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The Crownless King-to-Be of Late Night TV

Bob Chipman | 14 Apr 2014 12:30
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David Letterman

David Letterman announcing his forthcoming retirement was, to be sure, news. What it wasn't, not exactly anyway, was surprising. "I'm probably too old for this" had become the main undercurrent of his shtick years ago, and once his eternal rival Jay Leno was finally driven from the air (or the 11:30 pm time slot, at least) everyone who cared knew it was only a matter of time. Dave was the original late-night TV rebel, his anarchic oddball approach to TV comedy in the '80s laying the groundwork for everything from The Daily Show to Adult Swim. But the time had come.

The news would be who would inherit the chair.

If you're younger than 20, it might be hard to believe that network Late Night shows were once among TV's most important gigs. In the years before streaming, DVR, cable or even VCRs, televised programming was scheduled around a reliably cycling audience: Early morning was for young kids, daytime was for moms, afternoons were for older kids home from school and evening was for "family" (read: whatever dad was going to make everyone else watch). Then came the news and finally, the late shows: A smiling emcee would summarize the events of the day, give the floor to some standup comedy or a musical act, interview somebody famous and see America off to bed. And for decades, that emcee spot was one of the most coveted positions in the industry.

Johnny Carson

It's trendy to contend that Jay Leno brought all that to ruin, first by "stealing" Johnny Carson's Tonight Show inheritance from supposed rightful heir Letterman (thought too much the maverick by network bosses) and then by morphing from a once-lauded standup talent to the safest, most toothless comedy host imaginable at the moment when TV was otherwise moving away from such fare. But that's just it: The need for a Late Night host to summarize the day was rendered obsolete by the 24-hour news cycle and an audience that had largely learned how to mock the media-narrative on their own. Leno didn't so much "kill" late night as fossilize along with it, occupying space while the new generation of post-10 pm viewers fractured between an edgier breed of current-events commentary like The Daily Show and the unfiltered anarchy of Adult Swim and the like. (Letterman was a pioneer here, too - his famous "Top 10 Lists" were custom-built to be shared the next day via Caveman Twitter, aka Morning Radio, to build buzz with an audience that might not have actually watched the show.)

The only place this was shift wasn't apparent, though, is where it supposedly mattered most: The ratings, where Leno reigned supreme. But we'll come back to that...

Another round of change has been in the offing for awhile. It's been no secret that the networks, conscious of a shifting audience, had tried for years to set the stage for Generation X's inevitable inheritance of late night. NBC in particular has been rather publicly looking to move on from Leno, first with a haphazard launch for a new Conan O'Brien-fronted Tonight Show that was never permitted to find its own footing. Now with Jay seemingly gone for good (at least until some cable net looking to hit his 50-plus niche backs a truck of money up to his house, which isn't inconceivable) they've installed SNL-alum Jimmy Fallon; who fits the rare profile of being a "young comedy" icon with ties to a network rather than cable or the internet. And heading into this past weekend, we learned who would succeed Letterman at CBS:

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