When people talk about the state of late night, one of the more complaints is against the so-called “consumer comedy” that hosts like Jimmy Fallon and James Corden regularly engage in. You know the stuff: the lip sync battles, the Carpool Karaoke segments, the games of Connect Four with the cast of Narcos (okay, I made that last one up). These types or bits appear on comedy shows all the time, and they promptly appear on aggregation sites the next day. For comedy purists, this is an endless source of frustration. Instead of seeing the clever, challenging bits that made Letterman and Conan so great their prime, we’re just seeing hosts goof around with their famous guests. Here’s the thing, though – when we consider the origins of late night, Fallon and Corden have a lot more in common with the originators of the form than you might think.
Johnny Carson is universally considered to be the the GOAT of late-night comedy. Sure, Letterman, Conan, Stewart, and Colbert all get love, but none if them are worshiped, or held up as the absolute peak of the form the way Johnny is. And here’s the thing…his show was a lot closer to Fallon and Corden than you may want to admit. He didn’t engage in eccentric, experimental comedy bits, and he was far more likely to schmooze with his famous guests than make a serious political point. The way he’d pal around with Frank Sinatra or Milton Berle isn’t really that different from watching today’s prominent hosts shoot the breeze with today’s modern celebrities. The idea of famous people cracking each other up and enjoying being famous together is basically the platonic idea of what late night comedy is. Fallon and Corden are just keeping old traditions going.
Okay sure, you say, but does it have to be so contrived? Indeed, that’s probably the worst aspect of modern late night; the way bits are packaged together in ways that will make them more likely to go viral as YouTube clips the next day. Being annoyed by that makes sense, but really, the hosts aren’t the ones to blame for that, that’s just a frustrating aspect of doing a late-night talk show in the 21st century. Not everyone is going to tune in at 12:35 at night, so to keep awareness going, shows need to put things together that will appeal to our short attention society. Naturally, this gets a tad tiresome, but it’s just a sad symptom of the times. It would be nice if Jimmy Fallon had more fluid conversations with his guests and less wild and crazy stunts, but the pursuit of viral success is a natural reaction to a world where six-second videos get millions and millions of views.
If we’re being honest, late night was never really intended to be a place for comedy that was particularly experimental or daring. Rather, it was meant to be a way for people to promote projects while also making light conversation with an affable host. If it became something other than that, it was because of the insurgents. Letterman was the first one. In the 80s, he changed what could happen on a late-night show by giving us bits that weren’t necessarily easily digestible, and that could go from kinda funny to unfunny to really funny. The second one was Conan, who took things even further with inventive bits like What In The World and fake satellite TV channels like “Jar Barf.” Letterman and Conan represented late night’s first insurgency because they set the precedent that the humor could be weird and challenging. Now, we’ve seen a generation of people growing up on that type of humor, and being disappointed when hosts like Fallon and Corden opt for basic humor. That’s understandable, but while Letterman and Conan have become icons, their styles of humor always represented the exception rather than the rule.
The second insurgency came when Jon Stewart showed up and brought politics into it. Along with Stephen Colbert, he broke away from the idea that any “political” humor into late night had to be inoffensive and friendly to both sides. You could joke about George H.W. Bush’s speech patterns or Bill Clinton’s love of McDonalds, but you couldn’t say anything about their actual positions. Stewart changed all that a few years into his Daily Show run when discussing politics became the primary function of his show. A few years later, Stephen Colbert took it a step further with his own The Colbert Report, in which he created a right-wing TV persona who he played brilliantly for nine years. Of course, all of this was happening on cable, and the Jay Lenos of the world were still never going to tell us how they really felt about, say, the Iraq War. Even Conan played it safe when it came to politics, always assuring the audience that he was undecided. These days, we’re seeing politics gradually make its way to network talk shows, with Colbert taking over for Letterman and Seth Meyers embracing politics with the A Closer Look feature. Still, talking about politics on NBC or CBS is still seen as a way to lose audience members, which is why we’re still going to get jokes about Trump’s hair and Hillary’s pantsuits without hearing much about their policies.
In truth, when people criticize Fallon, Corden, or even Jimmy Kimmel, what they’re criticizing them for is not being part of the insurgency. Rather, they belong to the old guard tradition of having a good time with their famous guests and not saying anything about politics that could possibly anger either side. Sure, the need for viral content makes their content more contrived then one might hope, but that’s largely a consequence of capitalism’s demands, and if you don’t think Carson would be forced into doing similarly cheesy material if he was on today, you’re fooling yourself. It’s easy to watch Fallon shoot silly string at the kids from Stranger Things and convince yourself that Carson must be spinning in his grave, but the truth is, he had far more in common with Fallon and Corden than their harshest detractors are willing to admit.