Arsenio Hall famously said he was going to “kick Leno’s ass” (he didn’t), and everyone knows about the feud in the early 90s between Leno and Letterman. But Arsenio Hall was quite successful, and Leno and Letterman are both late-night legends. Below is a list of five talk shows (and hosts) that didn’t fare quite as well. Some would rather that we forget about their efforts in late-night TV altogether. No such luck.
5. The Pat Sajack Show (1989). Some would say that it’s not fair to lump Sajack in with the list of failures. After all, his talk show lasted over fifteen months and performed well for a little while. Given only a two-year contract, Sajack’s ratings slipped pretty soon as people began to realize that his easy-going charm was best suited for game shows and not cutting-edge comedy. During the last remaining months, CBS actually began auditioning replacements on the air by trying out a series of guest hosts once per week. The show’s demise was such a disappointment, CBS didn’t even try another late-night talk show until they snagged Letterman in 1993.
4. The Dennis Miller Show (1992). Known for being the first real “Alternative” talk show, Miller’s program boasted Andy Summers (of The Police) as its bandleader. Many popular alternative bands made their TV debuts on this show, and everyone expected it to be a bonafide hit. With writers like Norm MacDonald, Bob Odenkirk, and people who went on to do Will and Grace, it really should have been. But Miller pissed off as many people as he pleased, and has always been best when he discusses current events rather than pitches movies. The show lasted less than a year, but Miller went on to have a hit show on HBO which better suited his personality.
3. The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show (1997). Remember this one? Not many people do. That was one of the biggest problems with Wayans foray into late-night: his show was pretty forgettable. Undeniably a great writer, Wayans didn’t bring the same humor to his interviews that people grew to love in his sketch writing. More than anything, the show just didn’t stand out from anything else on TV at the time. A ton of stuff was thrown against the wall, but none of it ever stuck. Wayans didn’t struggle or sink into obscurity, however. He went back to being a highly successful actor, writer, producer, and director.
2. The Magic Hour (1998). Oh, wow. What a complete mess. Looking back, you have to wonder who thought that giving a comedic talk show to Magic Johnson was a good idea. A likable guy? You bet. A huge celebrity? Absolutely. A good talk show host? Not even close. There’s a reason that talk shows normally go to comedians. Johnson was horribly uncomfortable on this show and, even though it was obvious that he couldn’t deliver an opening monologue to save his life, he kept poorly reading those cue cards anyway. The show’s sidekick, comedian Craig Shoemaker, was funnier than the host. The lack of chemistry between the two led to Shoemaker abruptly being replaced by In Living Color’s Tommy Davidson. It didn’t help. The show was canceled after only eight weeks.
1. The Chevy Chase Show (1993). Probably the biggest failure in late-night talk show history, this debacle was supposed to be Fox’s one-two punch to both Leno and Letterman. Instead, it was a huge embarrassment, and that network hasn’t had a talk show since. Chase was a household name, and his snarkiness seemed perfect for a talk show of his own. Fox put a ton of money into it, even giving Chase his own theater in LA where the show was taped. Immediately, critics (and viewers) hated the program. Chase was nervous and awkward and wound up resorting to his famous prat falls in order to get laughs. He wasn’t comfortable interviewing guests, either, which kind of defeats the purpose of a talk show. It was canceled after four weeks, but given an extra fifth week to sit and not be watched. To this day, it remains a punchline and the biggest example of how not to do a talk show.
These five shows are perhaps the most memorable failures in late-night, but they are hardly the only ones. Joan Rivers failed at it, as did Rick Dees. As long as the networks continue to put talk shows on during the wee hours of the morning, others will come along and undoubtedly many more will fail along the way. With that in mind, I hope you’ll all tune in this fall and watch “Words With Ward” on The CW.