Commentary: In Late Night TV, Getting Personal Matters

by | October 6, 2009 at 8:39 AM | 42-Inch Television

(CBS/NBC)

(CBS/NBC)

Remember when late night television was nothing more than a place for warmed over political jokes and sixth grade-level sexual innuendo? Good news, faithful viewer: nothing has changed! But that hasn’t stopped the news cycle this fall from being dominated by late night hosts both past (have you heard that Jay Leno has a new show airing during primetime?) and present (hey, David Letterman!). Forget vampires; if you want to improve the ratings of your fledgling series, it might be smart to add some middle-aged white guys in designer suits to the mix.

There is a reason for this white-hot interest, of course, even beyond the salaciousness of the Letterman imbroglio. (Though, happily, that salaciousness did lead the New York Post to call Dave’s show ‘Laid Nights with David Letterman;’ Har-har-har.) Unlike many of the new series this fall—and some of your favorite old series, too—there is always the opportunity for legitimate surprise attached to these late night proceedings. While the jokes might be predictable (have you heard the one about Obama?), I doubt anyone could have forecasted that, just in the last two weeks, Conan O’Brien would be rushed to the hospital because of a head injury or that Letterman would reveal details of lengthy sexual affairs and a Coen Brothers-like extortion plot. No matter how much I love ‘The Office’ (and no matter how well it’s written), it can’t top the moving parts of real life. Think about it: when was the last time a television series shocked you the way Letterman did when he told his audience that he had sex with women on his staff?

While it’s true that none of these shows have the viewership that the ‘The Office’ does, I’d venture to say many more people know more about David Letterman than Michael Scott. Audiences like the genuine article, or whatever seems as close to the genuine article as possible. That’s why reality shows are so popular: they’re easily digestible pabulum that offer us a chance to see everyday schleps making the most of their 15 minutes of fame. Letterman and Conan (and, yes, even Leno) might be talented performers, but underneath it all, they’re human beings with flaws and cracks.

And perhaps that’s why Conan has had such a hard time beating Dave since taking over ‘The Tonight Show:’ he feels closed off. This is to say nothing of Conan’s prowess as a talk show host and joke teller—for my money, he’s the funniest man in late night and light years ahead of Letterman, who is now in the ‘coasting along on name alone’ stage of his career, like a television version of Howard Stern—but he hasn’t connected with viewers because he hasn’t been human enough.

Take his reactions to the Letterman scandal. While Leno and Jimmy Fallon made references to Letterman—after all, it is one of the biggest stories in the barrel right now—Conan has kept quiet. I understand that Dave is his mentor and he idolizes him, but by not even referencing Letterman’s dirty laundry—even to condemn the jokes being made—Conan feels like an automaton. At least Craig Ferguson talked about the bind he was in, telling viewers about the Catch-22 that arises when the topic du jour deals with your boss. (Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company produces the ‘Late Late Show.’)

Not to go all Dr. Phil here, but, Conan needs to express his feelings more. Ellen Page and Kevin Nealon—Monday’s ‘Tonight Show’ guests—were fine, but I would have rather seen Conan spend ten minutes commenting on Dave. And I doubt I’m alone.

Without being more personal, Conan’s the ringmaster of just another television show; he’s Michael Scott without the “World’s Best Boss” mug. In a world of late night honesty, that isn’t going to fly.

Three More Inches

Even for ‘Entourage,’ Sunday’s season finale felt like it took place in an alternate universe. What was that exactly? On the bright side, seeing Matt Damon go all Jason Bourne on the boys (to borrow a phrase from Johnny Drama) was fairly terrific. It’s for the kids, after all.

Fun with bad accents! I’ll take Jeffrey Nordling’s over-the-top New Jersey accent on ‘Desperate Housewives’ over the German nanny’s “Der Weinerschnitzel” one on ‘Mad Men,’ if only because Nordling was actually born in New Jersey and the nanny sounded like Colonel Klink.

And finally, for everyone excited that Mitch Hurwitz is writing a script for the ‘Arrested Development’ movie, calm down. Wasn’t he supposed to be writing this script for the last year? I won’t believe there’s an ‘Arrested Development’ movie until I buy my ticket and have a seat at the theater.