By Steve Johnson Chicago Tribune
The waters of late-night television are roiling.
On NBC, Jimmy Fallon is taking over Jay Leno’s show, and Seth Meyers is taking Fallon’s. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel has moved up half an hour to compete directly with Leno now, and then Fallon in winter 2014.
At CBS, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson chug along, hoping the changes will bring new viewers to their shows.
Off the networks, Conan O’Brien is probably kicking himself, figuring he jumped to cable too soon and wondering why Leno would abdicate the “Tonight Show” throne for Fallon but not, a few years back, for him.
Chelsea Handler does her thing on cable too. And in syndication this fall, Arsenio Hall will return to a much more crowded fray than the one he left behind.
And in Hall’s heyday 20 years ago — or even 10 years ago — all of this would have been edge-of-the-seat news for television devotees, the stuff of agitated headlines: Turmoil in Late Night! Who Will Be the New King? Is It Jimmy’s Turn? And, If So, Which Jimmy?
But in 2013, I listen to all the chatter and ask myself: So what?
It’s like hearing about dinosaurs banging their necks against each other in a pit of tar just over that hill, out of my field of vision.
To translate that out of metaphor and into reality, those old-line shows following roughly the same 50-plus-year-old format — monologue, celebrity guests, band — seem less and less relevant to me with each passing year.
A small part of it is that their comparatively languid pace is at odds with the contemporary information style. Who has 12 minutes to spend hoping movie star A promoting new film B will say one fresh and recognizably human thing during two segments with show host C?
The movie star might well have already been more engaging on her Twitter feed; ditto for the host. And if I’ve got 12 minutes, I can surely find something more compelling on the Web.
But the much bigger part of it is that the shows, no matter how talented their hosts or how top line their bookings, have simply been eclipsed.
In the ’80s and early ’90s, if you cared about comedy, you watched, respectively, Dave and Conan. They were the innovators, the ones bending the rules of the medium to take audiences by surprise.
Now the most concentrated viewer payoffs — in terms of number of laughs, laughs about substantive matters and laughs that the viewer never sees coming — come from Jon and Stephen.
With each passing year of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report,” both on Comedy Central, I have watched the other late-night shows less and less.
In the past year, what used to be idle curiosity leading me to check in on Dave and Jimmy (Jimmies) and Craig and, yes, even Jay every now and again has all but vanished. I now look at them so infrequently that I don’t even feel right calling them by their first names anymore.