A late night TV host’s legacy isn’t only about crafting a skillful monologue, executing ingenious comedy bits, and possessing an easy manner with one’s guests and the audience: it’s about moving the fence posts back and creating more space for comedy to live. To some, the audience can seem expansive and almost limitless, but you can’t reach everyone and some people have ever-shifting rules about what they think is an acceptable topic or joke.
Johnny Carson conspired against those rules and those fences when he took over The Tonight Show, creating more space for his comedy and future late night hosts, while giving them more freedom to be funny in their own way.
People’s minds don’t get more open on their own, they have to be gently nudged and that’s what Carson did with his comedy. He moved the fence posts every time he got away with a bit, some innuendo, or a knowing look. Carson did this for a long time, but eventually, one retires from the subtle rebellion against society’s bland proclivities and they sit and they wait for the next person to take the baton…
Sometimes, one does more than merely sit and wait.
As the story goes, Carson’s hunger for leisure inadvertently led to the birth of Saturday Night Live, but he also helped establish David Letterman as the next great undercover troublemaker with the creation of Late Night. Carson’s production company co-produced the show and instituted guidelines that would ensure minimal tonal overlap.
Since Late Night followed The Tonight Show, Letterman couldn’t have a sidekick like Ed McMahon, and Paul Shaffer’s band couldn’t include a horn section like Doc Severinsen’s. What’s more, Letterman was told he couldn’t book any of the old-school showbiz guests – the Don Rickles and Bob Newharts of the world – who were fixtures on Johnny’s couch. To make sure the restrictions were obeyed, a Carson representative visited the set several times a week. “The Carson show also asked us very specifically not to replicate any of their signature pieces,” Markoe recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘So if we can’t do “Stump the Band” or the “Great Carsoni” – what, oh what, is left for us to do?'”
Though I can’t be sure, I think it’s safe to assume that these rules weren’t put into place solely because Carson sensed a kindred spirit who needed someone to set a pick for him with the network so that he could carry the baton and do his weird little show and push back his share of fence posts. It was simply in the best interests of Carson’s show to not have a similar program with a cheaper and younger host on NBC.
If anything, Carson probably never imagined how far outside of the box Letterman would go to entertain his audience (and himself) and he probably underestimated the public’s appetite for an alternative and less predictable late night show. In doing that, and in blessing NBC’s decision to go with Letterman to replace Tom Snyder at 12:30, Carson had a slight hand in illuminating the time-worn flaws in his own show over that last decade, but that’s the circle of life and it always seemed like Carson respected Letterman, perhaps because he carved out his own path and didn’t ride in on his coattails. That respect was evident in Letterman’s appearance on Carson’s show after losing The Tonight Show, Carson’s decision to appear on The Late Show after he retired, and the fact that Carson would send along monologue jokes to Letterman for years after he left the air.
Now, in the months before Letterman steps off of the stage for the final time, the cycle is repeating itself, but it’s not clear who will take the baton to become the next late night trailblazer. In fact, some may even question whether there needs to be one. After all, the work that Carson and Letterman did to broaden the audience’s sensibilities has paid off, creating a more fruitful place for comedy and satire in late night. The trouble is, some of the boldest hosts in the medium are switching shows or bowing out with the looming end of The Colbert Report and Craig Ferguson’s exit.
Will Colbert honor Letterman’s long legacy and deliver a truly unique and daring version of The Late Show when he takes over the show next year? I hope so, but in that he’s shedding his pundit persona before sliding into Letterman’s chair, Colbert has transformed into a somewhat unknown quantity who is going into a job where his on-screen and ratings performance will be more highly scrutinized on a constant basis. And that’s the other thing: with late night options so plentiful, the race for viewers — during the broadcast and the next morning in the form of YouTube hits and internet buzz — is more aggressive than ever before. Does that sound like an environment where it’s okay to experiment and push the envelope if it means that you might lose a few watchers?
When Letterman was getting away with giving Larry “Bud” Melman a national stage, bickering with Harvey Pekar, and rotating the camera 360 degrees over the course of an episode, nobody at NBC seemed to give a sh*t.
None of that would fly now and it never really gets the chance to because most late night hosts seem content playing it safe while practicing a much lighter version of the shtick that Letterman indirectly taught them when he was conducting nightly coolness lessons throughout the 80s and 90s.
Don’t get me wrong, it could far be worse. Late night could be a repository for the bastard comedy children of Jay Leno, but right now, the most unique host in mainstream late night might be the very inoffensive Jimmy Fallon, even though his show sometimes seems more like the old school variety shows that Letterman was sent here to destroy.
Is the new rebellion anti-rebellion? If that’s the case then there is an odd poetry to that that we can contemplate while we wait for someone to eventually push back against celebrity idolatry and party games to do something unique. Something like Carson and Letterman did, only not like that at all.