Talking About Late-night Talk Show Hosts
My thoughts about some prominent late-night hosts and their respective shows.

Johnny Carson

I know he was by no means the first talk show host, but he's the one I grew up with and was very nearly the only one on for most of my childhood.  My parents still tell the story of how they couldn't get me to bed as a three year-old until after Johnny's monologue.  His most important trait was that he never tried to be funnier than his guests, even though he all too often was.  He was a good interviewer without ever trying to get too deep or uncomfortable.  I actually pity the generations who grew up after he was off the air, because that's a whole group of people who will never really know how a talk show is supposed to be run.

David Letterman

Dave was really good at turning the talk show format into a family.  Many of the workers there (even guys in the booth who never say stagelights except through their monitors) became part of the act.  Biff Hendersen has logged more hours on-camera than many professional actors.  Many of his pages got into routines.  Even his mom used to turn up via phone or reporting live from the Olympics.  Then there were regulars like Larry "Bud" Melman or Chris Elliot.  The band was incorporated into regular bits, not just the rehearsed banter with Paul.  There was a whole pantheon of tv friends, and you never knew who might drop by with something funny to say and bust up Dave.

He was honest and unpredictable.  He wasn't always a great interviewer, but he was entertaining.  Everyone who watched him in the '80s remembers one guest or another calling him an asshole (I think Cher did once, then Madonna did another time).  He brought a lot of great, nutty comedians with him who weren't entirely right in the head, guys like Jake Johannsen and Richard Lewis or weird, fringe artists like American Spendor creator Harvey Pekar, people you'd never see on any other show.  And there may never be another tv moment like the time Crispin Glover threatened (physically, mind you; not verbally) to kick Dave's head off.

The odd thing is that in his later years, Dave has transformed the show from the guerrilla talk show it once was to an homage to variety shows of the past.  The band went from the "World's Most Dangerous Band" to the tongue-in-cheek "CBS Orchestra" now featuring an additional (redundant) guitarist and a horn section.  He does an ironic, weak monologue with mostly his trademark bad jokes.  The comedy has shifted from Dave pranking the workers at local McDonalds' drive-thrus to faux game shows like "Will It Float?" and "Let's Check In With Rupert at the 'Hello Deli'"  Come on, Dave.  On the other hand, Dave has mellowed as he's aged, and as a result he's become a better interviewer.  He's still pretty good with one-liners and being a cut-up.

Jay Leno

The show is slick, but oh-so-predictable.  The headlines are pretty good and bits like "Dollar store finds" work pretty well.  He has a thorough monologue that actually covers the news, not just the odd bits.  Unfortunately, Jay is kind of mean, so he turns me off.  He doesn't care who his target is... well, except for Bush.  I noticed he was always lighter on him even though he's that rare case of an easy and deserving target.  I can't tell whether he's a closet Republican or simply trying not to alienate his demographic of people who actually find country music entertaining instead of repulsive.  He takes so many cheap shots at his guests that I wonder how he has any.  And the jokes are so broad, I wonder why anyone tunes in.  I certainly don't anymore.

Conan O'Brien

I never liked him very much until the fall-out with NBC after he tried running the Tonight Show.  I can't say I'm a fan really, but I have more respect for him now.  I still don't watch him at all.  What I remember of the show was that it was possibly the worst sketch comedy on tv.  The writers tried desperately to come up with avant garde routines, but they were just awful.  Conan is likable enough, but the show was never as inventive or as unpredictable as Late Night was during Letterman's tenure where there was a very real sense of danger.  I worried that Dave might get arrested or fired from the network.  There was never any fear of that with Conan.  Still, I loved his band and my favorite moment of the night was watching as the camera panned past them during the intro to see just which guitar he had.  Unfortunately, I just don't really care to watch anymore unless he has a good guest.

Craig Ferguson

Here's a completely under-rated guy.  Competent and likable, and yet no one is really watching.  He's the best across the board at every angle of the talk show job description.  As an interviewer, he's fantastic.  He never seems to struggle to keep a guest interesting, yet he never resorts to detouring them or calling attention to himself to hold the audience's attention.  He does mediocre sketches, but he transcends the weak writing with personality.  What he's best at is delivering honest monologues.  Whereas Jay's is "Joke, joke, joke," Craig tells stories punctuated with hilarious non sequiturs, then goes over to his desk and tells another story or two, and I don't get tired of him.  He's perfectly content talking off the cuff or working with written material.  He can be silly or very candid and personal, and it's all effective.  Sadly, his show is bare bones.  No house band, no sketches, no walk-ons (e.g., like celebs doing Dave's Top Ten), no pranks, not even quizzing the audience.  He carries the entire show by himself.  That's both amazing and sad.

Jimmy Kimmel

Clearly he needs some coffee.  I swear it doesn't look like he cares if he's there doing the show, so I'm not sure why I should care to watch him sleepwalk through it.  However, what he does have are clever (probably very young) guys who transformed what might otherwise be a very dull monologue into a multi-media show.  He's gotten better though, and the show is the only one that's situated in the 21st century, a place where you draw from other media rather than talking into a camera.  Jimmy does little more than introduce the clips, but that's all he needs to do.  Some of his best work is with media manipulation such as "Unnecessary Censorship" that cleverly bleeps innocuous clips to paradoxically make them obscene.  I remember the early years when, as soon as the show runs out of clips, it was over already because there were never any good guests.  Ten minutes into things, and it was time to change the channel.

He also and has something of a "no bullshit" policy where he will call things like he sees them.  YouTube has a number clips in which he puts self-important celebs in their place.  He's the talk show host who finds the most relevant artists today too.  Jay brings the pop-friendliest bunch.  Dave has the NPR/Indie crowd.  Jimmy clearly appreciates rock radio.

Speaking of whom, he wisely followed Dave's lead and developed a tv family as his own, including literally bringing in his (now-legendary) Uncle Frank and Cousin Sal, both of whom were naturals in their own way.  Frank's ex, Aunt Chippy, was a frequent guest as well.  I've watched Jimmy's tribute/eulogy to Uncle Frank on YouTube multiple times, and I can't get through it without crying several times and laughing even more at Jimmy's stories about this nutty, lovable guy.

Carson Daily

Sometimes it's embarrassing to watch this poor guy struggle to be funny.  He's competent enough, but he's just so bland.  I haven't watched him in years.

Copyright 2012 Ale[x]plorer
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