[A version of this essay appears in the May 23, 2015, edition of the author’s weekly “Click’d” column un the Rutland Herald.]
The end of David Letterman’s groundbreaking tenure on The Late Show marks the end of an era in late-night television. When Letterman arrived in the early 1980s, he forever revolutionized the format with his absurdist, acerbic, and irreverent comic sensibility. All hosts who have followed owe a debt to Dave.
Over the last decade, however, social media has had a profound influence on how these shows engage audiences and share content. In a world where viral videos now dominate water cooler conversations, late-night shows must compete for attention with the entirety of the Internet.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Letterman acknowledges his show’s struggle to create viral content with characteristic self-deprecation:
“… it just came and went without me. It sneaked up on me and went right by. People on the staff said, ‘You know what would be great is if you would join Twitter.’ And I recognized the value of it. It’s just, I didn’t know what to say. You go back to your parents’ house, and they still have the rotary phone. It’s a little like that.”
While Letterman’s struggles with virality may not have directly resulted in his decision to retire, it seems that he recognized it was time for him to cede the stage to the next generation.
“I still enjoy what I’m doing, but I think what I’m doing is not what you want at 11:30 anymore,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this month.
Chasing virality has posed new creative challenges to late-night writers, which some shows have met with impressive results. Conversely, this push has provided fodder to the argument that the late-night format itself might be obsolete.
(To be fair, another contributing factor to late night’s decline is a lack of diversity in hosts. Larry Wilmore, the host of Comedy Central’s Nightly Show, is the only person of color in a sea of white men. Meanwhile, Grace Helbig is whittling away her Sunday Night’s over on E! as TV’s sole female voice in late night. But that’s a column for another page.)
From Jimmy Kimmel’s elaborate pranks to Jimmy Fallon’s lip-sync battle (which is now an entirely separate show on Spike), late night has been chasing the viral dragon for some time now. Most of these efforts have been successful, if not especially comically inspired.
These days tracking virality is almost as important as ratings numbers as a barometer of not only audience interest but also a show’s overall relevance. A Variety story from March fretted over Late Late Show host James Cordon’s tepid online numbers. Following its debut, the show’s YouTube channel had only 590,686 engagements. By comparison, Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show had 21,174,263 engagements over the same period. For his part, Letterman logged 567,174 engagements. Late Night with Seth Meyers took the bottom spot with 361,798.
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were early viral trailblazers, proving that content could have a second life online. Segments lambasting political hypocrisy and journalistic shortcomings were both entertaining and cathartic.
John Oliver has continued this tradition on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, which has taken the viral rant to another level by imbuing it with honest-to-god investigative journalism. These longform segments have successfully raised awareness on issues often overlooked by the mainstream press. For example, Oliver’s in-depth exploration of net neutrality broke the FCC’s website as a tidal wave of people logged on to comment on the matter.
Still, the desire to be buzz worthy often results in an over reliance on cheap gimmicks. Look no further than NBC’s Tonight Show where Fallon’s celebrity hangout hour is nothing but a parade of parlor games and mugging for the camera. It’s cute, cheeky viral gold.
It’s also vapid and lazy. Sure, some of these bits are fun — Fallon’s music videos with classroom instruments are, honestly, pretty great — but more often segments are sycophantic, self-indulgent and tailor-made to be shared the next morning by BuzzFeed, UPROXX, and every other click-bait site on the Web.
Last month, frustrated Conan writer Andrés du Bouchet took to Twitter to offer his hot take on the current state of late night, in a now- deleted series of tweets: “Comedy in 2015 needs a severe motherfucking shakeup. No celebrities, no parodies, no pranks, no mash-ups or hashtag wars. … and shove your lip-synching up your ass.”
Admittedly, that’s pretty harsh. And unprofessional. Conan O’Brien promptly admonished du Bouchet via Twitter stating:
I wish one of my writers would focus on making my show funnier instead of tweeting stupid things about the state of late night comedy.
— Conan O’Brien (@ConanOBrien) April 19, 2015
Still, du Bouchet kind of has a point. The changing landscape of television and its symbiotic relationship with social media is changing the medium. If clicks, likes and retweets are the goal, then shows will only produce content guaranteed to do just that. For better or worse, “celebrities being silly” currently ranks right up there with cat videos as essential online viewing.
It’s worth considering if this current state is, in fact, as detrimental to comedy as du Bouchet argues. The oddball, often challenging brand of comedy popularized by Letterman and carried forward by people like Conan, Kimmel, Colbert and Fallon, is increasingly being pushed to margins on late night as more facile content gets more clicks. But good comedy still does exist on these shows. It’s also thriving on basic cable and websites like Funny or Die. Late night aside, comedy in 2015 is doing just fine.
It’s unfair to fault these shows for giving people what they want. For all my gripes, I accept that comedy nerds like me are the minority. And while I may be critical of late-night comedy, I acknowledge it still fulfills its primary function to entertain and delight. Ultimately, my larger concern lies in the lack of minority representation as I parenthetically mentioned above. (For more on this issue, check out this thoughtful essay by one-time late-night host W. Kamau Bell)
Outside of late night, the evolution of the television medium is undeniable. Time-shifted viewing, binge watching, fervently engaged fans: All these factors are reshaping how networks and cable providers bring content to viewers. Late-night talk shows, too, must adapt or be left behind as new forms of entertainment take their place.