Carson, Letterman, and Stewart: Three Early Failures and the Lessons Learned From Them

In 1995 David Letterman was the king of late night. Johnny Carson had retired three years earlier, and while Jay Leno had higher ratings, Letterman won the Emmys and the respect of critics and viewers. Wearing a blazer and holding a lit cigar, Letterman sat next to Jon Stewart on the final episode of his canceled MTV program: The Jon Stewart Show. They discussed Letterman’s career, Stewart’s future, and cancellation. Letterman told Stewart, “Cancellation should not be confused with failure.”

In the last 50 years, three of the most popular talk show hosts have had shows that were canceled before they hit their stride. Carson, Letterman, and Stewart were given their own shows by networks who hoped viewers would see the talent these entertainers contained. But all three of them did not realize success until their first shows were taken off the air.

The Johnny Carson Show

In June of 1955 CBS premiered The Johnny Carson Show. Carson had achieved fame by guest hosting for Red Skelton on The Red Skelton Show and soon CBS executives gave him his own show which would include sketches, monologues and interviews – all strong points for Carson during his Tonight Show run.

Why it was canceled 

The network could never settle on an identity for The Johnny Carson Show. He wasn’t the type of performer that dominated the screen the way contemporaries like Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason did. The show was constantly shifting writers and directors and viewers didn’t know what to make of Carson. Facing low ratings, CBS canceled the show after 39 weeks.

“I found myself and my material subjected to the opinion of businessmen,” his second wife Joanne said when quoting Carson. “He really felt he had come to the end of his career. He felt he was on a downhill slide. Nobody was booking him. Nobody was asking him to come anywhere or perform anywhere.”

Why Carson succeeded 

Carson appointed new managers and was hired as the host of Who Do You Trust? on ABC. Though it was a game show, Who Do You Trust? highlighted Carson’s confidence in interviewing contestants. Carson was amiable and funny with guests. After Jack Paar left the Tonight Show Joanne Carson pushed for her husband to host. NBC was convinced and Carson left the game show for the talk show.

Carson worried he wouldn’t succeed because he felt he didn’t have the intellect of Jack Paar. But when the show premiered it was a hit. “He put out a better product across the board because he was smart enough to know how to give room to funny people, to engage people and let them shine,” said Carson biographer Bill Zehme. The Tonight Show worked for Carson because it wasn’t the Johnny Carson Show. It was the Tonight Show.  Carson made it less about him. He drew attention to his guests, not himself. Carson learned what worked and what didn’t because of his canceled show years earlier.

The David Letterman Show

The David Letterman Show aired every morning on NBC, running for four months in 1980. Letterman was a standup turned writer/actor who was hired by NBC to replace the low rated game shows that were airing at the time. The show followed a similar format to the Tonight Show – monologue, sketch, and interviews.

Why it was canceled

The David Letterman Show was a critical success, but it was a ratings failure. The morning show’s cancellation had less to do with figuring out Letterman’s identity and more to do with discovering where and when his personality fit. Letterman’s sardonic character only worked at night, something NBC realized when Letterman went on to host Late Night. Morning shows needed glee (however fake), not irony. Letterman’s morning show failed because there weren’t enough morning viewers watching. So NBC went back to airing game shows.

Why Letterman succeeded

Though Letterman idolized Johnny Carson, his comedy was more sarcastic. Letterman needed his viewers to adapt to his style for his show to work. Johnny Carson and NBC liked Letterman so they gave him the new Late Night show immediately following Carson’s Tonight Show. That show became Late Night with David Letterman. Everything about the show fit Letterman’s style, from the pretaped sketches to Stupid Pet Tricks to the esoteric monologues Letterman laughed at more than the audience. The show felt more like Letterman than a morning show ever would and the ratings followed.

The Jon Stewart Show

After Jon Stewart was passed on as the replacement for Letterman’s Late Night in 1993, MTV launched The Jon Stewart Show. Unlike Carson or Letterman’s shows, this one was an immediate success; it was a casual interview show where Stewart was praised for making guests feel comfortable. “This wasn’t like doing a talk show. It was like we were just bullshitting,” Quentin Tarantino said after being on the show. It was also respected for having eclectic music on including Blind Melon, Slayer, and Warren Zevon.

Why it was canceled

Syndication killed the show. While the ratings were high on MTV, there was little publicity when it moved from MTV to syndication. Its success on MTV and lack of success in syndication did not surprise Stewart though. He told the Chicago Tribune: “I had to make peace with the fact that if this works, great, and if it doesn’t, you have to be OK with that, too. You can’t go into it thinking, ‘If I do this and they take this away, what’s going to happen to me?’ You have to know that you can always open an ice-cream store.”

Why Stewart succeeded 

Though Stewart conducted good interviews, he needed a show that highlighted his satirical skills and wit. After acting for a few years in films like Big Daddy and The Faculty, Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn as host of The Daily Show in 1999. Not only were the ratings high, but Stewart was able to attract the young and old by informing and entertaining, mocking gratuitous news and getting serious when he needed to be. “With Stewart, it’s his mix of snarkiness and smarts, his goofy likability and a sense of frank righteousness,” said SfGate writer Tim Goodman in a 2004 article: “People relate to his opinions because they think, ‘That’s what I would say.’”

Cancellation doesn’t equate to failure. Letterman’s advice to Stewart is key; we often see quality shows taken off the air before they should have been (Arrested Development, Happy Endings, etc.), but if the talent exists then the performer will find his/her niche as Carson, Letterman, and Stewart all did.

On Stewart’s last show, Letterman told Stewart: “I know what this is. I’ve been through this myself.” He played a clip for Stewart that showed Letterman in 1980 discussing his own show’s cancellation and jokingly promoting his replacement, Las Vegas Gambit. Stewart asked Letterman if he could be his sidekick. The unknown felt frightening for these three comedians because they were unsure if they would ever get another show. Though viewed as a failure initially, cancellation, in retrospect, was actually a stepping-stone toward success.

Ian Goldstein is a contributing writer to Splitsider.

Carson, Letterman, and Stewart: Three Early Failures […]