The accolades and the respect are unending for NBC’s late-night alums. Johnny Carson defined what late-night comedy could and should be. He then passed the baton to David Letterman, who promptly broke a ton of rules and instilled an aversion to authority and fakeness in ’80s and ’90s comedy nerds that’s still in the DNA of almost every talk show host today. And then Letterman gave that baton to Conan O’Brien who found his own rules to break by delighting in the absurd. These hosts — as well as Leno, Fallon, and Meyers — have made a huge impact on television, but they’ve also obscured NBC’s other late-night efforts.
Airing at 1:30am for almost 35 years, NBC’s less-revered options have a legacy all their own that touches the worlds of music, comedy, and the catch-all that is late night. Over the years, the shows in that slot have collectively created a tradition apart from their lead-ins, one that has influenced the current inhabitant of that time slot, Last Call With Carson Daly. That show has managed to find its way and stand out as a surprisingly charming and illuminating bit of counter-programming at a time when late-night viewers might be eager for something that tries to entertain and inform them at a different speed and with a different focus.
The Birth And Death Of Friday Night Videos
The two dominant halves of Last Call are doubtlessly music and conversation with each being represented by the now impractical-seeming timeshare arrangement that occurred from the late ’80s through the early 2000s when Friday Night Videos and Later alternately occupied the 1:30 slot. But while Friday Night Videos represented NBC’s biggest commitment to music in late night, it actually began much earlier with Saturday Night Live and The Midnight Special. Those two shows, with their reliance on live musical guests and concert footage, also connect to Friday Night Videos through Dick Ebersol, who helped develop and later produced SNL, ran Midnight Special, and dreamed up Friday Night Videos in 1983 after seeing a report on the CBS Evening News heralding the MTV boom.
Xeroxing someone else’s bold idea to bring music videos to NBC wasn’t the most awe-inspiring achievement, but Ebersol believed he was doing a service to MTV with Friday Night Videos. “They’re in 15 percent of the country. We’re in 100 percent. This will whet the appetite,” he told the Associated Press ahead of the premiere. Was that braggy chest puffing by an executive that was charged with talking up his latest creation? Sure, but it was true and Friday Night Videos‘ ability to deliver music videos to the masses when the masses wanted (but couldn’t always have) their MTV is what gives the show any kind of legacy. It’s also what gave it any kind of relevance, but that faded once MTV’s reach expanded.
By the ’90s, the use of guest hosts (a list that includes Hulk Hogan, the cast of Facts Of Life, Dr. Ruth, David Lee Roth, and Bob Costas) had been retired in favor of more permanent hosts like Daryl M. Bell, Tom Kenny, and Tonight Show bandleader Branford Marsalis. Comedian Henry Cho followed Marsalis in 1994 for what was supposed to be a six-week run prior to the end of the franchise, telling Uproxx, “they wanted me to use the time to get my feet wet at hosting.” But a funny thing happened: the show re-found its audience and its purpose and managed to stick around as Friday Night began losing the “Videos” figuratively and near literally.
Cho was teamed with actress Rita Sever, and for the next six years, the show eeked along, mixing movie reviews, a small selection of music videos, celebrity interviews, and performances by musicians and comedians. There was also, for a time, a monologue and sketches that Cho wrote with show writer Jim Hope and help from friends Don McMillion and Carlos Alazraqui.
In 1996, Cho left the show to appear in McHale’s Navy leaving Sever as the solo host. Sever kept things light and fun and took the show to some interesting places with remote segments, like when she toured the space shuttle. Nonetheless, the show folded in December 2000 after 17 years on the air leaving a front-loaded legacy and a small hole in NBC’s schedule.
The Different Sides Of Later
The idea of putting on a comparatively sedate longform interview program following the quirky wildness of Late Night with David Letterman dates back the start of Letterman’s NBC run in late night in 1981 when NBC offered the 1:30am time slot to Tom Snyder, the occupant of the 12:30am time slot Letterman was about to take over. Snyder, rejected it, leaving the network, and NBC gave NBC News Overnight an 18-month until its 1983 cancellation.
In 1988, a year before his ascent as head of NBC Sports, Ebersol created another NBC late-night show, one hosted by Bob Costas, a sportscaster with whom he had initially worked with on an episode of Friday Night Videos. The resulting show, Later, relied on Costas’ easy rapport with actors, athletes, and other figures in the form of engaging and thoughtful interviews that offered more than the typical late night snapshot. The show was a gamble — straying from the idea that the later the hour the more youth-focused a show needed to be — but it paid off with Costas winning an Emmy and putting out six years of intelligent late-night television before he decided to focus on his work with NBC Sports following the network’s success in getting the rights to air Major League Baseball games.