I’m a 34-year-old comedy nerd. What kind of late night talk show do I want to replace Larry Wilmore’s sadly shuttered Nightly Show? I want the untamable Letterman of the ’80s that I had only heard about until I discovered, by way of YouTube, that the legend was true and the brilliance was real. I want the weird experimental genius of Conan in the ’90s that I grew up on. I want the 2000s Jon Stewart that built the embers of news satire into a wildfire of smart, daring comedy that has consumed late night. I want the 2010s Craig Ferguson that could so deftly alternate between serious and silly while always putting forward a quality that made me feel, rightly or wrongly, that what I was watching was somehow under the radar of the network and something that might get him in trouble. A rebellious quality wrapped in coolness that all of these shows had and something that speaks to the romance of late night. Because you should be sleeping, not laughing at robot pimps and dancing horses. Not thinking about the issues of our time. I want all of that again for the first time. But I need a new option. We all do.
The Children Of Dave And The Children Of Jon
Presently, there are only two types of late night show: those that have been heavily influenced by what was Late Night with David Letterman‘s irreverent take on the classic late night formula (the children of Dave) and those that sprang from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart tree of life (the children of Jon). It’s interesting that those shows launched 17 years apart from each other and that it’s been that same amount of time since Stewart started taking The Daily Show into battle. It’s almost as if history demands that this generation be given its own genre-redefining late night staple to stand beside the highly durable “old” models.
Some might argue that the fun and games approach favored by The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and The Late Late Show with James Corden counts as revolutionary, but Fallon and Corden’s joyful antics are really a smart continuation of what Letterman (and later, Conan) did. It’s just a more accessible version, created for the benefit of a wide audience rather than the delight of the writers and those attuned to that kind of funny/smart/weird/stupid comedy, as most comedy nerds were and are.
For there to be a truly innovative take on the late night model and a viable third option for viewers who want something else, you have to be willing to deconstruct what late night is, not merely bend it a little. And to do that, you have to have a sense of where we are, culturally, and you have to respond to that. As a condition of his employment, Letterman had no choice but to differentiate himself from Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, creating a youth-appealing show to contrast with Carson’s show. In an era where the ruling class longed for old fashioned things, Letterman fostered a youthful revolt by throwing crap off of a roof and delegitimizing the idea that comedy was fundamentally serious business.
Stewart, on the other hand, read the room in a post-9/11 world and determined that his audience needed a more grown-up and conscientious response to the news of the day. No more dancing Itos. More, “It’s not a f*cking game!” And in ushering in that change, Stewart caused his own kind of youthful revolt, sparking interest and outrage in an audience that came to trust him as bullsh*t free voice in a world dominated by frightening headlines and endless cable news coverage. A role he passed on to Daily Show correspondents like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, and, of course, Larry Wilmore.
But while all of these shows (and others) are reliably watchable and capable of high moments that can make viewers laugh and/or think, they still represent the old guard.
Looking To The Past For What’s Next
So, what does a new late night show need to be to belong to this generation? In a word: unique. Both in the tone and construction of the show and in the talents of a host that can speak to the 18-36 audience as one of their own. (Whoever that might be, though I’ll vote for Jessica Williams due to her uncommon skillset as a comic and a social commentator, though it seems unlikely that she wants to host a talk show anytime in the near future.)
Does a late night show need a studio? Does it need to be based in any one city or focus on any one thing? These questions need to be asked because the idea of a studio based in New York or Los Angeles, a desk, and a focus on celebrity culture and politics all seem outdated and limiting. There are supposedly practical reasons why these staples exist like logistics and the pull of big stars promoting big projects, but those can and should be undercut. Some of Conan O’Brien’s most memorable moments have come during his remote segments. Eric Andre regularly goes out into the world to unleash comedic chaos. James Corden drew early raves when he took his show into a stranger’s living room. Why can’t a show be a more basic and mobile affair that bases itself on the street or in a bar, a comedy club, a rooftop, a zoo, a museum, anywhere, really? Go where the party is.
Insomniac with Dave Attell is a great example, a hybrid stand-up comedy showcase/travel show that partied through the strange after-dark world of a myriad of different cities. Why can’t a talk show bounce from place to place each week and echo that, sending its host and its correspondents out into new cities to create comedy and discover that which is interesting? Wouldn’t that be more appealing than staring at the same ornate and cavernous set every night during a stale monologue?
Wouldn’t the ability to infiltrate a local comedy and music scene allow for these shows to break new artists on the regular, upping the cool factor that a lot of late night efforts lack. Sure, it would be harder to get celebrity guests but despite our celebrity-obsessed culture, it seems like people’s interests are broad enough that most wouldn’t reject a show, outright, if it couldn’t be counted on to feature Morgan Freeman dishing on his latest role and then playing flip clip.
Besides that, why couldn’t a star Skype in or do an interview via satellite as we see on cable news all day every day? Granted, you lose a bit of intimacy, but there’s no rule that says all interviews have to be a certain way. Mix and match. Conduct some interviews via Skype and do others in-person when you can drag a guest along on an adventure through the streets of Austin, Portland, or Chicago. Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee is a fine example of the value of an interview that comes when you take someone out of their comfort zone (a studio) and then put them at ease by having an intimate one-on-one conversation that isn’t in view of a large live audience.
More Than Just Celebrities
There’s also no rule that says every guest needs to be a celebrity. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report invited authors, journalists, and activists onto its stage to great effect. One of Craig Ferguson’s best shows, and one that won him a Peabody award, featured him interviewing Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Let’s not take audiences for granted and assume that their interests are limited, especially not a Millennial audience that has shown in its media consumption that its interests are broad.
Talk to regular people — business owners, innovators, scientists, artists, daredevils, civil servants — and watch as they fill the screen with previously underrepresented perspectives. Let a clever host mine comedy from an unscripted interaction with someone who isn’t performing. It’s the realest kind of comedy and it’s a treat in the rare moments when we get to see it on television now, like when Billy Eichner takes to the street or Conan is doing a remote segment. When Mike Rowe, not explicitly a comedian, hosted Dirty Jobs, you could see the organic comedy that came out of situations when he was out of his element and in someone else’s.
The success of The Daily Show and the “children of Jon” show us that audiences care deeply about the news and being informed, so let’s touch on the big stories and let’s go there with a camera in hand. One of The Nightly Show‘s most powerful episodes came when Larry Wilmore went to Baltimore in the midst of the riots last year and sat down in a diner with rival gang members. It was unique, bold, and linked to the world at large. Don’t tell me that didn’t “connect” with the audience.
All Things For All People
Late night TV doesn’t need to be set in one place or bound to one format or type of content. It can be about music and art one night, and social injustice the next. These shows can set up in an amphitheater and host an audience Q&A with a political leader on Monday and send a host and a movie star on a culinary adventure on Tuesday. This world is diverse and never linear. Maybe the next great late night revolution is supposed to embody that spirit and give people a third option besides comedy/news hybrids and straight-up classic late night. Something that speaks to all of us at some point — from comedy nerds, wonks, impassioned activists, and music fans — and allows us to be inspired by new things every night, broadening our horizons further.
Will, after Wilmore, Comedy Central try something new like that and resist the urge to ape the style of Fallon and Corden or launch another comedy/news hybrid? Will another network? I doubt it. These are networks run by risk-averse executives, but it’s what we need and what a lot of us want from late night, an entity whose relevancy would be bolstered by once again finding the strength to reinvent itself.