>It was announced this week that Jay Leno’s 10pm talk show will go on hiatus in upcoming weeks and that he will soon return to the 11:30pm time slot he used to hold. This will push the actual “Tonight Show”, now hosted by Conan O’Brien, back to the 12:05am slot, and once again turn late-night television into one huge talk-fest, with no less than six chat shows on three major networks alone. “The Tonight Show” has, of course, been a staple of TV airwaves since almost as long as TV has been available, and a slew of shows have always come along trying to equal its success. But is this format really that lucrative anymore? And is the talk show format the only thing that will succeed in that time slot? Here are five problems with late-night talk shows, including some ideas to change things up a little bit.
5. Too Many “Tonight Shows”. Let’s face it. Pretty much every single talk show is trying to be “The Tonight Show” of the past 50 years. Host does monologue, sits at desk, introduces guests who sit beside desk, etc. It’s a format that has worked for decades and it seems to be the format everyone is still trying to ape. But it’s simply not necessary anymore. How about a three-hour talk show? Sounds crazy, right? Well, that’s pretty much what we have now anyway. Sure, the hosts are different…but are they really? A succession of clever white guys in suits is still clever white guys in suits. And why the suits, anyway? People love Jimmy Fallon for being child-like and silly. Why put him in a suit just because he’s got a talk show? If you’re trying to change things up, then really change them up. And that means more than just hiring a cool band (The Roots, for instance) to front you. Isn’t what we liked about Arsenio Hall in the first place was that he wasn’t trying to be exactly like every other talk show? The minute he was gone, everything went back to the way it always was.
4. Boring Guests Pitching Over-Hyped Projects. I honestly can’t say I regularly sit down and watch late-night talk shows anymore. But do people actually go out of their way to tune in because they hear that someone from “Desperate Housewives” is going to be on? There was a time when people needed “The Tonight Show” or “Late Night” because it was one of the only chances they would get to see their favorite celebrities anywhere but in their chosen medium. It was also one of the only places to pitch upcoming projects or things you might not normally hear about. But it’s the 21st century, there is this thing called The Internet and another called “Cable TV”. Celebrities are everywhere and not hard to find. You can see the cast of your favorite TV show on countless programs and magazine covers and websites. Why tune in to watch Lady GaGa on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” when she’s already everywhere else? And our obsession with celebrity has gotten so out of hand, the conversations are as bland as the people sitting on the couch.
3. Not Enough Variety. The shows have turned into gushfests, with hosts worshiping entertainers rather than interviewing them. And with so many talk shows, it has become a war of “Get the Bigger Name”. Gone are the days of quirky stories. Gone are the rare bands and lesser-known actors. Even worse is that, in a format that used to rely on discovering new talent, hardly any of these shows showcase comedians like they used to. No one gets “called over to the couch” anymore, either. Instead, we get to see Paris Hilton get her ass kissed…again. And, honestly, did no one know about Avatar or the latest blockbuster until it was on a late-night talk show? How about more sketches, like Johnny Carson used to do during the golden years of “The Tonight Show”? That’s what shows up on all the “Best of” DVDs, not clips of celebrities getting their egos stroked. What’s wrong a little more variety in what was originally a variety show?
2. Not Enough “Talk”. Sucking up to a celebrity isn’t really the same thing as talking with them. Nowadays, most talk shows have just become one big commercial for whatever product is being pitched by celebrity spokespersons. There was a time when an actor briefly spoke about his project, then spent some time having truly interesting and humorous conversations with the host. With today’s habit of shoving the guests down the conveyor belt, there’s not conversation as much as there is an extended movie trailer. And we can see those anywhere. Much more interesting are the “panel” shows like “Real Time with Bill Maher” or “Chelsea Lately”; You know, a talk show where people actually talk. Make the product pitch the smallest part of the interview and people might just tune in no matter who the guest is, rather than seeking out the ones they already like.
1. Too Much “Talk”. Ironically, one of the biggest problems with late-night talk shows is…talk shows. There was a time when there were sitcoms that actually aired late at night, and not just reruns in syndication. There were also music programs, sketch shows, and all kinds of different programming that didn’t involve some guy sitting at a desk interviewing celebrities. Why not again? Anyone remember “Friday Night Videos”? Now that MTV no longer shows videos, why not bring them back to network television? I’d just as soon see something akin to “Headbangers Ball” on at night, and I don’t even like Metal. And I’d rather watch an actual sitcom than watch an actor talking about a sitcom. In an effort to get the ratings of “The Tonight Show”, too many networks seem to think the only thing that will work is something exactly like it. They overlook the fact that some late-night viewers might not want to watch a talk show at all.
The Late-Night Talk Show has been the mainstay in “after the local news” viewing for decades. But, as watching the local news becomes less and less relevant, the same old talk show format should maybe go with it. Prime-time TV changes all the time, yet everything after 11:30pm seems to essentially stay the same. The numbers show that millions of people are still up, still flipping through the channels, and still looking to be entertained, even into the wee hours of the morning. If we can’t find something new and original, we can always go with the tried and true. Unfortunately, these days, that’s not necessarily a talk show. Sometimes that just means watching reruns of “Frasier” instead.