Television in its simplest form is a visual metaphor of communication. Who’s saying what about who or what’s being said about what are common questions that want answers. The conversations that matter most that go unheard or have never been had, need a voice. Television caters to an audience and transmits a message they want to hear. Expectations can be made for viewers over time, keeping their attention broadcast after broadcast. No other medium does this better than the talk show.
Talk shows are presented in one of two ways: scripted and unscripted. The more popular format is unscripted which shows a mutual and genuine address between the speaker(s) and audience. In scripted productions, the experience is with little to no input from the speaker(s) as a mediator for the audience. Different levels of both make a talk show, but there’s no pleasing everyone. Some viewers like to be considered and involved while others like the vicarious, autonomous role as an audience member. At the same time, suspension of disbelief can take either type of audience member out of the experience. Instances where it’s obviously scripted, for the sake of the experience, you may enjoy the moment of it all whether or not that moment garnered a surprise. Come time for the unscripted talks, you as an audience member would hope that nothing said the whole time was scripted. Though if it were the opposite, and it was revealed to be a ruse meant for further enjoyment, so be it. Just as long as everyone is aware of it.
Hosts of talk shows are distinct in their delivery. Some are strictly news oriented, others are made for laughs and a more contemporary approach to the talk show has dealt in both, although some better than others. I can’t give much of an honest look at talk shows/hosts from before my era with the likes of Johnny Carson for example. I can give some review of those that do speak to the current times, which by now are someone else’s era. I speak mainly of Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Stephen Colbert.¹ To be fair, there are many other talk show hosts out there that deserve attention, like John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, Graham Norton of The Graham Norton Show, the retired David Letterman of The Late Show and Craig Ferguson from The Late Late Show, Bill Maher and Larry King. Female hosts like Chelsea Handler and Samantha Bee are making a name for themselves as well. For the time being, I will refrain from talk shows that focus on food, infidelity, the morning, and anything you find your mother watching in the afternoon (I’m looking at you Ellen!) I will only showcase the late night talk show hosts.
Today, talk shows and their respective hosts are one in the same, that is, what is to be expected of a host can give off the same impression for that show. For this reason, comedy and entertainment are the popular outlets for talk shows, more so than news. During the 1960s, television showed us the real faces behind the mask that was radio. Remember the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon? People who listened on the radio thought Nixon had won. Those who watched the debate thought Kennedy had won as he kept a convincing demeanor. Nixon was sweating bullets. The same factor can be applied to talk shows. Hosts gain their comedic voice and trust from their audiences and are possibly more accepting or forgiving of jests. News by nature is rigid with little room to read between the lines, but some hosts manage to poke fun at the current events. Guests also challenge or compliment the dynamics of the host. Not to mention, the talk show announcers and coworkers make great companions to their hosts. Let’s take a look at some of these late night shows.
Conan O’Brien | CONAN | Weeknights 11/10c | TBS
He’s most likely known as the tall ginger and creepy, perverted comic… and we love him for it! Conan O’Brien got his start with NBC on Late Night in 1993. He later moved to the network’s The Tonight Show in 2009 for a short time before another host decided to change that. This reflected the talk show wars of the 1960s, where hosts competed for ratings. Business could never be mixed with pleasure, even though Johnny Carson preferred it that way, it was not a good example for his many wives, children or his long-time friend Joan Rivers. He favored his work over relationships and that standard came to epitomize the dangerous side of show business. Many of hosts took after each other, throwing witticisms at the news, doing what Carson has done. Watch Conan’s Citizenship Test and Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent. Notice a resemblance? The talk show and the talk show host were in many ways mediators of culture as it happened. We all have come to know that any news is never safe from a comedian’s point of view. Conan O’Brien is more or less news-oriented in his monologues but only on a subversive level. Some of the news and the politics shared are hard-hitting but how he pokes fun at them are not always politically mindful statements. Most of the time it introduces a matter that stands well on its own and that does not call for any personal input. The positive takeaway is that there is no sign of political or social favoritism. All news is fair gain and the more he can laugh at life, the better. Those seven months of being prohibited from airing on television was a circumstance that lit a fire under Conan. Instead of looking for work elsewhere, he decided to work at what he does best. Finding the joke might not always be funny, but laughing for the sake of laughter is what makes him so much better to watch.
The studio bits and sketches are the highlight of CONAN and where Conan’s wheelhouse shines. Even some of the interviews incorporate sketches, a common late night show practice, that make the show’s transitions much more lively for the crowd. Other interviews are a natural and spontaneous telling which is more often the case with Conan. He asks certain questions with an exaggerated confidence that seems to forgo any modesty. That hip spree dance of his at the start of the show with the jiving Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band says it all. That’s just Conan being modest; his overreactions and underwhelming reactions to the unusual and taboo are his best characteristic. As a comedian, he can seize the moment from a conversation and than move on with the rest of it or he can take his time and say close to nothing when a comment holds enough humor in itself. More than any other talk show host, Conan is the most experimental .
Long-running characters on CONAN include animator/graphic designer Pierre Bernard, stuntman and stunt coordinator Steven Ho, executive producer Jordan Schlansky (a personal favorite of mine), and of course the one and only dog who uses celebrities as his own chew-toys, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Conan possibly has the best cast of oddballs out of the rest of the late night shows. He brings unabashed bread to the table and people can’t get enough of it! He is brutally honest with his humor and has subtle moments of self-awareness that make his show even funnier. Guests are unrestrained when it comes to Conan’s shoot-the-breeze attitude, but it always pertains to that guest. The show eases people into a fun lull when interviews begin and it keeps them awake for further, unexpected laughs. Jeff Goldblum’s interview shows a complete understanding of the Conan complex. The female guests on the show go along with the creep factor surprisingly well. Many times they have an easily skirted topic that Conan likes to chase.
Conan’s Remotes are pitted in culture wherever he goes, whether it be Armenia or South Korea, his outreach has no bounds and he’s worth watching because of it. The audience gets involved with segments, a notable one called Audiencey Awards, sometimes reaching that awkward, uncomfortable level of comedy Conan stands for. It even reaches a level you can’t come back from, which is another advantage to watching Conan’s show. When something said is too encroaching, he will detest it with the same sense of pleasure he gets out of being the creep. Sure it’s hypocritical but we wouldn’t want it any other way. Andy Richter has been Conan’s announcer since their Late Night debut and he seems to be the only late show announcer to join guests for their interviews. His his timely third wheel interjections are always welcomed; the show wouldn’t be half as funny without him. It’s the lighthearted, easy-going talk show you can go to bed happy with. Yes, you can have sex with your eyes just by watching CONAN. After seeing his autobiographical movie Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, it shows how dedicated he is as an entertainer. You wouldn’t see it as much on TBS, but he has a drive that does not stop for anyone who isn’t fully committed. As Johnny Carson fought for his talent, so did Conan O’Brien. Life for him is improvisation and as he put it, “act as if this is completely normal.” Conan accepted what came his way from NBC and turned it around by working hard as the showman he cares to be.
Jimmy Fallon | The Tonight Show | Weeknights 11:35/10c | NBC
America’s beloved goofball as I like to call him, Jimmy Fallon got his start in show business on Saturday Night Live in 1998. Notable for his celebrity impressions and comedic music, Fallon earned a spot as the host of Late Night after Conan had left in 2009 until becoming the host of The Tonight Show in 2014 after Hot Wheels collector Jay Leno had his fill of air time. The Tonight Show is in all honesty a variety show more than anything else. Creativity is this show’s middle name and it’s obvious that the SNL experience found its way here. Announcer Steve Higgins is a veteran writer and producer from SNL and has also been beside Fallon since his talk show beginnings. Celebrity games and skits are the highlight of the show, but the traditional opening monologue established by the show’s first host Johnny Carson still holds true. Fallon is the host most aware of pop culture references and sets out to incorporate them into the show. There’s popular segments like Thank You Notes where back-handed compliments are presented as gratitude, Hashtags involves unusual tweets from Twitter, and Wheel of Impressions has guests perform their best impressions of other celebrities. Games are abundant on the show, so much in fact The Tonight Show could be its own game show. Each are different from the rest, some using clever wordplay and others just plain antics. The Roots are the distinguished late night band with their appropriate musical cues for those special moments and needed background jingles. Jimmy Fallon has himself a jack-of-all-trades night show.
When he isn’t playing games, the real fun is invested in the comedy bits, be it an Emotional Interview, Word Sneak, or Real People, Fake Arms. Fallon takes guests out of their comfort zones with a friendly-neighbor innocence and some play along with the skit and others roll their eyes doing their best with what they have to work with. Either way, it makes the host laugh, sometimes more than the audience can. People say Fallon’s laugh is forced and I can understand why hosts would want to humor their guests, but it seems consistent with him. Laughter is unique to each person and it could be that it’s just his natural laugh. Then again, it feels like compensation for his nervous but humble spoken voice. Every now and then, he gets that same puppy dog inflection he had since day one. Looking past that, Jimmy Fallon definitely upholds being a genuine host and that’s a good thing for his viewers.
When it comes to audiences, The Tonight Show has much diversity. Fallon is the piped piper of pleasing everyone. Young people enjoy the simple yet clever use of the internet culture with games while older audiences appreciate the attention towards celebrity guests and the show’s form of comedy. By accommodation, younger generations will stay longtime viewers and in turn become an older generation for the show. No longer are the days of Johnny Carson where The Tonight Show was reserved for adults and restricted for children who had to meet curfue. To his credit, Fallon lives up to the array of characters and skits that Carson introduced. The interviews are hit or miss however. Relating to a guest, especially when you’re a talk show host, is already a hot torch to pass. How Carson carried out interviews was an ordinary albeit auxiliary process. He always gave the guest the most speaking time with him returning little input. Vice versa, when a guest spoke a yarn, Carson knew how to sew them back together. Jimmy follows the first step, but arguably lacks in the latter step. What Fallon does, besides laughing as a response or even interrupting with a joke, he takes a longer time responding and the longer he takes, the more he bombs. Bombs for Carson were found primarily in his monologues, which the audience respected even more than the jokes presented; it gave them a chance to see more of the Nebraskan boy they’ve come to love. Fallon’s bombs are the slip of the tongue or candid snapshots from elsewhere that somehow find their way into the conversation.
That’s not to say Jimmy Fallon isn’t a good host, but as the host with the most, one would expect a better interviewing process. Unless a political figure or notable celebrity hits the hot seat, it’s not usually a retentive occasion (which may be the case for most talk shows). Sometimes things got personal with Johnny Carson, whether it be an outright statement or disguised joke about his business affairs or wives. Other times he just had laughing fits during the show. Jimmy almost had a history with Nicole Kidman and couldn’t stop laughing with Bradley Cooper, both of which I consider Fallon at his most natural. These expectations of an overt shyness from Jimmy is endearing to the viewer, but with that sheepish presence it can be easily construed as a host who tries too hard to earn empathy from his audience. Watching Jimmy Fallon for the legacy of The Tonight Show is watching him only through a Carson-lens. Fallon has no business hiccups or hurdles as of yet and there’s no telling if it will be as controversial as Jared Leto replacing Carson instead of David Letterman. Comparisons and minute details will be made, but there’s no accepting that Jimmy Fallon is the next or even the modern Johnny Carson. Both may share a shy spirit and have all the adornments of games and comedy sketches, but one thing is certain: Johnny Carson is the King of Late Night and Jimmy Fallon is the Kid of Late Night.
Jimmy Kimmel | Jimmy Kimmel Live! | Weeknights 11:35/10c | ABC
Jimmy Kimmel is the guy you want to have a beer with. He’s also the guy who talks about your sex life. The rugged, relaxed and risque talk show host was given his own show in 2003, the first revival for ABC late night programs. Unlike most people in show business, family and friends are off limits. Kimmel on the other hand has them involved in the show, such as the late Francis “Uncle Frank” Potenza, security guard and sidekick Guillermo Rodriguez, and childhood friend Cleto Escobedo III from the house band Cleto and the Cletones. Jimmy Kimmel Live! is not an ordinary talk show in that it settles somewhere between brotherly love and intrepid approaches towards comedy. From making kids cry to confusing them and seeking those same kids’ expertise, it’s hard to say where Kimmel stands as a comedian (at least morally). Even his nephew Wesley stars in the show’s “The Baby Bachelor” and there’s already a follow-up “The Baby Bachelorette.” No child is left behind on this show. Kimmel has that average Joe aesthetic, making him more approachable than most other hosts. That may have something to do with him being the longest running talk show host on late-night television so far, but being the common man can wear thin after a while. The family appeal shouldn’t fool you, the vicarious pranks accommodate his shifty way of humor. Humor isn’t necessarily dry coming from Kimmel, it is observational but his observations are too obvious. Taking blind people to shooting range to prove they too have the right to bear arms was uneventful not because they shouldn’t carry weapons, it was only for the act itself. The blind can use guns but it seemed pointless despite the right to do so, which isn’t very funny. Can moments like this be funny? Moot as this may be, the traditional style of a talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! promises seems absent at times.
The interviews have the charisma of a fish swimming downstream. Guests have about as much lead as Kimmel does, and even he falls behind when it comes to promoting them. However plain the show might be, he is the most friendly and family-oriented talk show host out of the rest, so there’s always a humanizing treatment of guests and audiences. Kimmel’s interview with Gordon Ramsey does not show anything new about the acclaimed chef other than his ability to taste foods allowing him to properly cook them. What better to test Ramsey’s tasting chops than to have him eat Girl Scout cookies, right? Will Forte’s interview went well, had some depth surrounding the actor’s happenings but still felt less. As a viewer, there is no balance between comedian and TV hosting Kimmel. Kimmel’s personality can be provocative yet penitent, although subtle, in certain segments. His Youtube Challenge provokes his viewers and turns them into victims for amusement. The most popular victims are none other than children during Halloween. Parents are to pretend to have eaten their kids’ Halloween candy and to record their reaction to hearing this. Most kids are screaming their lungs out and the few that take it so well, bless their hearts. Mean Tweets takes on a the form of masochism where celebrities read mean tweets from their Twitter. It stands to reason that Jimmy Kimmel doesn’t shy away from being the reprehensible comedian or the spokesman for the follies of internet users. He is painfully self-aware as a host and because of this, there is no problem of reliance on the audience’s part. While viewers may relate to the lighthearted pranks, I wonder how many of them are vicarious enough to be sadists and to a greater extent masochists.
Breaking boundaries and building a semblance of a talk show out from the deconstruction of it might be something the gruff, trouble-making host has in mind. Nothing extreme like Jerry Springer or a housewife brawl waiting to happen. Kimmel’s show would just be the hybrid love child of those TV shows. Now it’s not always that bad, but it’s surprising to see how willing people are to claim their fame despite it being only the fraction of a minute and for much less than that. What saving grace does the show have then? Guillermo Rodriguez is a security guard but he serves as Jimmy Kimmel’s sidekick instead of his announcer Dicky Barrett. This Mexican is muy cómico and he’s not afraid to show it. Comedy sketches share a similar exaggeration in their performances, but Kimmel likes to make cameos for when he dresses up or wears prosthetic makeup. The most recent one was a parody of Super Sweet 16 and, my favorite of his, Toddlers and Tiaras. These were accurate portrayals of convoluted broadcast stardom one episode at a time. Parodies on Kimmel’s show are all in good fun and rarely promote other movies. They do however promote lesser known actors. I would give Jimmy Kimmel Live! a rating, but it looks like we ran out of time.
Stephen Colbert | The Late Show | Weeknights 11:35/10c | CBS
The King of Satire Stephen Colbert is known for The Colbert Report, which started as a parody for The Daily Show until it became his own show in 2005. Aiming at the often political atmosphere of the news under the caricature of a conservative reporter can reveal the truth of the matter through satirist humor. Still the same old Stephen Colbert, packing his quips as a modern Jonathan Swift while making up new vocabulary such as the popular term “truthiness.” Wordplay is also his forte, as is his tongue-in-cheek jabs at his Catholic faith, which coming from Stephen Colbert’s character is easy to believe when he isn’t associated with himself, Stephen Colbert. Separating the two and discerning the character from the man is not easy however when both draw upon each other. Breaking character has been common to The Colbert Report in the past and has never had to before since satire is meant to show the folly of mankind when it happens, not to ridicule it. Even though it’s funny to catch someone slipping on that immortal banana peel, blaming the man over the banana is natural. That’s what satire does, it observes and celebrates and condemns problems as they surface to the potential of being laughable. Doing something opposed to the conventional wisdom that has found itself in the wrong many times is satire’s attempt towards adopting a better change. The truth is at hand, one joke at time. The great thing about Stephen Colbert is all the things that make him great (as he would say). No, the great thing about him is that nothing he says makes you feel politically inept to be a part of his conversation. Granted he is the most political of the talk show hosts, that doesn’t stop him from having an audience who seeks entertainment. Satire covers the playing field of culture evenly and carries over into subcultures close and far.
Colbert’s attention to ethos makes sure audiences who aren’t aware of the politics of the day understand their perfunctory nature. Speaking of nature, precocious and playful Stephen enjoys prodding and dissecting the news like the frog that it is. Or is he the frog and the news the fly? Which ever way we croak at it, Stephen Colbert knows how to hop, skip and jump through the news like the anecdotal amphibian he was meant to be. As soon as David Letterman left The Late Show, Colbert took the reigns in 2015 and has continued to progressively update the show with the framework of his previous television incarnations. Monologues and segments at the desk involve only him and revolve around the current events as they happen. Some props and skits are incorporated to heighten the joke, but it mainly relies on himself. No other person has claimed to be his sidekick, not even his uncredited announcer. The closest he has to a sidekick is the bandleader Jon Batiste of the house band Stay Human. Stephen Colbert has been a one-man show but his friends always compliment his delivery.
The highlight of the show has to be the diversity of guests. Other than the sought after actors and celebrities, The Late Show welcomes a variety of guests such as distinguished theoretical physicist Brian Greene, former cabinet holder as the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, eccentric but introspective James Spader, rapper Killer Mike raises an important message about prejudice and how to change separation among diverse backgrounds and communities and many more creative and thought-provoking guests. On rare occasion you get to see an interview not dominated by the political aura and even if it ends up being surrounded by politics, it is a refreshing look into a different person’s point of view. Sketches and studio bits are at a minimum with Colbert and feels residual after the concluding punchlines of the headlines. When they are presented as a separate whole rather than a portion of pseudo-news anchoring from the desk, it becomes acceptable. Telling the joke with an additional visual can be unnecessary or it can help at times. Colbert’s coverage over the election season however satisfies both comical cues. It’s been the talk of the town, and more aptly, the laugh of the town. Politics is putty in his hands! Stephen Colbert brings an even dose of humor and hoopla relevant to the masses.
Who Do You Watch?
Looking at the individual host, the overall tone of the show can be understood. Matching TV personalities can be an easy trial and error process or it may take a few nights of each host to understand them in full. Conan O’Brien is the traditional comedian who provides jokes for the long haul of the show. The bulk of his comedic style are jests and the show has a free-to-be-silly attitude throughout. Conan is the traditional host with jokes as his one and only arsenal whether it be improvisational or not. Jimmy Fallon has the variety show and harks back to the skits Johnny Carson once performed. Segments are in great numbers being just as creative as the last. Entertainment is at the core of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy Kimmel is the practical joker who thrives on sketches more so than personal jokes. Carefree thought with small considerations makes things more spontaneous and honest on the show. He deconstructs the traditional talk show and reconstructs his own amorphous mode of a talk show. Breaking the mold is seldom found with talk shows and Jimmy Kimmel Live! continues to find its own mold. Stephen Colbert is a satirist who is socially and politically aware of the times. Although he is a political comedian, his delivery fulfills laymen and lexicon terminology while adopting cultural references where need be. The Late Show has undergone a Colbert Report transformation but delivers noteworthy content all the same. Late night television is different than day time television since the discourse of the day can be further expounded on at night. Another reason could be that night-time television has more energy if not an exact amount that the day unfolds. If you’re not a night person, you might become one with a night show.
¹ I also exclude other shows for having never watched them.