — appreciated everyone on the show.
When you have something like that for three years, that’s a beautiful thing. Plus, I had other things I wanted to do. I was still a young man. I wanted to do more acting and stand-up, so that’s what I did. I look back on those days fondly. Maybe the first six months after, I’d get an idea and think, “I don’t have a show to get that on anymore.” But I always had stand-up. No matter what’s happening with your acting or writing careers, if you’re a stand-up, you’re employed. You have something. That’s always been my favorite thing to do.
Will you do stand-up forever?
Someday I’ll retire from stand-up, because I don’t want to be an old guy on a cruise ship.
Acting is actually my first love. Mad Men was my favorite show by far. I was watching it for five seasons and dying to get on, and I got on. That’s a dream come true. I’ve been wanting to work for the Coen brothers since Blood Simple. That came through. I’ve gotten to work with a lot of my heroes over the year, I’ve still got some dreams simmering that I want to accomplish. As I look back over my career, I’ve been incredibly fortunate, and I continue to get these wonderful breaks.
As I’ve come up in the business, I’ve watched guys over the years who’ll get a break and really go nuts. I mean, they’d really ego out. Watch how people handle fame, or a good break, or a good job. I have role models — I won’t mention them — but certain comedians and actors who I see handle good breaks and great news, and I always think that’s the way to do it. Plus, you have a job to do, so you focus on the job, do the best job you can and keep moving on. I had a comedian tell me once what a great comedian he was. He was talking about himself, saying “I’m a brilliant comedian.” And I looked at him and said, “That’s not your call. That’s other people’s call.”