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I have looked at this picture several times over the course of the last year, and for some reason it feels current to me. That is not the case, however, because this picture is almost 30 years old. Aside from feeling recent, the other things that stick out in this picture are the clear affection that David Letterman has for Johnny Carson, and that Jay Leno is looking directly into camera in such a way that makes him seem detached from his surroundings. Look, I wasn’t there for the picture, obviously, but that seems to be part of the catalyst that Letterman supporters focus on.
Stand-up comedians loved Carson because a nice word and a wave-over from him meant they had a career, and they admired him because he was a pioneer for something they aspired to be. Those aspirations were to be beloved while maintaining so-called street cred at the same time. The generation that grew up with Carson at the helm of the Tonight Show desk loved Johnny for the way that Hollywood veterans respected him and younger audiences wanted to be him, and the way that he was likeable and cool at the same time. Letterman had those qualities at the time, and Leno tried to manufacture them.
A few years after that picture was taken, Carson stepped down as the Tonight Show host, and the late night television landscape undertook its most dramatic change in history. Everyone wanted to tell Carson goodbye and be a part of honoring him on his way to retirement. Yes, it was a way to pay respect to the man, but they also wanted to be one of the last guests that were among Johnny’s favorites. That wasn’t the case with Leno’s recent retirement, but more on that in a minute.
Carson stepped down as the Tonight Show host in May of 1992, which set up the drastic change that late night underwent. By the middle of 1993, CBS launched Late Night with David Letterman, Leno was still the new host of the Tonight Show, and Conan O’Brien took over Letterman’s old gig as host of Late Night on NBC. That was the status quo from 1993 until 2009, when Conan O’Brien took over for Jay Leno (briefly) as the host of the Tonight Show. That is what started the notion for me that even though there may be more hosts in that medium than ever, there will always be only one who earns that respect that Carson had from peers.
The debacle that involved Conan, Jay, and NBC masked the fact that neither of them was “the guy” whom they had both hoped to be. It is and was always David Letterman, who, somewhat unwillingly, carried the torch that he’d hoped would have been handed to him by his mentor and friend Johnny. The Jay vs. Dave debate was so enthralling that books and
movies exist about it, but it would never have been the story it was if so many people weren’t on the Letterman side. He was already loved for his 10 years on Late Night, and he was the guy you wanted in Carson’s seat; Leno took it instead.
It is important to phrase it as “Leno took it,” too, because I’m not here to bash Jay for what he has accomplished in his career. I’ve always been a Letterman guy, but Leno went hard for that job, always killed it in the ratings, and by all accounts was regarded as the best stand-up comedian among all of the guys he came up with, including Letterman, Robin Williams, and Jerry Seinfeld. Please take a minute to let that last sentence sink in…Leno was the considered the best of all of them. Hearing that sentiment from several different respected comedians, including Letterman himself, will never stop amazing me.
Yet, even with all of that on his résumé, Leno was never “the guy” among his peers. I don’t think it started like that, but over time it grew into a Highlander situation where there was always going to be only one guy at the top of the respect food chain. Yes, there was a touching tribute to Jay when he stepped down, but even that tribute wasn’t as big as the news of David Letterman just announcing his unexpected retirement on air. We only have about 50 shows left with Dave, and when his run ends there will be a noticeable difference between the turnout and emotions surrounding him and the send-offs for Jay Leno. That is because David Letterman took over Carson’s reign as the “Late Night Highlander,” even though he went to a different network.
With Letterman’s run as the Late Night Highlander coming to an end, we are approaching another dramatic change to the late night landscape in the near future. Jimmy Fallon is now firmly entrenched as the ratings leader with The Tonight Show, and it will be hard to imagine that changing anytime soon. He does things better than his competition, but it is still early in his run. Soon there will be a three-headed monster competing for ratings with Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and the eventual Letterman replacement Stephen Colbert. Once all three of them have firm footing under them, the battle for ratings is going to be excellent. But who is going to gain the cult following to take Dave’s place as the Highlander?
It is something that is fascinating, since it appears that this happens organically. The same fear and respect that young stand-ups had with Carson, they now have with Letterman, and that too evolved over time. An endorsement from
Letterman carries with it a weight unlike anything currently in show business. The reason that it carries this weight is that every comedian knows that Dave is not only a legend, but funnier than they are. If you can sit across from Dave and make him laugh, that is an incredible feat. He has never placated to anyone, and if he doesn’t like a person, he is notorious for going hard at them. Who is filling that void when he leaves? Let’s examine.
Fallon is under the blanket of Lorne Michaels, so that is an immediate advantage out of the gate, but that isn’t the reason why Jimmy leads in the ratings. The way his show is built may seem forced from time to time, but with his SNL chops and pure entertainer ability, the show is built to be an internet juggernaut with 4- to 6-minute clips that regularly average 30 million views on YouTube. The remarkable thing is the consistency with which the show produces viral hits, which is clearly not a coincidence. Fallon is set up to succeed better than anyone with his famous friends, like Justin Timberlake, and the best band (by FAR) among his competition with The Roots. Adding to that are his musical and comedic chops that allow him to participate in things like The History of Rap, or go toe-to-toe with his fellow SNL alumni. He has to be the early odds-on favorite.
Among the cons, though, are that several comedians don’t respect him, and say that his personality is manufactured. He is overly excited about everything, and that tends to rub some people the wrong way. Part of that is jealously, I’m sure, but if he is going to rise to Highlander status, his relaxed nature might get in the way. How can you fear someone who tries so hard to get everyone to like him? He gets plenty of respect, but will his show be a rite of passage for young comedians the way Letterman is, and Carson was? I’m not sure, but it’s a fair question to ask, since that is the strongest selling point for anyone who takes the mantle.
Colbert is the only wildcard in the bunch, since he has not yet made his late night network debut. Sure, he was great on The Colbert Report, but he was playing a character on that show. The risk that CBS is taking is huge, and I’ll explain why. Colbert has been hired to replace a legend, which is a daunting task by itself, but even though they have hired a TV veteran, they are hiring one that most of America has never seen due to not falling in his demographic on Comedy Central, or having never seen the real Stephen Colbert outside of the show. By all accounts, he is a genuinely nice and funny guy, but the lights at CBS are going to burn brighter on him than they ever did on Comedy Central, so he doesn’t have time to get his feet wet gradually. He HAS to hit the ground running.
The excitement from his loyal Colbert Report fans is legit, but when he stops doing that character, will he lose that fan base, and if so, how long does it take for him to gain a new fan base? If Colbert comes out of the gates on fire, then he has a shot to become relevant quickly since nobody will run away from him in the ratings (YouTube is a different story), but there is no way for us to judge his Late Night Highlander status until seeing him in action. As of right now, he is like a lurking wild card team in the NFL playoffs. He’s got a spot in the playoffs, but is he going to get hot at the right time and take that to the title, or get blown out in the first round? We will find out in a few months.
To me, he is the odds-on favorite for Late Night Highlander status. What Kimmel lacks in the “entertainer” department he makes up for with pure hosting talent and comedy chops. Kimmel has some of the same personality traits that made Letterman the best. He’s not afraid to go after someone that he doesn’t care for, he has a close knit group of friends who have been loyal to the show, and he has made his friends and family part of his staff and uses them on the show. When you tune in to a Letterman show, you know the regulars like Paul and Biff and even Rupert, so it’s a smart move on Jimmy’s part to include that element, but with him you honestly get the feeling that it’s more loyalty to them for being there than it is exploiting them.
The reason that I think Kimmel is the favorite over Fallon is the fear aspect that I think will happen naturally over time. The one question (potential problem) is that that Kimmel was never a stand-up act and doesn’t have them on the show. The rite of passage for the last 40 years as a stand-up comedian has entailed a good set on Carson and then a good set on Letterman. That tradition is going to move to a new host and I think that goes a long way in how the Late Night Highlander will be selected.
I’m not sure which of those three gentlemen will rise to fill the Late Night Highlander void that Dave is leaving behind, but I know that ratings won’t be the only relevant factor. Leno consistently beat Letterman in the ratings, but in action and deeds and words from celebrities and peers, it is very clear that Letterman had that title, and that it wasn’t close.
The great thing about the late night landscape changing this year is that all of the things we are discussing will happen in front of our faces on network television. It’s the biggest change that we have gone through in the genre, and that is without even discussing the fact that Conan still has a show (does he go to FOX when his TBS agreement expires?), and Jon Stewart is leaving one of the most coveted jobs on cable TV. This year is going to be exciting, and I am personally excited to see how it plays out. I’m very sad that Letterman is leaving his show, but I am also secretly excited about the possibility of Paul Shaffer writing a book. If anyone knows everything that happened with Letterman, Leno, NBC, Carson, CBS, and even old SNL stories, it is Paul. If he writes a book, then take all of my money now.
Stephen Balding is the Entertainment Badass for The Scoop. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenB_41.