Late night shows have always been more than just variety programs. There were cultural touchstones, broad shared places for topical comedy and entertainment, and they served as key launching pads for several generations of comedians. A few decades ago, doing standup on a late night show was seen as a crucial, potentially game changing event in a young comic’s career. The well-known story about Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show has been told from over and over, by everyone from Steven Wright to Ellen DeGeneres to Drew Carey. Do one great set on Carson, they story went, get invited over to the couch, and the next day, you will be a superstar. For most of the country, Carson’s approval was good enough.
“It’s certainly a different landscape than it used to be,” says J.P. Buck, who books standups on Conan. “When Carson was doing it, that was really one of the few places you could find comedians. That era is gone.” Now, the options for reaching an audience are plentiful, and growing every day. And yet every week, young comics continue to appear in the wee hours of the morning doing clean five-minute sets on, essentially, old-fashioned talk shows. In recent years, younger-skewing shows like Conan and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon have featured more young rising standups than the rest, giving dozens of comedians their late night debuts. Now that it seems Fallon may be moving up to The Tonight Show, more young comics may gain spots on that iconic institution. But as ratings for network TV continue to decline and more late night shows appearing every season, how much can a late night spot really do for a young comedian today?
Certainly, the stories of overnight stardom no longer exist. Then again, those rags-to-riches Carson stories didn’t always play out either. In his memoir Born Standing Up, Steve Martin recounts his real relationship with Carson’s Tonight Show.
“There was a belief that one appearance on The Tonight Show made you a star. But here are the facts. The first time you do the show, nothing. The second time you do the show, nothing. The sixth time you do the show, someone might come up to you and say, ‘Hi, I think we met at Harry’s Christmas party.’ The tenth time you do the show, you could conceivably be remembered as being seen somewhere on television. The twelfth time you do the show, you might hear, ‘Oh, I know you. You’re that guy.’”
The stories that emerge nowadays are equally varied. On the one hand, there are still immense successes. Pete Holmes, whose new TBS show will follow Conan in the fall, made his first blip on O’Brien’s radar doing did a spot on Conan back in 2011. That spot led to another later that year, then a pilot deal with O’Brien’s Conaco production company, a Conan-related web series, and ultimately his own show.
Similarly, Deon Cole first appeared on Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien back in 2009. “A month later, I was on the road doing some shows, and my manager called me and told me that [Conan] wanted to hire me to write for him,” Cole says. “And I was like, write what? What does he want me to write? Do I gotta submit something? And they were like, ‘No we just want you to start Monday.’ So I showed up Monday.” Cole stayed on as writer for the rest of O’Brien’s tenure at The Tonight Show, then followed him on his Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television tour and his move to cable, becoming an occasional on-air correspondent on Conan. His loyalty paid off; his Conaco-produced clip show Deon Cole’s Black Box premieres this June on TBS.
But for most young comics, late night spots bring less dramatic results. Many have found it easier to book rooms on the road with a late night credit and a prestigious tape to send around; others have also gotten agents and managers directly after appearing on a network show. But most agree that doing a late night set these days is only a piece in the puzzle; an exciting and validating experience that doesn’t necessarily translate to automatic success.
“Late night spots are more of a feather in your cap these days - a great step in the direction of where you want to be headed as a comedian,” says Jamie Lee, who did her first late night set in September. “When I taped Conan, there was this overwhelming sense of just, ‘Woah, all of those open mics and little bar shows I did in front of three people all led to this moment.’”
Barry Rothbart, who has appeared on both Conan and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, says doing a late night spot is a confidence-building milestone. “When you get your first one, it’s like in a video game when you get to a point where, if you die, you can always come back to that saved point. It’s like that. You can never not be on TV then. You can’t go below the fact that you’re on TV.”
And a late night set requires a particular style, giving young comics a chance to hone different skills. While many cable shows like Chelsea Lately, The Jeselnik Offensive, and Kathy now feature panels of comedians discussing topical events instead of performing themselves traditional talk shows force comics to do short, clean sets that show off their best material. “I love putting together those sets,” says Phil Hanley, who has appeared on Craig Ferguson’s show twice. “I love putting together the five minutes and then figuring out the best order and if I can work in a callback or whatever. I love just focusing on a small section of my act like that.”
For many, a solid set on a late night show is calling card; a definitive sign of progress in an industry with few clear road marks. “Especially in this business, once one person latches on with the credibility, it becomes a snowball effect,” says Cole. “Once somebody validates you, then other people start taking recognition of what you’re doing, and then they start believing in what you do.”
“I wasn’t expecting anything. I kind of figured, its another set,” says Cristela Alonzo, who appeared on Conan last year and now has a sitcom development deal with 20th Century Fox. “I ended up getting a lot of meetings with different production companies. I guess a week after I did Conan, I had a meeting with the Conaco company. I got very busy from Conan, which was very rare. I was very happy about it, because I knew it was rare.”
But for every success story of late night, there are as many tales of comics who have appeared on late night shows over and over again without making waves or establishing a fanbase. The potential rewards are high, but they often don’t pan out. “I know lots of people who have been on TV who have still had to call their parents and ask for money, or have day jobs,” says Mike Lawrence, who appeared on Conan last year. “I saw a friend, the week after his first late night credit, and he was going to interview as a waiter.”
Myq Kaplan, who’s set on The Tonight Show led directly to him get a booking agent, says late night spots bring an uptick in interest in all the other platforms on which a modern comic can be found. “New Twitter followers, new Facebook fans, new YouTube subscribers, new CD purchasers, podcast subscribers,” says Kaplan, who has also appeared on Conan, The Late Show with David Letterman and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. “You see a spike.”
And that interest, though not the glamorous sitcom-deal days of yore, may be just as valuable for a young comic. Nate Bargatze, who did standup both on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Conan, says it was his appearance on WTF with Marc Maron that had a more significant impact on his career. “Maron’s changed my life more than late night spots have,” Bargatze says. “He tweeted about me and I immediately got 500 followers. Then he had me on his podcast, and I mean, [people] bring it up a lot. He has so many downloads. You’re on for an hour, and you’ve been talking about your life, so then people get to know you.”
But for the foreseeable future, late night spots will continue to be a part of a standup’s career. The future may lie in the Conaco model. “It’s actually become a little bit of an incubator for us, the standup world,” Buck says. “It’s nice to bring people back, like Tig Notaro, Pete Holmes, Jon Dore. We’ve created a little bit of a sandbox here, where people can kind of try ideas and start to build their resumes and also some sort of profile for themselves.” Pete Holmes agrees. “I’d like to think that we’re creating a little bit of a comedy clubhouse on this network, that these shows will foster and support each other. There’ll be some synergy there.”
If nothing else, the history of late night TV provides a prestige factor that will continue to inspire rising comics. “You were on TV, you know?” says Rothbart. “When you go home for Thanksgiving, its like, ‘Oh are you a comedian?’ “Yeah. I was on TV. I was on The Tonight Show.’”