Lights Out: Looking Back On Some Of Late Night’s Short-Lived Contenders

If Steve Allen made the late-night television talk show a possibility, and Jack Paar made it a ritual, Johnny Carson made it an institution. And while his dominance over the time slot was unparalleled, it was also often challenged – as far back as the 1960s, when ABC and CBS set up would-be rivals like Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, and Les Crane with competing programs, only to watch them crumple in the face of King Johnny. But the desire to topple Carson reached a fever pitch in 1980s, with Johnny growing older and less relevant, as one late-night talker after another attempted to either supplant the legendary host, or further dilute the audience that had chosen sides in the Jay vs. Dave war. Most of them failed – and some did so spectacularly.

Thicke of the Night

Length Of Run: Ten months (1983-1984)

The Show: Canadian actor/songwriter/personality Alan Thicke was recruited by MGM television to turn his daytime talk show into a late-night fixture. (What the hell? It worked for Letterman.) In an attempt to shake up the stodgy Tonight Show format, Thicke booked the kind of rock guests Johnny wouldn’t touch (including the first television appearances by Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bon Jovi, and a panel appearance by Frank Zappa), and featured irreverent comedy bits with a cast of regulars that included future talk-show hosts Richard Belzer (Hot Properties) and Arsenio Hall (you know).

Why It Failed: A strange mixture of sky-high expectations and low awareness. Thicke was produced by Fred Silverman, the boisterous showman who ran NBC for three disastrous years in the late 1970s, and his run-ins with Carson during that period seemed to fuel an overblown advance campaign for Thicke of the Night, in which Silverman hyped his new host as “the Second Coming of comedy.” Critics were unconvinced, and the reviews were brutal; People dubbed Thicke “less a threat to Carson than to the sleeping pill industry.” And since Americans had only heard of Thicke in the context of those reviews, they had little motivation to tune in – so they didn’t. MGM cancelled the show in June 1984, at the conclusion of its first season; a year and change later, Thicke found the American stardom that had eluded him when he began his seven-season stint as the star of Growing Pains.

The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers

Length Of Run: Seven months (1986-1987)

The Show: The fledgling Fox network’s very first program was a bold attempt to topple a television icon – with his permanent guest host at the helm. Joan Rivers was a longtime fixture on Carson’s Tonight Show as both guest and host during his frequent nights off, and other networks had attempted to lure her away for years. But according to Rivers, it was only NBC and Carson Productions’ refusal to make any promises about her future on the show – including the possibility of taking over upon Carson’s retirement – that made her take this one seriously. So in fall of 1986, she debuted an hour of guests, music, and her inimitable gab.

Why It Failed: Bad PR and ratings. Carson, who had given his tacit blessing to other guests-turned-competitors like Thicke, David Brenner, and Joey Bishop, was furious about Rivers’ departure, and the whispers about their bitter break-up grew so loud, Rivers had to take to the pages of People to defend herself. But the damage was done; Rivers’ departure was framed as an ungrateful betrayal, a narrative no doubt fueled by the implicit sexism she was already battling as the first female host of a late-night talk show. The bad buzz made station clearances for the nascent network even more difficult – which led to lousy ratings, and thus less executive patience for the creative battles being waged by Rivers’ husband Edgar, who was also the show’s executive producer. Fox finally pulled the plug on the show in May of 1987, and began a rotation of guest hosts to fill the hour until its replacement was ready to air.

The Wilton North Report

Length Of Run: Four weeks (1987-1988)

The Show: An irreverent hybrid of newsmagazine, talk show, and comedy variety hour, hosted not by a Wilton or North, but by Phil Cowan and Paul Robins.

Why It Failed: Wilton North battled two big problems in its month-long run. First of all, its kinda-news, kinda-not format confused late-night viewers, who weren’t quite ready for a full-length satirical newscast (The Daily Show was still years in the distance). And secondly, when it debuted, Fox viewers had just settled in with a personality they liked: Arsenio Hall, who had filled in as a Late Show guest host and ended up keeping the job for the last 13 weeks of its run, quickly building the show’s profile and ratings. But by then, Fox had already committed to Wilton North, and chose, fatefully, to keep that commitment; when it tanked, they tried (and failed) to get Hall back. Instead, he signed a deal with Paramount for a syndicated series – which became one of the few successful Tonight Show competitors of the era.

The Pat Sajak Show

Length Of Run: One year, four months (1989-1990)

The Show: CBS, which had not attempted a late night talk show since Merv Griffin’s failed run in the late 1960s, figured Johnny Carson’s impending retirement was a fine time to carve out its own niche. So they brought over Sajak, host of the game show sensation Wheel of Fortune, for a nightly program that deviated as little as possible from Carson’s monologue/desk bit/celebrity interviews/musical performances format.

Why It Failed: See above regarding lack of deviations. With a show so slavish to the Carson formula (including originally airing for 90 minutes before reducing its running time to an hour), The Pat Sajak Show needed a host with a strong personality to make any impression of its own. Instead, it had Pat Sajak. After a rocky 16-month run, memorable only for an ill-advised guest-hosting appearance by Rush Limbaugh, CBS canned Sajak in spring of 1990. When the network took its next shot at late night three years later, they learned their lesson: they poached one of the strongest personalities on television, NBC’s David Letterman.

The Dennis Miller Show

Length Of Run: Seven months (1992)

The Show: In the year of Carson’s exit, Tribune Entertainment attempted to lure a younger, hipper audience away from his replacement, Jay Leno, to this syndicated hour, hosted by Saturday Night Live’s recently-departed Weekend Update anchor.

Why It Failed: That audience was already watching The Arsenio Hall Show – a syndicated hour which not only took a bite out of Miller’s ratings, but out of the stations available for his show. And Miller’s cynical persona made him a less-than-ideal affable emcee of a standard nightly chat show; he only seemed truly at ease during the show’s weekly Friday night newscast segment, which replicated Weekend Update as closely as possible without getting into intellectual property law. Two years later, Miller began his long-running weekly Dennis Miller Live show for HBO, which proved a much better fit for his prickly personality.

The Chevy Chase Show

Length Of Run: Five weeks (1993)

The Show: All the way back to his breakout on Saturday Night Live in the mid-1970s, the wry inaugural Weekend Update anchor had been considered a possible successor to Carson; even as his film career blossomed, he remained a favorite on the couch. (And not just for Johnny; he was the first guest on The Pat Sajak Show.) When Carson left Tonight, Fox saw an opportunity to take another crack at late night, its first since the Late Show/Wilton North fiascoes. The network signed Chase to a $3 million contract and slotted a premiere into the very crowded fall of 1993, which also saw the debuts of The Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

Why It Failed: It was terrible. Despite his hours of TV time and (usually) masterful comic timing, Chase never looked anything resembling comfortable. He always seemed as though he’d rather be anywhere else but on your television, and quickly, viewers came to feel the same way. (As with Miller, his only funny segments were his frequent Weekend Update stand-ins.) Or maybe it was just that his bandleader, the great jazz saxophonist Tom Scott, was a bad luck charm. (He also led the house band for Sajak.) Either way, after suffering barely a month of brutal reviews and terrible ratings, Fox yanked Chevy Chase, and hasn’t tried to mount a late-night talk show since.

The Jon Stewart Show

Length Of Run: Ten months (1994-1995)

Description: In 1994, fresh-faced stand-up Jon Stewart’s informal, 30-minute MTV talk show was retooled, after a successful first season, into an hour-long replacement for parent company Viacom’s recently-cancelled Arsenio Hall Show. But Stewart did his best to keep the show loose and hip, particularly in its booking of musical guests, which included Notorious B.I.G., Naughty By Nature, White Zombie, and Marilyn Manson.

Why It Failed: MTV and syndication serve very different audiences – and the latter wasn’t big enough to dent the former. It’s easy to forget, in this post-Daily Show era, that the average viewer didn’t know who the hell Jon Stewart was in 1994, and with Leno and Letterman’s ratings and personality battles dominating the entertainment pages, few bothered to find out. Stewart, of course, had the last laugh, biding his time by guest hosting The Late Late Show and playing himself (as a potential replacement for Larry) on The Larry Sanders Show before taking over The Daily Show in 1999.

The Magic Hour

Length Of Run: Three months (1998)

The Show: Yet another syndicated attempt at an hour of affable talk and music, hosted by former L.A. Laker Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Why It Failed: Magic is a genuinely charming presence, good in a basketball broadcast booth, great in a post-game press conference, even charming as a talk-show guest. But host? Whose insane idea was that? This was not in his skill set, which became abundantly clear as soon as The Magic Hour debuted; Johnson’s noticeable nerves and clumsy cue-card reads were roundly mocked by TV critics and radio host Howard Stern (whose publicity-stunt appearance, a month into the run, gave it a rare high rating). His fawning interview style, which made Arsenio Hall look like Mike Wallace, was also a point of criticism. The show, which debuted in June of 1998, was gone by Labor Day.

Late World with Zach

Length Of Run: Two months (2002)

The Show: VH1 tried to carve out its own corner of late-night with this 30-minute showcase for then-unknown absurdist stand-up comic Zach Galifianakis, who playfully sent up the conventions of the form via oddball taped interviews, confrontational celebrity interviews, and elaborate musical numbers.

Why It Failed: It was too weird, even for VH1. Though the show only survives in brief snippets on YouTube, Galifiankis was clearly trying to do something wild and experimental with his late-night showcase, indulging in the kind of straight-up strangeness that Letterman and Conan had made their names on (and that Craig Ferguson and Chris Gethard would explore in later years). But the cable network never gave him a chance to find an audience, and Galifianakis would spend seven more years in nightclubs and small roles before his breakthrough role in The Hangover.

The Arsenio Hall Show (revival)

Length Of Run: Eight months (2013-2014)

The Show: Nearly two decades after the conclusion of its original five-year run, The Arsenio Hall Show returned to late night, bringing back the hip, hang-out vibe of his original show, complete with a new “posse” house band and raucous audience, though without Hall’s signature high-top fade.

Why It Failed: That whole “nearly two decades after” part. Things we loved in the ‘90s make for good BuzzFeed listicles, but not necessarily edgy talk shows. Plus, as opposed to the glory years when Arsenio was mostly just competing against Johnny and a series of failed challengers, the new show was up against Dave, Jay, Jimmy, Jon, Conan, Chelsea, Maher, and podcasts. And maybe that’s why so few of these shows flop so loudly anymore; in our cluttered talk-show landscape, there’s no longer a Carson-style dragon for an upstart to slay.