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 a consideration about how late night fixtures don’t disappear, they evolve.
I was a childhood Letterman freak. Dave sparring with Madonna, Dave getting flashed by Drew Barrymore on his birthday, Dave working the register at Taco Bell: Those were watershed moments in my pop culture consumption. I even owned a few books of top 10 lists. That’s right kids, in my day, we had to buy our shitty listicles from a strip mall bookstore. And it was a 10-mile walk through knee-high asbestos, uphill both ways! With no iPhones to help plan us a better route, and no Amazon Prime with free two-day shipping! I’m tellin’ you, men were men in those days.
For me a big part of the Letterman show’s appeal was that it was unpredictable. Just go watch one of his interviews with Harmony Korine or Crispin Glover. And at the time, if you missed it, it was just gone. Even talking about my favorite parts now, I realize how much of it kind of defined “I guess you had to be there.”
I’d love to be a curmudgeonly old man and shake my fist at my laptop screaming “Things just ain’t what they used to be!” which is certainly true. I mean we just elected a reality TV dunking booth clown for president, if ever that was true it’d be now. Surely, late night feels less important now (just like virtually everything else does when compared to your adolescence).
To some extent, the numbers bear that out. In 1996, at the peak of late night viewership (and also the year The Late Shift was released, starring John Michael Higgins as David Letterman), nine late night shows were splitting 23.9 million viewers, with Jay Leno’s Tonight Show leading with 6.2 million. As of 2014, 12 shows were splitting 17.6 million viewers, with Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show leading with 3.6 million viewers on average.
On the one hand, there are a third more shows now splitting about a fifth fewer viewers, even as the total population has itself grown by about a fifth (from about 270 million Americans to about 320 million). On the other, Jimmy Fallon’s 3.6 million viewers aren’t that drastic a decline in relevancy from Letterman’s 4.3 million, especially if you factor in how many more shows there are now, no matter how much less relevant he seems in my mind. That’s at least a partial score for “maybe you’re just old now.”
Though I would argue it’s also something else (phew, still got it, according to me!). The other day I was listening to a podcast about Detroit’s “Disco Demolition Night,” an event largely credited as the first day of the end of the disco era (much like Charles Manson or Altamont have been declared the official endings of the 60s). But what a musician who was there argued was that disco didn’t die so much as rebrand and evolve, continuing to creep into a variety of genres, so much so that elements of it are still identifiable in half of today’s hits. A similar thing has happened with the late night variety show format, even without a comparable “Day That Late Night Died”. The format hasn’t died, but it has fragmented and balkanized (like every other type of media in the past 20 years) metastasizing into a series of other forms and rebranding as other things (even spawning The Eric Andre Show, which to my knowledge is the first surrealist anti-late night variety show late night variety show), and eventually coming back to infect itself.
If you break down the late night format from Carson through about now, its essential components are monologue, celebrity interview, followed by musical/comedy performance, with some sketches and bits sprinkled in to taste.