The golden age of late night television comedy
Published: Friday, October 18, 2013
Updated: Sunday, October 20, 2013 22:10
"My wife looked horrified. ‘That’s not a hand towel, that’s a face towel!’” Seth Meyers recalled at his stand-up comedy performance on campus at the Jorgensen Center on Wednesday night. “I said, ‘If I can’t use my hands, how do I get it to my face?’”
The visit from Meyers, the most famous current “Saturday Night Live” cast member, came at a particularly interesting time for the television industry. The predominant entertainment talk these days is about how now represents the “golden age of television.” When both critics and regular viewers alike express this sentiment, they are usually referring to scripted dramas and comedies. Last month’s series finale of “Breaking Bad” was widely considered the greatest episode of any television series ever made. In the past few years, “Mad Men,” “Homeland,” “Game of Thrones” and others have routinely been considered among the best television series of all time.
What has been much less discussed – but is in my opinion no less significant – is that the past few years have also heralded the golden age of late night television comedy, a genre that Meyers will surely improve even further in February when he begins hosting “Late Night” on NBC.
Over the summer I read the book “The Late Shift” by New York Times entertainment reporter Bill Carter, about the shakeup in late night comedy talk shows in 1992. Two things struck me. First was how limited the viewing options were. In 1992 there was only one major host, Johnny Carson, one host who came on afterwards in David Letterman, and Arsenio Hall was a factor but a comparatively minor one on the up-and-coming Fox network.
Second was how comparatively mediocre the quality was relative to today. If you watch YouTube clips, Johnny Carson was actually not that funny. Carson was historically very important, as comedians much more humorous and clever would cite him as an influence for decades to come, not to mention that Carson basically invented the now-standard format of the late night show. But his program in retrospect is widely considered second-rate when reevaluated by today’s standards. If it were premiering in 2013, it might not even be renewed for a second season.
Now we have Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Craig Ferguson, David Letterman, Bill Maher, Jimmy Kimmel, Chelsea Handler and more. Just last week, Alec Baldwin premiered “Up Late” on MSNBC to stellar reviews, and later this month Pete Holmes premieres “The Pete Holmes Show” on TBS. And it’s only going to get better. Jay Leno – by far the weakest link in the bunch – will finally retire from “The Tonight Show” in February, by domino effect freeing up a spot for Seth Meyers, whose show will be very funny if his Wednesday performance at UConn was any indication. Carson Daly, another of the weakest links, is about to end his tenure on “Last Call.”
Why has this steadily upward trend occurred over the past decade or two? Primarily because the audience is much more fragmented now, with viewership split into various factions. It used to be that Carson was the only comedy option at 11:30 p.m. Now at 11:30 p.m., you can watch Kimmel on ABC, Colbert on Comedy Central, O’Brien on TBS, Letterman on CBS, Hall on Fox and Leno (soon to be Fallon) on NBC. I believe it is exactly this competition that has raised the quality so much over the past two decades. You have far less incentive to improve when competitors are at risk of overtaking you, a maxim that applies across almost all areas of life, not just television.
At the same time, fewer viewers per show increases quality because more viewers forces a program to regress to the lowest common denominator. Derek Thompson in his article for The Atlantic entitled “It’s the Golden Age of TV - but Why, Exactly?” wrote of broadcast executives, “Your job is to develop as many shows as possible that attract a wide audience. The formal term for most of these shows is ‘produced for a mass audience’ but the common term is ‘relentless crap.’” This is why nine of the last 10 Emmy Awards for Best Variety Series went to Stewart’s “Daily Show” even though the program never leads in viewers, while last year’s most watched scripted show “NCIS” wasn’t nominated for anything.
Can this upward trend in late night quality be maintained in the future? I think so. Now you even have networks traditionally averse to such programming getting in on the act, such as Fox News with “Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld.” That forces everybody to change their game. When Kimmel moved up from 12:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. last year, going head to head against Leno and stealing away most younger viewers, within months the 63-year-old Leno was out, to be replaced by the 39-year-old and much funnier Fallon. That was not a coincidence.