A Wild Year in Late Night

2014 saw more changes in the world of late night than any other in recent memory. David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, and Stephen Colbert announced they would be leaving their long-running shows while Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver started new, widely popular ones. Let’s break down all of these late night milestones that took place in 2014.

Letterman Announces His Retirement

“I have spent half my time behind this desk…more importantly that means I spent half my life in makeup.”

In April, David Letterman sat at his desk and told an anecdote. He discussed spotting a bird with his son, Harry, and how excited he was at the potential of it being an exotic golden eagle. Letterman spent all day at work trying to identify the bird. When he got home from the taping he told his wife it was an immature bald eagle. She asked him who was on the show.  He couldn’t remember. Letterman began wondering if he should be running a network television program if his mind was elsewhere.

The anecdote led to the announcement that sometime in 2015 Letterman would no longer be hosting Late Show.

Letterman, 67, cemented his legacy long ago with his anti-talk show personality and sarcastically attentive interviewing skills. In the ‘80s his Late Night show developed a strong fan base that would follow him after he left NBC. In the ‘90s, Letterman hosted Late Show on CBS, and though it awarded him several Emmys, the show usually fell second to Leno’s Tonight Show.

“When this show stops being fun, I’ll retire 10 years later,” Letterman said during his announcement.

Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show for thirty years (’62-’92) and quietly lived in privacy for the last 13 years of his life.  Letterman has been a late night host for over thirty years and after his retirement in 2015 will likely do the same. He is a private person outside of his hosting gig; he will probably enjoy his time away from television.

Colbert Announces His Move to CBS

“I learned more from watching Dave than I did from going to my classes.”

CBS moved swiftly to announce that Letterman’s replacement would be Stephen Colbert, someone who became a household name as host of The Colbert Report for a decade on Comedy Central.

While writing this, Colbert has only a few episodes left and is currently making the last few shows as memorable as possible – having Barack Obama take over his show and interviewing future Late Late Show host James Corden.

Colbert exceeded all expectations, making himself into an egotistical character who spouted ignorant views. The actual Colbert said he would drop his character when he comes to Late Show in 2015. Colbert, a veteran of Second City and former Daily Show correspondent, should have no trouble transitioning to network TV.

Fallon Becomes The Tonight Show Host

“I’m Jimmy Fallon and I’ll be your host for now.”

On his first episode as host of The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon spoke of his bewilderment on how he climbed so far up the NBC hierarchy. “I really don’t know how I got here,” he said.

Fallon’s rise was unprecedented; he was a standup first, then a Saturday Night Live castmember, and then an actor whose films never gained much traction. In 2009, Lorne Michaels chose Fallon as Conan’s replacement for Late Night, a move that highlighted Fallon’s talent for combining music, comedy, and competition.

The transition to Tonight Show host for Fallon looked seamless; he’d already hosted a talk show for four years. It was smoother than starting from nothing. He just had to refine for 11:30 – which he did. And the show exploded.

Segments from the show often go viral, which keeps him popular among the younger demographics and help Fallon continually beat Letterman and Kimmel in the ratings.

In the premiere, Fallon discussed his parents letting him watch Carson as a kid and his aims as the new host. “My goal is to just make you laugh and put a smile on your face so you go to sleep with a smile on your face and live a longer life. Isn’t that the whole goal of what we’re doing?”

Oliver Changes When News is Delivered

“Net Neutrality, the only two words that promise more boredom in the English language are ‘featuring Sting.’”

John Oliver had the best audition tape possible; he replaced a comedy titan for three months and…did really well. While Jon Stewart was away shooting his directorial debut, Rosewater, Oliver hosted the Daily Show and after his stint ended, the offers came. But before Comedy Central knew Colbert was leaving for CBS, HBO snatched up Oliver for Last Week Tonight.

The Internet helped make this show a megahit. HBO cleverly posted extended, 10+ minute clips online and made it accessible on YouTube. Oliver’s name began to spread and he became a contender in late night, but his show didn’t air every night; it aired once a week.

Airing only on Sunday nights helped the show tackle topics with keen detail. Issues Colbert and Stewart could cover for maybe three or four minutes, Oliver could argue for over 10 minutes. He could hone in on a singular topic, like net neutrality or nutritional supplements. He educated audiences on what was happening and gave them a way to be involved. Oliver finished his strong first season in November and will be returning in February 2015.

Ferguson Goes To PIX

“I’ll stepping down at the end of this year, in December and then ill go and do something else, probably I’m thinking carpentry…”

Ten years was enough for Craig Ferguson. After taking over for Craig Kilborn in early 2005, Ferguson created a show that was fresh in it’s own bizarre way, with a robot skeleton sidekick and a nodding horse. Ferguson said there were no feuds or forced exits; the decision to leave was entirely his own.

Ferguson is one of the fringe hosts who never sought viral fame. He was the host who never asked prepared questions; he ripped up his question card before every interview. CBS is losing a special kind of host, someone who combined Letterman’s carefree coolness, Conan’s absurdity, and his own bizarre sense of humor into a cauldron and came out as one of the most entertaining figures on TV.

Comedian James Corden will be taking over for Ferguson after he exits in December 2014. Ferguson will continue to host Celebrity Name Game, a game show on PIX. Though it doesn’t feature Geoff Peterson or Secretariat, the show still allows for Ferguson to interact freely with his guests and improvise the way he did on CBS.

Meyers Takes Over Late Night

“You’re hosting your own show!”

Like Conan and Fallon before him, Seth Meyers made the transition from SNL to Late Night. He had a derisive delivery that worked on Update, but wouldn’t necessarily work in Late Night. Meyers built a foundation of experience to ground him, as the Update anchor and head writer on SNL, but he found that Late Night didn’t leave room for identical interpretation; his monologue delivery had to fit weeknight audiences and he would have to adjust his banter with guests that were not SNL cast members in wigs.

Late Night with Seth Meyers premiered on February 16 to solid ratings, and some critical praise. The show received mostly optimistic reviews; USA Today commended the show for its “intent on returning to the more traditional talk show virtues of monologues and interviews…” and though other critics were reluctant about Meyers as host, they were hopeful for his future.

In almost the year since its premiere, the show has introduced bits like Ya Burnt! and Fred Talks – the latter with fellow SNL castmember/Late Night Bandleader Fred Armisen.

Though Meyers hasn’t made the Internet splash Fallon and Oliver did in 2014, his show and style, as shown through previous hosts, will evolve in the coming years.

A Wild Year in Late Night