carsoncarsonlettermancarsonlettermanFrom the early days of cable TV two forms of entertainment stood out for me — comedy and music. Before MTV, music videos and comedy shorts filled gaps between films on HBO; this was my introduction to skit comedy as a young person growing up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The music videos on HBO at the time were not music I, or anyone, would want to listen to — unless they were in their late 40’s and accidentally got the tapes in the mail from a record club. Just keep changing the channel, something should be on … right? That’s when i discovered late night television in the form of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Within the first few weeks of my discovery I saw Don Rickles, Phylis Diller, Robert Klein and even George Carlin — who quickly became one of my favorites. The comedy cup run-eth over.

The laughs kept coming nightly, but as I watched the musical acts performing on Carson I realized something; as hip as Carson’s show was when it came to comedy, it was sorely lacking in the music department. The radio waves were two or three hip steps ahead of what I saw on Carson, but the comedy sort of made up for it, and, shortly after, MTV came along to scratch my music itch. That is until i got a bit older, and stayed up a bit later.

dangerousbandEverything changed when a goofy guy with a gap in his teeth hit the airwaves with Late Night with David Letterman in 1982. What struck me initially about the show was his band. It was led by Canadian keyboardist Paul Shaffer, who I knew from his years with the Saturday Night Live band. This band was different. Paul’s band back then wasn’t heavy on the big band sound like Doc Severinsen’s band at the Tonight Show, and they played modern stuff, like hip Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stone classics as they went to commercial. They weren’t afraid to use distorted guitars at times, and the band was small — we are talking a four-piece band. This, of course, was The World’s Most Dangerous Band. Paul formed the band by recruiting members of the 24th Street Band, with whom he’d collaborated with in the past. The members slowly were replaced over the first years of the show, but the core of what made this band special was still there for many of the show’s early years.

Letterman, on the comedy front, did not disappoint either. It’s a common formula now, but those early days of the show were edgy, and the comedy had a Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman dryness to it — with a healthy dose of irony. I watched in awe of what a spectacle late night television was delivering to me. From the famous top ten lists, stupid human tricks, cutaways to Paul Shaffer having breakfast and even rare appearances by then Letterman writer Chris Elliott — who would occasionally show up as the character of ‘Marlon Brando’ — this show was clearly not looked at too closely by studio executives. It’s late at night. .. mainstreamers didn’t stay up that late, right? And can’t we suspend some limitations and try something new for the sake of ratings? It sure seemed that way at the time. It was a bit renegade, consistently hilarious, with good music and a great house band. Just absorb.

lenodaveLetterman seemed to change suddenly at that point. In reality, it was a ‘changing of the guard moment’ that has been covered in other places many times, but, in a nutshell: Carson retires in 1992, Leno takes his NBC slot and Letterman — having not been offered Carson’s job — moves to CBS to compete for those early evening ratings. Letterman seemed watered down. Lots of writers and known bits were transitioned or shelved as Letterman wanted to compete in his new time slot and was coming to the party late. The show lost some edge. The World’s Most Dangerous band became the CBS Orchestra and was bigger now, more horns, more big band sound — and less Metallica covers before commercial breaks … sigh. Back to the Carson-esque formula. What is a person to do? Switch the channel to Leno and The Tonight Show? That felt like moving backwards. Leno is a great comedian, and consistently beat Letterman’s ratings. And while his accomplishments in late night are notable, it’s my opinion that his show broke little ground.

arsenioBy this point, mind you, late night talk shows were on people’s radar as new networks were being established and opening new doors. Up until 1988 Carson held a monopoly on his 11 p.m. slot. The likes of Tom Snyder, and Alan Thicke tried early on to compete at later slots, then Chevy Chase, Pat Sajak, Greg Kinnear, Craig Kilborn, Charles Grodin and even Magic Johnson would try their hand at late night in the ‘90s. There was one stand out amongst these early players: If any show had a chance to become a late night staple, it was the Arsenio Hall Show, which ran for five years on the new FOX network.

Arsenio was already considered a great comedian, warming up crowds and co-hosting Solid Gold. Unlike most late night hosts, he also asked his guests tough questions and put them on the spot, often leading to uncomfortable situations on air. His show was popular with younger viewers; hip-hop and rap artists were regular musical guests, and when Bill Clinton wanted to look cool for young voters in 1992, he brought his sax down to Arsenio’s place. But Arsenio was constantly getting bumped down the ratings competing directly with Leno, Letterman and even Chevy Chase. The show was cancelled in 1994 after 5 years, in part because of the highly popular if short-lived MTV product The Jon Stewart Show launching the previous year. At the time, similar shows were being cancelled in mere weeks. To last five years was a testament to the growing market. There seemed to be a gap to fill around this time, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien answered the call.

DaveconanConan worked for SNL and the Simpsons as a writer early in his career, and came on the late night scene in 1993. Conan brought the side-kick back to the equation with Andy Richter, something Letterman didn’t do. Conan was initially criticized, and faced cancellation for a few seasons, but his comedic banter with Andy, and signature self deprecating style of comedy set him aside from the rest. Once again, it was the band, led by Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg, that helped bring some decent musical talent to the stage. Obscure acts just breaking into the music scene were a normal weekly feature — something you rarely saw with Letterman anymore. What really made Conan’s show stand head and shoulders above the rest was the writing. Running skits and breakaway comedy routines like “Triumph: The Insult Comic Dog” and “The Masturbating Bear” were a new thing to late night television. Conan’s team broke new ground on what was acceptable to air, and often pushed raunchy jokes and language to the limits.

fallonLate Night with Conan O’Brien ran on NBC for 16 years in the later slot pioneered by Letterman. No small success. That is, until another ‘change of the guard’ moment occurred in 2009. NBC was attempting a risky move. They tried to move Leno’s show to a prime time slot, and have Conan take over The Tonight Show at its usual slot. Both shows took a hit with their ratings, and a mere seven months later, the move was considered an abject failure. Panicked, NBC attempted to re-formulate their late night plan and move The Tonight Show to a 12 a.m. slot, bumping Leno back to his original slot. Conan refused to back pedal, and formulated a deal to leave NBC after almost two decades of success. He then successfully moved his show to TBS at 11 p.m., bumping the short lived Lopez Tonight to midnight. NBC re-launched Late Night with SNL comedian Jimmy Fallon at the helm, and gave The Tonight Show back to Leno. As a fan of Conan, I was disheartened by NBC’s move, and I have to admit that the combination of Leno and Fallon, at the time, seemed less attractive than what Conan was doing. This was personal to me, and I wanted to switch the channel to Conan initially, but TBS didn’t launch Conan’s show right away. Due to contractual agreements when departing NBC, Conan was barred from hosting any show on TV for nine months, so I began to watch Fallon.

rootsJimmy Fallon announced, before Late Night with Jimmy Fallon was launched in 2009, that his house band would be The Roots. This intrigued me. I had never heard of an established act like The Roots taking on a late night house band gig. I also found out SNL creator Lorne Michaels was deeply involved with promoting Fallon for the job and was to produce the show. Although these teasers promised to draw me in, it wasn’t until the show started, and Fallon’s musical guests started to perform, that the show’s framework began to appeal to me. The comedy was great and The Roots seemed to be able to back anyone — and I assume their connections brought in some artists rarely seen on network television at the time. Spinal Tap, Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, Tom Tom Club, Lauryn Hill, Joe Jackson, The Cars and Twisted Sister were all early acts that came on as musical guests — often with little to promote. The Fallon Late Night just brought musicians out of the woodwork to play music.

comboToday it seems we are yet again in the midst of changing the late night guard, and there seems to be more players than ever. Fallon moved to The Tonight Show after Leno retired for the second time. SNL News correspondent Seth Meyers has just taken over Late Night. Letterman is stepping down and Stephen Colbert is taking over at CBS in 2015. Conan is still going strong at TBS, and Jimmy Kimmel seems to be immobile in his 11th year at ABC. Over the last year, Craig Ferguson and Chelsea Handler have announced their departure from the party as well, and will probably have successors, new shows or may leave the arena entirely. A new slot is opening up after Conan with the cancellation of Lopez Tonight, and, subsequently, The Pete Holmes Show. The return of The Arsenio Hall Show on CBS came and went recently, as it was cancelled due to low ratings after only 8 months. Who will be our next late night champions? Are Handler and Ferguson going to work out new deals? Keep an eye on The State alumni Michael Ian Black, who almost got Craig Ferguson’s spot a decade ago. How about him? Will DVR and internet streaming be a factor? What will be the angle to keep the new talent on the air? If history dictates, be on the lookout for that nobody with fresh edgy ideas who everyone hates at first.