The news that Neil Patrick Harris turned down the offer of replacing David Letterman (and Craig Ferguson) shows how astute he is to the personal sacrifices hosting a late-night show brings. With Harris noting the repetitiveness of the format and in recurring comedy bits, you almost need a psychoanalysis of all late-night hosts to see how they stay with the job for so many years without just walking away with their millions. When it comes to Craig Ferguson, we see an example where that repetitiveness led to a decision to walk away, especially when you have a late-night show with a consistently low budget.
Doing a late-night show with limited budgets must be the worst kind of creative hell, even if it also keeps writers from getting complacent as they did when Jay Leno had “The Tonight Show.” This doesn’t mean those now given the keys to the golden late-night kingdom (as in Jimmy Fallon) can’t take those keys and make the path even more golden. It seems Fallon is one of the few late-night hosts who were born to perfectly fit the format, never be bored with the concept, and be consistently inspired in creating new ideas.
Much of the above has to do with the studio environment and the city you’re in. Fallon has the best of all worlds now in feeding off the historic energy of Studio 6B where “The Tonight Show” originated. He also has the New York City energy that helps all comedy have a little bit more of a party-like vibe late-night shows need to have.
But will Fallon be the only exception now in making it through a long reign? Neil Patrick Harris’s comments about late-night TV having too many repetitive patterns to suit his talents may be truer than ever as the late-night format seems to adhere to the traditions started decades ago. In that regard, will late-night hosts be able to realistically psyche themselves up into keeping the same job for their entire TV careers, or will there be shorter reigns over the next several decades?
How Creatively Satisfying is Late-Night TV?
You have to wonder what’s going through the head of David Letterman now has he prepares to leave late-night TV after almost 33 years there. That’s three years longer than Johnny Carson managed to stay, and he seemed genuinely burned out at the time. The latter years of Carson’s “Tonight Show” reign didn’t have the spontaneity the earlier years had, plus it seemed to go on automatic pilot for at least a decade before his retirement was announced.
The same could be said of Letterman’s “Late Show”, even if it’s still arguably hilarious. Regardless, devoting your entire TV career to the type of comedy Letterman does is one that must get a little surreal when thinking about it in depth. One has to wonder if Letterman had any other aspirations he wanted to do beyond just hosting “Late Show” (and producing some other shows) for almost four decades.
Back in Letterman’s early years, it seemed that he was already getting bored of the job and showed a lot of his dissatisfaction outwardly. While perhaps part of the anti-establishment act, it’s amazing how mainstream that kind of persona became to a point where America couldn’t live without it when seeking out comedy anywhere.
Despite those changes in comedy, the late-night format has still stuck to the same format and patterns set by Carson. Routine was a big part of the Carson era, with plenty of variations on those themes to keep it interesting. To some creative artists, it can get boring very fast, and to others perhaps comfortable if they’re not used to thinking more broadly in their aspirations.
Considering Stephen Colbert has set a recurring pattern and gimmick for a decade now on “The Colbert Report”, you have to assume he’s perfect for the late-night mold.
What will happen to the others, though, now that Ferguson set a precedent in saying late-night TV shouldn’t be a lifelong endeavor?
Shorter Runs for Late-Night TV
It seems long TV runs in everything may not be as plentiful as people have vastly more entertainment options and perhaps don’t warm to familiarity on a regular basis. Other than Fallon having a good chance to host “The Tonight Show” for the next 20 to 30 years, you have to wonder if he’ll want to leave earlier to partake in other ventures. The same goes for Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, and Conan O’Brien.
When Carson retired, it seems he had to cram everything he’d always wanted to do into the last years of his life. In that regard, it shows that hosting a late-night show with the same patterns for decades takes a personal toll on your real life that some entertainers may not be able to hack any more. Or perhaps the public demand for them to stay will keep a few around for a long time, which may blind the host to the realities of how much they may be losing personally to entertain insomniacs.