the war for late night

Late-Night Monologues Aren’t Perfect But They Are Necessary — They’re Just Not for You

Photo: NBC, CBS and ABC

Yesterday at the TCAs, Stephen Colbert talked about changing up the traditional standing, one-liner-heavy monologue. “We’re gonna try to put them together in a new way,” he told the crowd. He later said they might try it in different formats and different places, saying, “We’re going to find what’s right for me.” A few hours later, Seth Meyers beat him to the punch, premiering a new seated “Weekend Update”–like monologue, which he’s going to try out for the next two weeks. Neither is the first to want to change up the most outmoded part of an outmoded genre (fans and critics have been suggesting it for years), and neither is the first to try. But is there a point? Is it possible to change it in any significant way? Is the monologue even worth keeping?

Quickly: yes; probably not; and yes, with the understanding that it’s only going to appeal to certain viewers (e.g., not you).

When Jimmy Fallon took over The Tonight Show, he told New York that Jay Leno’s one piece of advice was to make the monologue longer. Ever the people-pleaser, Fallon tripled his amount of jokes. Since everything Leno says must be wrong, people on the internet opposed the decision. In a New Republic article titled “The Late-Night TV Monologue is Dull and Anachronistic – And Should Retire With Jay Leno,” Esther Breger wrote: “The opening monologue has been a part of Tonight Show tradition since Steve Allen first hosted in 1954. But when Fallon takes the throne on February 17, after the Olympic Closing ceremonies, his first step should be to reboot the format and kill the monologue entirely.”

The reasoning was that “late-night comedy success is now partially measured in potential virality,” and a bunch of monologue jokes won’t go viral. That position makes sense if you’re only considering “today’s BuzzFeed-ruled internet,” but the reductive framing of late-night shows as creators of viral content misses a critical larger point: People still watch these programs on TV. During sweeps last year, The Tonight Show averaged 3.88 million viewers, Late Show averaged 2.84, and Jimmy Kimmel Live averaged 2.76. That’s a lot more people than the audience for the “viral” clips that get passed around every morning. People who watch late-night television live remain the most valuable audience, and putting together a good show is more important than trying to get something to pop online. The question then becomes why the audience wants a monologue at all, and if they care about its quality.

When Kimmel started his show, he wanted to change things — and the first thing to go was the opening. Bill Simmons, who worked on the show, wrote about the experience for Grantland years ago: “We wanted Jimmy starting every show behind his desk, without a tie, delivering off-the-cuff remarks instead of a traditional monologue (for the first few shows, he didn’t even have a script). Different. That’s what we wanted. … Jimmy was younger than every other late-night host at the time. We wanted his show to feel that way.”

The move failed, hard. Again, Simmons: “Jimmy’s monologue ended up being too loose; compared to other shows, it felt like he had wandered into the building and just starting winging it.” Eventually, Kimmel acquiesced and began standing up and wearing a tie. His monologue is a departure from his contemporaries, focusing less on hard punch lines and more on casual jokes often referencing funny clips from TV and the internet. The impact remains the same, however: Here is a nice gentleman recapping what happened that day.

It’s that daily-ness that may be most important. My favorite late-night monologues ever took place on the ill-fated Pete Holmes Show. Following Conan, it didn’t even last 100 episodes, but what they did was truly funny. That show started with a monologue, which focused on evergreen bits in the style of Holmes’s fantastic stand-up instead of topical joke-jokes. The result was something much better, on average, than the typical late-night monologue, but something not nearly as necessary. Evergreen means you could watch it whenever, which means there is no need to watch it that night. It’s called The Tonight Show and not A Night Show for a reason: It’s supposed to be there to end your day. Although there is obviously artistry involved, late-night shows are a service. Leno understood this better than anyone, which is probably why critics hated him even when audiences loved him.

“People are busy, work hard, they may have missed the news, so you have to give them a complete view of the news,” Fallon told the TCAs last year, relaying the message Leno gave him. This is a point that Breger could not fathom in her New Republic piece. “In today’s media-saturated landscape, the classic opening monologue feels extraneous,” she wrote. “In Leno’s hands, the monologue was essentially a series of one-liners about unavoidable news headlines — which is not all that dissimilar to my Twitter feed, during most breaking news events.”

If you agree with her, that’s fine: The monologue is not for you. You don’t have to watch them, and, if I had to guess, you haven’t been anyway. This might seem hard to believe in a world of constantly refreshing Twitter feeds, but there are people who need to be told what happened that day. Whether doctors or firefighters or in possession of some other job that involves using one’s hands and/or eyeballs, they aren’t on their computers or phones all day.

“Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, they’re doing very modern monologues,” Meyers told me earlier today. “For people who don’t have time, [it’s] a way to sit down and look at a Twitter feed being performed for six to eight minutes, which is like a nice collection of jokes about what’s happened during the day.” It’s the topicality that’s valuable, not the humor.

There’s a reason Leno’s quote to Fallon didn’t say “you have to be funny.” Funny is great, but it’s not essential here. The late-night show is more akin to a talk show like the Today show than a comedy show like Saturday Night Live. Comedy has a point of view; it excludes. Late-night shows are supposed to be inclusive, welcoming. You sit down when friends come over, but you tend to stand when you’re inviting them in. Though the jokes might seem similar, this is at the core of why it’s so notable that Seth Meyers sat down last night. It’s a subtle move, but it positions him as something more similar to The Daily Show than The Tonight Show, a direction they’ve been thinking about since they started. And that may well work — for Seth. Late Night has always succeeded as a comedy showcase.

The same can’t be said for hosts in the 11:30 slot, and there’s a reason for that. “We realized that we needed to discard some of our edgier ideas; not because we didn’t like them, but because there was a reason nobody else was doing them,” Simmons wrote. “People like continuity with late-night shows. They don’t want to see new ground broken. They don’t want reckless chances and unpredictability. They want to see a friendly-looking guy stroll out wearing a suit and tie, stand in front of the camera, tell some jokes, throw it to commercial, sit behind a desk, and talk to guests. They want this because they’re lying in bed, half-asleep, with their brain slowly shutting off.”

That’s why it will be very telling to watch Colbert’s monologue strategy evolve. It’s easier to be irreverent when you are following The Daily Show than when you’re following local news. He’s about to face a much older audience than he’s faced before — one old enough to have actually watched Johnny Carson (hell, it’s CBS, one old enough to have watch Steve Allen). That said, if anyone can do it, it’s Colbert — he was able to get Henry Kissinger to watch him dance; he can get your dad to watch him sit. Still, while Colbert’s doing test shows, and trying out new formats, he may want to also try on some comfortable shoes.  

In Defense of the Late-Night Monologue