My 11:35 PM TV Comedy Provider

It’s not that I think Jimmy Fallon is a bad “Tonight Show” host. I’m pleased with my current provider of 11:35 PM comedy services, I have sampled the alternatives, and I feel no desire to switch providers at this time.

(So, NBC boiler room: please stop cold-calling my house.)

The sole point of this post is that “The Tonight Show” is simply not a product I have any kind of use for. I thought the reasons why that’s true were worth writing about, since they speak to what I like and don’t like about late-night talk shows.

 

The Sincerity Gap

Subjectively? I think Fallon has all of the strengths of a great talk show guest but not a whole lot to offer to me as a host. I get a real “Merv Griffin” vibe off of the guy. All of his guests are awesome. He’s such a total fan of all of them, and some of them are his really great friend. He always can’t believe he gets to sit here and meet [him/her/hand puppet].

He does some fine sketch comedy on “Tonight.” It all falls apart for me when he’s at the desk. Take, for instance, the Very Much Viral video of him singing with Billy Joel on his iPad.

If “Tonight” were more geared toward my own tastes, Jimmy and Billy would retire to the stage, where the iPad and the mics are set up, and perform it as a musical number. Instead, he has to put up the pretense that he “had this great idea” and hey, let’s try singing a song, any song, really, he hadn’t really put any thought into it, and who knows if it’ll work out but we’re here to play around and have fun, right? Then onward to what was clearly a very rehearsed number whose  success or failure boiled down to whether or not an asteroid would strike during the segment.

This is nothing new. I tuned in occasionally during Fallon’s “Late Night” run and I was consistently put off by the fake sincerity and “aw shucks…this is…this is so crazy that I’m here doing this with you!” pose. Get a load of another viral video, where he and the band and Robin Thicke perform “Blurred Lines” on kids’ instruments:

It’s entertaining; I enjoyed it enough to Tweet out the link. I’m just put off by the pretense of Jimmy reaching up and “turning on the camera.” Because hey, everyone, this is your good pal Jimmy! He and his other good friends are just hanging out in the dressing room, and then he thought, hey! Let’s record a video and put it on YouTube, like everybody does when they’re just hanging out with their good friends (in a room that’s been set up with professional lighting and sound)!

It’s evocative of those terrible variety shows of the Sixties. Audiences of the day expected certain conventions. It was totally unacceptable to suggest that Bing Crosby was there singing a duet with a young pop star because they both had albums to promote and the producers picked a song that suited both of them and then they performed it together after a bunch of rehearsals. Instead, this great duet needed to be wrapped in layers of bulky pretense. They’re such big fans of each other, and I was just passing through and happened to see you guys recording, and it would be such a thrill if we could sing a song together…

It’s still entertaining. But it’s not a convention that makes much sense to people born after 1960. It comes across as a “daytime TV” sort of vibe. On late night, this attitude is a huge step backwards. Part of the wisdom of the late night TV revolution that started with “Saturday Night Live” and solidified with the Rise of Letterman was the doing-away of such unnecessary artifice. It’s practically a measure of respect for the audience; this only needs to be entertaining.

 

Hashtag #IGotNothingHere

Fallon’s “Tonight Show” also makes me feel like I’m a chump for watching the show in the form in which it’s broadcast. It’s not conceived as an hour of entertainment: it’s produced as a string of (hopefully) viral videos, interrupted by hashtags and begging for social media promotion.

If Fallon has the kind of quick mental or verbal agility that I like to see in a host, he’s kept those skills well-hidden. Fallon, the times I’ve watched him, can only laugh at the guests’ jokes, defuse their punchlines by praising them too early, and set up the next “spontaneous” bit. Every other host, it seems, can maintain a conversation with a guest; there’s an active and agile wit. Some hosts parry with guests, some trade verbal jazz licks with them. Carson was famous for his ability to do both, or to be the straight man who sets up the ball for the guest to spike.

Fallon? He’s just…there. At times, he appears to be like an audience member who won a “Co-Host ‘Tonight’ For A Night” contest. (“Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m really here…I’m totally going to Facebook this right now…”)

The show cuts interviews short to play party games. And it seems like “Tonight” has found a way to bleach the spontaneity and energy from those segments, too. This stuff just doesn’t register to me as comedy. It’s more like watching four people I don’t know playing “Scattergories.” It’s as interesting to me as viewing a wedding video when I don’t know any of the participants and at no point does a key structural support in the gazebo fail and tip the entire wedding party into a lake.

Overall, these things seem like a dodge to get Fallon out from behind the desk, where he can’t play to his strengths. Again: good sketch comic, good talk show guest…not a strong talk show host. He’s been at this gig for five years. It’s clear that these are skills he can’t cultivate, or that (fair enough) this isn’t a show that wants to devote a whole lot of time to a type of entertainment that I enjoy.

Compare and contrast all of this with “TableTop,” a show about tabletop gaming created and hosted by Wil Wheaton:

Or even better: check out Chris Hardwick on the Comedy Central game show “@Midnight”:

He brings a young, fresh, and relevant approach without the stink of a seven-hour network meeting in which 54-year-old executives kept referring to “the Twitters” and how important it is to “social” everything.

I admit to having prejudices. The hashtaggy, “here’s something we found on Reddit” nature of @Midnight turned me off at first but I was totally wrong. Hardwick is a terrific host. These “found items” are just a catalyst for his own comedy and for the wits of his guests. It’s in not a crutch, like the recurring Fallon segment in which he numbly reads a series of jokes sent in by viewers via Twitter. (Seriously, “Tonight”? When did you revise your Terms Of Service to obligate us to write your jokes for you?)

How great would a Chris Hardwick-hosted talk show be? Very. Very much great. His Nerdist podcast consists of long interviews in which he’s an active participant without crowding out the guest. And he creates an environment that’s very safe for the guest (I say this as a neutral observation, not as criticism or praise) without coming within fifty yards of The Merv Griffin Effect.

Has he been lined up on the secret on-deck circle for Dave? If not…shouldn’t he be? To my eye, he’s the best talent for this kind of job, at least of the folks who are high enough in profile that I’d be aware of them.

[well]

Aside: I suddenly realize that the farm system for “the next great network talk show host” ought to include podcasters. They’re producing their own shows and developing their own styles through dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of interviews, and they arrive on the set as fully-formed hosts. Kevin Pollak can roll into a talk show set with his engine already spooled up and ready to run. Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann, John HodgmanJesse Thorn, on and on.

Did John Oliver’s tenure as summer host of “The Daily Show” get him own HBO news comedy show? Certainly, but the skills that made him a killer host, and the ones that’ll make “Last Week Tonight” a hit, are the ones he honed with Andy Zaltzman through more than 250 weekly episodes of “The Bugle.”

I think that the next great host won’t be found in front of the fake wall of a comedy club. He or she is sitting behind a cheap USB microphone propped up on a kitchen table. End Aside.

[/well]

 

What Even Constitutes ‘The Jimmy Fallon Style Of Comedy’, Anyway?

Carson described the key to these kinds of shows perfectly: “In the end, it’s all about the person behind the desk.” Fallon? He’s a total blank to me. Leno, Letterman, Kimmel, Conan, Colbert, even Ellen…they put their signatures on their shows. I honestly think that Lorne Michaels could swap in almost anyone with SNL experience and “Tonight” would still be the exact same program, doing the same jokes and the same material. It’s a producer’s show, in a genre that’s traditionally been defined by the host’s personality.

 

Disclaimer

Despite all of the above, I sure wouldn’t say that Fallon was a bad choice to replace Leno, that “Tonight” isn’t funny, that he’s objectively a bad host. If you think he and the show are great, you’re absolutely correct. You never, ever need to defend the reasons why you like something.

And I also have to acknowledge that comedy styles are on wheels that keep turning around. “Let’s drop the fawning and the fake sincerity” was the signature of the shows that came along when I was a teenager. We were sick of that sort of thing. Today’s young viewers might be equally sick of a generation of weary hosts who sometimes seem to sit at their desks like Han Solo, chatting amiably with their guest while preparing to unload a sarcasm-blaster into them.

These new hosts are my age (Fallon is just a few years younger than me) but they’re pitching to people who are maybe as tired of Letterman (Conan, Kimmel)-style comedy as we were of Merv when we were their age.

I should also point out that the line between insincerity (“Let’s pretend that this thing where sing into my iPad was spontaneous”) and mere showmanship (“It’ll look much cooler if I simply present the iPad at my desk and we do it right there”) is sometimes a fuzzy one.

Is Fallon completely sincere? I admit that I have no way of knowing that he’s faking it. If he’s sincere, I just don’t see it. Either way, “Tonight” comes across as though I’m meant to be happy for this guy that he gets to be the host of this awesome show and get to meet such amazing people and do such crazy things.

I mean, I’d be happy for him if he were a friend of mine. As-is? He’s someone who gets paid millions and millions of dollars to do a job. He and I have a relationship in which he should be trying harder to entertain me, not burbling about how what a good time he’s having.

So who’s my Provider Of Late-Night Comedy Services? No surprise.

 

It’s Dave.

It’s still Letterman. No show comes close, as far as I’m concerned.

I concede that this kind of traditional desk-and-chair show is old-fashioned. I doubt that the concept will survive long after Dave chooses to retire. But night after night, Dave delivers the goods and proves why this time-worn format is a killer when the right person is behind the desk.

As a longtime viewer, I’m thoroughly impressed by how skillfully the show has adjusted Dave’s persona over the decades. The most common criticism of Dave is that he’s just phoning it in at this point. Hogwash. When he came on the scene in the early Eighties, he completely deconstructed the talk show format. You can point to Steve Allen and other hosts that might have done similar bits here and there, but Dave’s effect on the talk show format was identical to the effect that the Mac had on desktop computers, and the iPhone had on phones. Before, they were all like this. After, they were all mostly like Dave’s show. It’s conclusive proof that Dave (and the producers and writers he gathered around him) created a revolution, rather than merely continuing a transition that was already in progress.

When Dave was in his Thirties, he arrived at 30 Rock and proceeded to wreck the joint, poking fun at the absurdity of talk-show traditions and mocking the heaping insincerities of the form. Things like, I dunno: the convention where the host tells the guest that he’s such a fan this is such a crazy honor for me and can I please talk you into doing a number, this was totally unrehearsed, but…

Dave is now in his Sixties, not his Thirties. He’s not the young punk who busts in and smashes up the furniture. Now, he’s the legend who built something worth preserving.

I put it to you that there is nothing sillier than a man in his Sixties dressing in Velcro and launching himself at a wall. Nothing less sincere than a Kennedy Center honoree whose net worth can be expressed as a fraction of a billion dollars promising his audience that he’s here to rip The Establishment a new one.

The 21st-century version of Letterman’s show is brilliant. Dave portrays the part of the Establishment. He’s now the befuddled old guy who doesn’t understand why a staffer half his age is walking on stage and doing something crazy. He’s the one who’s out of step because he didn’t go to rehearsal. He’s the guy who has to be told to take his pills, by an assistant who’s frankly tired of his nonsense by now.

I dismiss the idea that Dave’s phoning it in and the show it just keeping the time slot warm at this point. Yes, I’m well aware that guests are pre-interviewed. In fact, I like the fact that he’s clearly scanning a blue sheet of notes that he’s likely seeing for the very first time. Overall, the tone of the show is that this set is Dave’s office, and he comes here to put in a day’s work and then go home.

Again, it’s a personal preference. I can’t stand Fallon’s “Gosh! What a fun time we’re all having! It’s like a crazy party in here, huh?” pose. I actively enjoy the no-BS environment at Letterman’s desk. There is zero pretense. This movie star wouldn’t be sitting there if he or she didn’t have a movie or TV show to promote, and Dave wouldn’t be talking to them if he didn’t have a show to do. He knows it, the guest knows it, the audience knows it. Everyone can still have a great time and a good conversation.

I also dismiss the charge that Dave is just a grumpy old man. Are there nights when he appears to be genuinely irked, frustrated, and eager for his long weekend? Sure. It’s part of what makes the show so good: Dave is a human being, capable of feeling and expressing emotion.

The upside of this arrangement is that it’s 0bvious when he genuinely liked a joke, or is totally hitting it off with a guest, or is really into the band who just performed.

The first act at his desk is often amazing, honest stuff: he’s spoken about births, deaths, news items that affected him greatly, scandals that amused the hell out of him. All extemporaneous, all honest, and almost never seen on other shows between 11:35 and midnight. There is currently no other show that would book a Medal of Honor recipient and no other host that can spend three acts of the show in an honest, at-times uncomfortable conversations about the cost of life in the military.

I’ll take Dave’s highs and lows over Fallon’s “Everthing is awesome, all the time!” persona, or Leno’s consistently calm, even, detachment.

My opinion of Jay Leno has gone way up over the years. I’ve lost my frustration with his middlebrow humor. I’ve grown to appreciate the skills he put on display during that great first half hour of “The Tonight Show.” And now that I’ve discovered his YouTube channel, I’m enjoying the more personal-style work he’s doing outside of the “write joke, tell joke, get check” environment. That’s the more human Jay. “Tonight Show” Jay is “cutthroat” Jay, the joke machine that has to fire at full efficiency.

Despite my respect for Leno, when I think about the differences between Leno and Letterman, I always come back to their first shows after 9/11. Dave, the broadcaster, was capable of speaking truthfully and straight from the soul, expressing himself with connection and clarity, without losing control of his emotions.

Jay — in the toughest spot that any late night host will ever find him or herself in, let’s acknowledge that — seemed unable to reach through that camera lens. Like everybody else in America during that week (with the possible exception of Dave) he didn’t know what to say or how to say it. He was visibly uncomfortable with the task of needing to address something so weighty, or (as it would be until his final couple of years on “Tonight”) to let the audience see exactly what he was feeling and thinking. He rolled out a charity motorcycle for his guests to sign.

 

What about the others?

I respect Jimmy Kimmel, but the cruelty factor of his show is a big turnoff. I didn’t like it when Leno used to offer random people on the street or in an apartment building a chance to make themselves look like idiots in front of America. Kimmel’s comedy is a level below that. It seems to revel in destroying people, with or without their buy-in.

I happened to tune in on a night when he did a cooking segment sketch with a recurring character: a man in drag pretending to be the hysterically-angry lady from a viral video that was big at the time. When I first saw the original video, I immediately thought “undiagnosed mental illness.” Or, that some idiot with an iPhone happened to catch this woman having a very, very bad day, and instead of giving her some peace, privacy, and sympathy — or, understandably, making a private video record of what was going down in case things went very badly later — they decided to publish that video to the whole world.

And now, Kimmel is humiliating this woman on national television on a regular basis. Did she bargain for that? Even if she was totally in the wrong when she flew off the handle, did she deserve that? Also: the cooking segment had a desperate “Dancing Itos” vibe and it seemed a little desperate.

Conan always has a simmering anger underneath his comedy. Usually, he manipulates that to his advantage. Sometimes, it boils to the surface and makes me uncomfortable. But he’s doing the best Carson-style desk show on TV, apart from Dave’s, and he has some hella-talented comedy performers helping him out in front of the camera. Conan’s show is about wit, and agility, and the ability to make even a pre-planned bit look spontaneous.

His taped segments are well-conceived, executed, and edited; they’re the best return on investment of any of the video links that circulate during a weekday afternoon.

I’ve been watching “The Daily Show” a lot less since my favorite contributors left the show. After so many years, I feel like I’ve seen Jon Stewart’s entire bag of performance tricks and that nothing he does can really surprise or delight me any more. And once every couple of weeks, he says something that truly disgusts me. Such as when he has no joke to make about the substance of a politician’s speech and instead, he just makes fun of the man’s speech impediment. That’s the instinct a sixth-grade school bully when he knows he has enough people around him to join in the taunting, not the host of a Peabody-winning show with a reputation for insightful social commentary.

Some day, Stephen Colbert will stop doing his show and then I’ll be a very, very sad viewer. The Colbert Report is nine years old and the well isn’t even close to running dry. His skills as a performer are razor sharp and I boggle at his ability to have Stephen Colbert, the fictional character, say something horrifying and hurtful while the kindness and good intentions of Stephen Colbert, the improvisational comedian, shines right through.

I haven’t seen Seth Myers’ “Late Night” and probably never will. I pass no judgment on him or the show whatsoever. I’m completely happy with my 12:35 provider of late night comedy and I’m not even curious about the alternatives.

Night after night, Craig Ferguson pulls off the minor miracle of making an hour of network television look completely unplanned and improvised. “The Late Late Show” appears to be hosted by a man who is surprised that he hasn’t been fired already and thinks that if he plays his cards right, tonight might be the night. His sidekicks are an animatronic robot skeleton and a pantomime horse and a bandleader who never steps out from behind the curtains. Why? Each seemed like a good idea at the time and a 12:35 AM show doesn’t have to run things through a lot of executives first.

 

Preulogy

But the show I’ll miss most of all is “The Late Show.”

I’ll admit that part of it is due to sentimentality. Carson was funny, but he was my parents’ talk show host. Letterman belonged to us. Technically, college students five to ten years older than me, all right. But I still vividly remember the first time I was able to see “Late Night” as it aired, thanks to a clock radio with a built-in 5″ TV that I managed to snag for next to nothing at a clearance sale and snuck into my bedroom. At first, the start of “Late Night With David Letterman” was my sign that I must be in bed now. By my college years, 12:30 AM meant it was time to take a break for an hour, then go back to the keyboard or the books until 3 or 4. A tradition I mostly still keep.

Nostalgia, schm…

(Wow, you really can’t write out “schmnostalgia” and make that joke work.)

Well, I’m saying that nostalgia has nothing to do with my selection of Dave as my late-night talk show host. He delivers the goods, for real, night after night. And yes, that’s partly due to the hard work of a large and loyal staff. I’m well aware that there’s not a great chance that a guest will throw something at Dave that isn’t somewhere on that sheet of blue paper in front of him.

But it’s all about the person behind the desk. He doesn’t need a crutch, he doesn’t need a rescue, he doesn’t need a gimmick, and he doesn’t need to beg to be liked. He has that weird ability to have an actual conversation with someone and find the funny. He also has that beguiling ability to spot a road into a serious issue, and pull the wagons off of the Funny Trail.

Dave is, beyond a doubt, the last of his kind. The long shadow of Johnny Carson is the only thing that keeps me from adding “…and the finest host of this kind of show there ever will be.” (Kudos to Steve Allen but I’ve never been able to see enough of his shows to develop a strong opinion. There’s something to be said about maintaining this level of work for three decades, too.)

Even so, I can only agree that Carson was different, not better. Some day, Dave will choose to retire (or he’ll drown in a trout stream or something). Can the “desk and a chair” talk show format live on without him? I suppose that his CBS show serves as a lone anchor of credibility for the whole concept.

Certainly, nobody will describe any of the remaining hosts as “the king of late night.” I like some of these hosts more than others, but the crown isn’t a good fit on any of them.

I don’t suppose for even a second that Kimmel and Conan will throw their shows into funeral pyre when Dave moves on (to retirement or Johnny’s guest chair in the sky). But maybe when it’s time for Kimmel to renew, he’ll wonder why he needs to keep working; if he can’t do what Dave is doing, is it worth doing at all? And maybe Conan will change his set around and remove the desk, to freshen the show up a little.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon will have already switched out the desk and the sofa for a giant ballpit that he and his guests can play in.

Wheeee! This is awesome, isn’t it? I can’t believe it! It’s crazy! Hey, we should totally Instagram a picture from here, right?

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