Late-night lacks laughs

Illustration by Zachary Taylor.

Dylan Hostetter, Opinions Editor

The past several years have seen an undeniable decline in interest in late-night talk shows. Many articles by reputable institutions — from CNN to The New York Times — have spent that time postulating their imminent collapse. I am not here to do that. 

To make one thing clear, I do not think late-night talk shows are going anywhere — people would have an easier time abolishing the Electoral College than they would “The Tonight Show.” Late-night television as it currently stands — and has stood for the past 70 years — is just too easy and too cheap to produce to get the axe.

However, the problem of their declining ratings still stands. In an era of entertainment defined by streaming services, gaming and short-form attention-grabbing content, late-night talk shows can easily seem like a thing of the past. However, we must ask the question: How is something that has remained virtually unchanged for the past seven decades only just now be deemed irrelevant?

Simple: It is not. Late-night television has never clamored for your attention. Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” — though one of the most widely viewed shows of its time — was a formulaic program meant to help hard-working Americans wind down their day. 

Why is it, then, that we feel late-night television has fallen from some pedestal? Viewers were more likely to tune in throughout the heyday of late night in the 1960s and 1970s because they had fewer options, sure. The 1980s to the 2000s, however, saw a boom in premium television and other outlets to draw away our attention. 

So what was keeping people locked to their screens so late at night? What was drawing viewers to these formulaic shows? Comedy. I myself am guilty of looking at the late-night lineup of the past with rose-colored glasses, but in this case, I feel it is hard not to. It is undeniable that late-night shows used to be much more entertaining.

When reminiscing on both David Letterman and Conan O’Brien’s tenures on “Late Night” — even extending into Letterman’s “Late Show” — I do not think there is anything to do but marvel at the pure volume of comedy. 

Those shows were about interviewing guests and hosting musical acts, sure, but in between all that they wanted to be as funny as they could be. Late-night talk shows used to be stuffed to the brim with gags, recurring bits and absolute nonsense humor.

Writers such as Merrill Markoe, Jim Downey, Steve O’Donnell, Bob Odenkirk, Louis C.K. and Robert Smigel reinvented what a late-night show could be. Though these shows were still operating within their own lane, this innovative approach of nonstop comedy brought in viewers galore. 

The second episode of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” featured a bit where a still picture of former President Bill Clinton was made to talk using a cut-out mouth. This bit, affectionately known as a “Clutch Cargo” after a strange 1950s animated series, would go on to become a recurring gag on the show.

I think this demonstrates these shows’ unfaltering commitment to comedy. From their very inception, their sole purpose was to entertain, and they chose to do that by making you laugh as hard — and as often — as possible.

If we take a look at what late-night shows have become, I would argue they have receded back into their formulas. They are still trying to make us laugh, sure, but they are being much less innovative about it.

Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” has chosen to rely on gags and games with celebrities clearly meant to capitalize on short-form internet fame. Other late-night shows, like Stephen Colbert’s “The Late Show” and Seth Meyers’ “Late Night” have become much more political than their predecessors.

Nothing is wrong with political satire — a lot of it is actually rather funny — but I think current late-night shows can become a bit over-reliant. This surely alienates some viewers, but it also creates less airtime for more evergreen comedy.

If you could not tell, I am a devoted fan of O’Brien’s, and one thing he consistently speaks on is his devotion to comedy which is as funny now as it will be in 20 years. Why do you think O’Brien and Letterman’s YouTube channels garner hundreds of thousands of views a day, even when most of their content is decades old? It is because his philosophy is correct.

Political satire, while funny, ages like milk. One might not think silly bits like “Stupid Pet Tricks,” a man dressed in a pea costume or a bear fondling itself would be the end-all-be-all of late-night comedy — but as it turns out, it may be.

Late-night talk shows aren’t dying — they’re just stale. They are missing the absurdism that confused and entertained people for decades. What they need is to take risks, drop weird things off of tall buildings or go apple-picking with Mr. T. What they need is comedy.

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