It seems late-night TV is going through some of its most significant evolutionary changes lately in the history of the concept. Consider that in just the last six months since the writing of this article, the entire trajectory of “The Tonight Show” changed, David Letterman announced his retirement, Steven Colbert was chosen as Letterman’s replacement, plus several favorite late-night hosts announced their own departures. At the tail of it all now comes the cancellation of “The Arsenio Hall Show” that was always considered a ratings challenge since Hall returned to TV.
All of the above occurring at that quick pace shows how far late-night TV has evolved since the early days of TV. Never would you have seen that much late-night news during the Carson or even Jay Leno era. Also, hearing about Arsenio Hall getting a pink slip back in his heyday would have caused uproars.
What really doomed Arsenio Hall’s show considering it still had the same formula as his old classic late-night show in the 1980s and early ’90s? Back when it resumed last fall, I wrote that the show needed one of those “Bill Clinton playing the saxophone” moments, which gave a lot of momentum to the original show. In the show’s original run, it had a compelling edge because it combined hip comedy with some of the biggest newsmakers of the day.
It’s too bad Hall’s revival couldn’t seem to book any guests that were making ripples in the headlines. Even a return of Bill Clinton would have been a coup and brought in viewers who perhaps didn’t even know Hall was on the air. Overall, it appears the network late-night shows stole all the biggest names and left Hall to look almost like a second-run movie in comparison.
Yes, considering Hall was more or less syndicated, it goes to show that perhaps a late-night franchise through independent means isn’t really financially sustainable. There seemed to be somewhat of a precedent on that from the past, even if the other examples were simply victims of going up against Johnny Carson.
Earlier Late-Night Shows in Syndication
Back in the 1980s, names like Alan Thicke and even standup comedian David Brenner tried syndicated late-night talk shows that failed miserably up against Carson’s “Tonight Show.” They were in the same predicament as Arsenio Hall was today in being effective comedians with fairly good material, yet not having any network support toward building an audience.
Is it proof now that late-night TV is only possible with a network’s backing, including cable? If the true secret is getting newsworthy guests, having a network or cable channel on your side may have to be the secret weapon to success. Then again, networks are also known for sometimes being cheap on budgets, hence forcing the 12:35 a.m. shows to pare down to a bare minimum and work strictly off comedic skills. Craig Ferguson is a good example of having a miniscule budget and still managing to work magic based strictly on Ferguson’s (and Geoff the Robot’s) improv skills. The same goes with Seth Meyers, even if the jury’s still out on how good the show’s comedy is outside of the monologue.
That kind of argument puts Hall perhaps under more scrutiny as a comedian. While the writing wasn’t bad on the revival, it wasn’t great either. No comedy bit was ever replayed on social media or on the news. Perhaps if Hall had been on a network, he would have had a bigger budget to hire better writers. Regardless, with the Ferguson factor, it says a lot when you’re able to be extemporaneous in comedy without the need of a writer at every turn.
The collision of talent and channel location seems to have occurred with “The Arsenio Hall Show” and will likely be analyzed carefully for those planning the next late-night TV franchise. In the meantime, it appears the true magic formula seems to be having the backing of a major network and finding a host who can make more of what they’re given. Right now, Jimmy Fallon seems to be the emblem of this, plus “Midnight” on Comedy Central.
Later, Stephen Colbert may be cited for having all those skills. If he doesn’t do well, though, we’ll have to analyze yet another undiscovered problem of late-night TV: Whether being yourself is really a detriment after always being important in late-night TV.