As I get older, I find I’m watching fewer late-night talk shows on TV.
Jay Leno was shoved aside for Jimmy Fallon. David Letterman became a cranky bitter old man and Craig Ferguson – who probably was the best of the bunch – decided to quit the talk-show game after 10 years. Now we find out that Conan O’Brien is leaving next month. The new guy out there, James Corden, is not bad in his car karaoke and has been a hit with viewers.
“The Tonight Show” started in 1954 and starred entertainer Steve Allen. He was replaced with humorist Jack Parr, whose candid emotions made for interesting watching.
Johnny Carson replaced Parr in 1962, and was fortunate that he was aided by announcer Ed McMahon and band leader Doc Severinsen. These gents were not really known for their sense of humor, but frequently kept Carson in stitches with remarks.
After 30 years, Carson was ushered out the door and comedian Leno was brought in. Fans were divided between having Leno or Letterman as host of “The Tonight Show.” Leno won. Additionally, there was a new kid on the block, Arsenio Hall, who was getting good ratings but eventually his high ratings fizzled.
When the dust settled, Leno was ruling the ratings at NBC, Letterman left his NBC show at 12:30 and went up against direct competition with Leno at 11:30 on CBS with Hall coming up third in the ratings. “The Tonight Show” was reduced from 90 minutes to 60 minutes.
Carson would take two days off at the beginning of the week. Near the end of his tenure, it seemed like it was open season, with several talk shows coming out. Joan Rivers started her ill-fated program, Pittsburgh’s Dennis Miller had his talk show going at the same time, and remember Alan Thicke of “Growing Pains”? He had his own talk show called “Thicke of the Night.” All of these shows fell by the wayside. None could topple Carson.
Even back in the 1960s, when talk shows were at their peak, Carson’s two main competitors – Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett – put up a valiant fight, but in the end their ratings collapsed as well, leaving Carson standing at the top.
Leno served as Carson’s replacement from 1992 to 2009. O’Brien took over from 2009 to 2010, when he was dumped from NBC because of low ratings. Leno came back for 2010 to 2014. when he was ushered out for Jimmy Fallon’s version of “The Tonight Show.”
During the glory days of television talk shows, besides your regular A-listers, you got to meet celebrities such as Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun dorma” and astronomer Carl Sagan.
So why is the talk show on the road to demise? I think it’s been dying for decades now. The key elements of the talk show have gone by the wayside.
While Carson was funny, he wasn’t the funniest. Steve Allen was the funniest, followed by Jack Parr, who was on the same level as Carson. Behind would be Leno. Several notches below would be Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah.
What was Carson’s chief strength?
He was a conversationalist. He’d engage in slapstick with Burt Reynolds much like that of Laurel and Hardy. A lot of times he would use guest hosts, which was a refreshing change. Fallon is a poor conversationalist, but his saving grace is that he can be very funny with singing impersonations.
Letterman had become progressively bitter over the years. His lifeline was music director Paul Shaffer – who, despite Letterman’s cranky demeanor, was able to provide a ray of sunshine and humor that helped keep the program palatable to the audiences.
Griffin’s chief strength was that he was essentially a gossip columnist. He’d get into these intriguing conversations with celebrities. Cavett was perceived by many as an intellectual. What Cavett was good at was carrying on conversations with people. Cavett asked questions of his guests and he would let them talk. He wouldn’t interrupt them for jokes.
Another strength of Cavett’s was he would get these great guests such as Orson Welles, Fred Astaire and Marlon Brando that Carson and the others would never get initially. That’s a testament to Cavett’s strength as an interviewer. Later, Carson would get some of these same guests after Cavett went off the air.
Cavett’s shows were not only entertaining; they were informative as well.
Cavett was also able to pull in major musical acts of the day: David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger. A favorite question of Cavett’s was when he would say to somebody such as Bowie: “Can you imagine yourself doing this in your sixties?” The question was funny.
But ironically, as the years passed, some of those musicians are still performing into their 70s as well.
I encourage everybody to see some of these old shows. You can find them on YouTube and many old stars and musicians come alive. It’s well worth your time.