It’s Friday night, the TV’s on and the lights are off. Its after 10:30 PM so there’s no guilt about being a couch potato, and also being Friday there is no guilt about having to get up early for work or school the next morning. Then you hear it, “Hey, hey, hey, hey….” as The Roots sing Jimmy Fallon’s intro song for The Tonight Show, and Steve Higgins voice comes on to announce the evening guests. It’s the start of a 2 ½ hour journey that you may or may not make it through, and the worst case scenario for not making it through is that you fall asleep or go to bed in order to take advantage of the little extra sleep Saturday morning may get you. Ultimately though you relax, you realize you’ve made it through another week, and now it’s late and the week can’t hassle you anymore. Sound familiar?
For me late night TV on a Friday nights is somewhat of a ritual and as you might be able to tell by reading this, it has been since I was a teenager. Back then it was about proving something to myself by staying up late, now it’s about relaxing and closing the mental file drawer of stress called “Monday through Friday” with some good laughs and entertainment.
In writing all this I also came to realize one more thing, and that is that this 2 ½ hour period is in itself a time machine, museum, and battleground. My choice to watch NBC for 2 ½ hours on a Friday night has been decided by a lot of network give and take, clashes of ego’s, and the changing tastes and demographics of audiences. I can compare late night TV to video game consoles, whereby its something you really don’t need, but it’s something that’s fun to partake in. We as viewers especially those of us of that prime demographic CBS pushed Letterman out over, can easily choose to watch Netflix, a DVD, or some other form of on demand entertainment yet we are willing to watch our beloved choice of host even if we have to deal with commercials in between. As I said above it’s not uncommon for me to turn Seth Meyers off after his monologue, and watch netflix or play video games, but I do at times leave his show on and go beyond. There are also times I ask myself if I should go check out what James Corden is doing, or catch the last half hour of Kimmel since these options are all there too. My ultimate choice to stick with Meyer’s though is based on my comfort with his hosting and his brand of humor, all of which I grew to know and love from watching him host Weekend Update on SNL. When summed up this goes on to spell out the careful tweaking and re-tweaking the networks have gone through over the years to grab and hang on to late night viewers, especially to get to a spot where a viewer like me in my demographic is willing to set the remote aside at 10:35 PM (CT) and not touch it again till 1:05 AM.
I will be the first to admit my return to late night TV has been slow, and that I avoided late night TV all together for many years, or chose only to watch certain shows. There was a point about 10 years ago when I wouldn’t watch either Letterman or Leno but skip on to Craig Ferguson, and a few years after that I would occasionally check out Jimmy Fallon’s show when he hosted Late Night. Besides that though I can only recall watching O’Brien in his last week of hosting Late Night up to his last show. My return to late night TV, at least on Fridays, has been due to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, this is also thanks to my wife and eldest son becoming big fans of his work on Late Night. Under Fallon The Tonight Show has prospered and has connected with viewers like me who prefer the shows new energy, and SNL type comedy, well maintaining the same level of sophistication the show has had since its first incarnation with Steve Allen in 1954. In a way it’s as if Fallon has revamped the show enough to make it feel different than it did under Carson, and Leno. I wholeheartedly believe this has something to do with moving the show back to New York, where it’s closer to its own roots, as well as receiving some SNL vibes, allowing the show to really focus on a different type of comedy than we have seen out of the show in years. For me it’s a formula that works, and has kept me on board as a viewer, as well as bought me back to late night and willing to give Seth Meyer (who I just mentioned), and Carson Daly a chance afterwards.
As I said though this 2 ½ hours is a time machine, museum, and battlefield and perhaps I’ve covered elements of all three here and above. The battlefield was and is obvious is the networks battle for the best position. As for the museum each show is in a way is a museum, having gotten to where it is due to the constant changes that have placed the show where it is. Even Jimmy Kimmel despite having an entirely new show, has a lineage of ABC late night shows that make his show what it is now. There are successes and failures, and unlikely interims that make each show what it is.
As for the time machine element, perhaps that is not as obvious or perhaps it seems as if I’m alluding to the museum element again, but when I look at The Tonight Show or Late Night, or even the Late Late Show the past creeps up on me a bit. You begin to remember things like Johnny Carson hosting, with his Carnac bit and Ed McMahon, and you remember Arsenio Hall’s brief challenge to Carson. I remember Crispin Glover on Late Night nearly kicking Letterman in the head, and as kid, just how incredibly late it use to seem when his show came on. I remember Leno introducing his Headlines bit, and Jaywalking after that. I also think of Conan O’Brien with all the funny bits he had, and how unusual and zany his show was for that late hour, and for kicking off many a weekend in high school watching his show and talking with friends about it come Monday morning. Than after him came Fallon, who had some pretty original stuff going on his show, like his audience involved gameshow bits obviously something he couldn’t bring with him to The Tonight Show but very memorable. Than there is also the Late Late Show with memories of quickly turning off Craig Kilborn, and then after him all the hours spent watching Craig Ferguson and trying to guess what he’d do next. Even Jimmy Kimmel Live! makes you think of some of the unforgettable guests and Hollywood legends his predecessor of nearly 30 years before, Dick Cavett, had on his show thanks to TCM re-airing some of those a few years back coincidentally hosted by Conan O’Brien.
That’s the other element to these shows, the guests. I think of the legends who have since passed, the nobodies who are now superstars, the little known politicians who have gone on to become presidents or major power players in Washington, and of course the celebrities who have changed themselves entirely over the years. There are also the hard to remember celebrates that watching these shows reminds you of, like the ones who disappeared into disgrace for one reason or another, the one hit wonders, the 15 minutes of fame people, and the folks that time forgot as trends moved on and they didn’t. As I said these shows have an element of time machine to them that can make you recall their past even if you are firmly invested in their present and future.
My view from the couch on Friday nights may focus on the evenings entertainment, and the wide open feeling of freedom that moment of the weekend may have. At the same time though my past always seems to remind me of how things once were. The realm of late night is, as it has always been a changing landscape. For now I will enjoy it how it is, especially as I make new memories of late night TV with my own family.