Last night, David Letterman signed off for the very last time in a very Dave way — self-deprecating, low-key, and to the tune of his favorite song. His way, the way you could tell he wanted it to be. And with that, late-night television lost the last of its old guard. So what’s next for the after-hours landscape, the Fallons, the Kimmels, the Cordens? What’s the state of late-night going to be?
Well, it doesn’t matter because you don’t really need to watch it.
Well, that’s not entirely true. You can watch it, but you definitely don’t have to watch the whole thing. And you damn sure don’t have to stay up late to do so. The term “late-night” is sort of outdated, because you can go to bed at 10 and get the full experience. Roll on over to whatever entertainment blog you frequent — the Vultures, the Uproxxes, even we’re guilty of it sometimes — and you can pick and choose individual segments, each handily broken down into its own Youtube video and hosted within its own blog post. The rush of posts before noon often take on the form of something like “Watch [host] [play this game/sing this song/tell this joke] with [guest].” And you can see late-night talk shows responding to this trend, like they are actively trying to go viral instead of being funny and going viral naturally. The Wall Street Journal called it the “battle for the morning after. Conan writer Andrés du Bouchet put it more bluntly in a series of since-deleted Tweets: “Comedy in 2015 needs a severe motherfucking shakeup. No celebrities, no parodies, no pranks, no mash-ups or hashtag wars…and shove your lip-synching up your ass…None of the funniest stuff ever involved celebrity cameos.”
Take this segment from The Tonight Show last night – The Wheel of Celebrity Impressions with Jamie Foxx. Or this segment from last night’s Late Late Show with James Corden — Justin Bieber Carpool Karaoke.They both have everything you need to write up a blog, the segment basically does the job for you. It has a well-known celebrity name, a gimmick and is just long enough at 8 minutes to watch on a subway ride to work. You don’t have to turn late-night TV into clickbait. Late-night TV is clickbait. It’s watchbait. And as in journalism, clickbait-style late-night cuts out the mundane stuff, the stuff you weren’t going to watch anyway — most of the interviews, the monologue jokes that didn’t exactly land, and gasp the stuff in between the segments.
But sometimes its that little stuff that matters. The best part of the entire show came after Letterman’s final Top Ten list (the segment that was cut and pasted into a Youtube clip most frequently). Letterman goes to shake the hand of Bill Murray –a guest on the first ever AND penultimate Late Show — and says “I saw you on TV last night.” That’s a small, funny, yet human moment that doesn’t feel like it was manufactured in a Viral Factory somewhere. You miss it in the recaps.
And it’s funny, because early Letterman would have been a viral sensation. The velcro suit would have blown up. Letterman simply dropping stuff would have hit minimum 100,000 views. But even then, all that stuff feels so, I don’t know, David Letterman. The guy did what he thought was funny, and it just so happened to work most of the time. That felt different. That felt like you had to tune in late at night, because the little stuff was just as important as the big stuff and you didn’t want to miss it. Now, it’s ALL big stuff, perfectly timed and designed to fit into those Youtube clips, and that’s all you need. It all depends on whether you’re okay with taking your late night comedy in pieces, with all the bang and little of the substance.
If so, feel free to go to bed with an easy mind. Late-night TV will be waiting for you in the morning.