this week in late night

The Late-Night Generation Gap

Martin Short and Steve Martin on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Photo: ABC

Digital video has changed late night from the libido-crushing activity of old married folks to a viral video factory for attention-span-deprived youths. Many of the guests on the shiny floor shows this week — Cher, Sir Paul McCartney, Whoopi Goldberg — appealed to the former demo, while the things they were asked to do appealed to the latter. Late night used to cater to the baby-boomer notion that film was an art form free of the crass commercialism of television. Artists had integrity and would only go on talk shows to talk about human-rights crises, or maybe how many extras they had slept with during production of their latest movie. But today we just want to see how many Oreos Jared Leto can eat in 30 seconds. The transition talk shows are undergoing is an awkward one, especially for stars who are more comfortable in the old format. So it was this week that the age-old question was finally answered: Does Martin Short know who Rob Kardashian is?

He does!

On Tuesday, Steve Martin and Martin Short came to Jimmy Kimmel Live to plug their Netflix special. It was a pleasant, by-the-book interview. Rehearsed jokes were peppered throughout, semi-embarrassing stories were shared, a photo of Tom Hanks was presented, and colonoscopy parties were recapped. Pre-YouTube, this is what the celebrity interview section of a talk show looked like. Meryl Streep would come by to promote Silkwood, then the host would interact with a trained seal. But today, Meryl would be feeding the trained seal, and it would be sponsored by Kia.

This is an improvement, overall. Unless a celeb is coming onto a show to officially announce how lit their engagement is, the private lives of stars can be very dull. It is a boring burlesque: A star teases a glimpse of their private life, but I can get the emotional equivalent of a gaper shot any time I want on Instagram. Benicio Del Toro went on two late-night shows this week, and I feel I know even less about him than I did before. But do I feel like we’ve lost something as a culture when Sir Paul McCartney does “Carpool Karaoke”? Yeah, kinda.

There is some cognitive dissonance when stars of yesterday do the stunts of today. Older celebs (or “olds,” as I like to call them) just aren’t used to doing goofy shit. In the ’80s and ’90s, Serious Acting meant distancing yourself from the publicity machine. The HBO documentary Vogue: The Editor’s Eye credits the rise of the supermodel with actresses’ refusal to do magazine covers. Fashion needed someone to meld commerce, art, and personality, and thus Cindy Crawford was born.

Some olds handle the new talk show better than others. Jeff Goldblum came on Kimmel in the best, most youthful shirt anyone has ever seen. Cher carried herself well on Corden. She is no stranger to self-debasement, as any clip package of her old show will attest. If anything, “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts” is a lateral move from the “Trashy Ladies” medley she did with Bette Midler on The Cher Show. Whoopi Goldberg actively brings the stunts to Fallon. She got chocolates with her face on them for every member of the Roots and strong-armed her way into a booking in November. But the best part of the interview was when Fallon described Whoopi’s job on The View: “It’s a tricky job,” he tells her. “You just have to show up and have a view on any topics, all topics. And you’ve got to get up early in the morning and have a point of view.” Jimmy Fallon thinks one of the hardest things to do is have a point of view.

Josh Brolin is a stunt machine as well. He demands food so that he can show off his mastery of eating while acting. He arm-wrestles Colbert. And then he reads Trump’s tweets as Thanos. If anything, Stephen Colbert seems more uncomfortable with the tomfoolery than Brolin. But then we find out why: Colbert is four years older than Josh Brolin, who is only 50 somehow, despite playing grizzled dads since approximately 1943. Stephen Colbert is, in fact, the old.

The Late-Night Generation Gap