TIME Television

Why Replace Craig Ferguson At All?

Lyle Lovett and Ferguson on the April 23, 2014 Late Late Show. Sonja Flemming/CBS

Get ready for another debate over who should get to host a talk show. But the question should be whether we need one more talk show, period.

Craig Ferguson, who will leave CBS at the end of the year after a decade, was arguably the only person actually doing a “talk show” in late night: that is, a show in which the distinguishing attraction was not viral videos or comedy bits or the standup routine but the talk. Ferguson, a funny comedian in his own right, stood out for his words–his wide-ranging, essayistic monologues, his idiosyncratic choices of guests whom he engaged with sincere curiosity and interest. It never earned him a big profile, it was fortunate he lasted as long as he did, and he will be missed.

That said, I’d be a phony to act too outraged over his departure or worked up over who will replace him. Because truth be told, I admired Ferguson a lot and watched him very little. It was nothing personal; I also watch relatively little of Conan and Dave and Arsenio and the Jimmys and all the very talented guys (because they are guys) hosting late-night talk shows. If I didn’t write about TV, I’d probably watch even less; I have kids, I wake up early, there’s a lot of TV crowding my Tivo, and there are too many other alternatives I’d choose first.

And I’m not alone. The audiences for the big 11:35 p.m. shows have been declining over the years, and by 12:35 the numbers are infinitesimal. If we’re going strictly by ratings, we should be at least as concerned about what new shows Adult Swim is programming as who takes over another talk show.

Ferguson’s audience was small but intense, but for many others, late-night only exists as a kind of cultural proxy. There should maybe be a punch-card system, in which you need to show proof of having actually watched 20 full talk-show episodes in a year before venturing a heated opinion as to who hosts one. As a colleague once told me back during the Jay/Conan disaster, “I don’t really watch Conan, but I like to know that he’s there.”

So people will debate, again, who should host CBS’s late-late show, but there’s a good argument that we don’t need the show at all–not, anyway, a show with a monologue, a house band, two interviews and a musical guest. CBS might do much better creating a program to reach some part of the vast, vast audience that does not watch talk shows, period. For instance (and I’m not the first to throw these ideas out):

* a sports roundup/roundtable, taking advantage of CBS Sports’ resources
* a panel-discussion show, harking back to the days of Politically Incorrect on ABC
* a talk-parody show, like the brilliant, short-lived syndicated Fernwood 2-Night and America 2-Night that starred Martin Mull and Fred Willard in the ’70s
* virtually any kind of targeted-interest show–music, politics, what have you–to distinguish CBS’s late night from the raft of general-interest talk shows already out there

CBS will probably do none of these things, of course; well before Ferguson left, its leadership was talking about looking for another host to do another talk show. But if it does, it probably won’t be because there’s that much viewership to be found or money to be made but because, well, NBC has a 12:35 show, CBS had one, and it would seem to diminish Stephen Colbert not to be followed by a full-fledged talk show as David Letterman was and Jimmy Fallon is.

There will be a late late show on CBS, in other words, because that’s what you do. You most likely will not watch it. But at least you’ll know it’s there.

TIME talk shows

Conan: Colbert Is the ‘Right Person’ for Late Show

LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN
David Letterman shakes hands with fellow talk show host Stephen Colbert after Colbert comes by for a surprise visit on the Late Show, May 4, 2011. Worldwide Pants Inc.

Late-night comedian Conan O'Brien, who apparently was not a contender for the coveted position to be vacated by David Letterman, but who insists he's "happy" with Conan on TBS, says Stephen Colbert is the "right person" to head the CBS program

Conan O’Brien is all smiles and handshakes over CBS’ decision to anoint Stephen Colbert the next host of the Late Show.

The 50-year-old talk show host of Conan said Stephen Colbert is the “right person” to take over the Late Show from the departing David Letterman, the Associated Press reports.

I’m very happy where I am, but I love Stephen. I think Stephen is great. I’m a huge fan of his as a comic and as a human being. I think it’s fantastic. I’m really glad that he got the job. I look forward to seeing his show,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien took over for Letterman on NBC’s Late Night in 1993, and then took over Jay Leno’s spot at NBC’s Tonight Show for a brief seven months before being replaced by Leno in 2010. O’Brien now hosts his own late-night show, Conan, on TBS.

O’Brien said he was never in the running for Letterman’s spot anyway. “Whenever I would hear there was speculation (that I’d take over the Late Show), I was like, ‘No. What?’ I’m happy,” said O’Brien, whose TBS talk show has been renewed through November 2015. “I get to do what I want.”

[AP]

MORE: The Best of Stephen Colbert

TIME Television

David Letterman Is Ending Late Night’s ‘Greatest Run’

David Letterman
In this photo provided by CBS, David Letterman, host of the “Late Show with David Letterman,” waves to the audience in New York on Thursday, April 3, 2014, after announcing that he will retire sometime in 2015. Jeffrey R. Staab—CBS/AP

During a taping for his Late Show program Thursday, host David Letterman announced that he will be retiring in 2015, so ending more than three decades in late night entertainment and perhaps the most influential run in talk shows and comedy

This just in from the Home Office at the Ed Sullivan Theater: David Letterman announced to his Late Show audience today that he will be retiring sometime in 2015. This will end more than three decades in late night and maybe the most influential run in talk shows and comedy, period. “I just want to reiterate my thanks for the support from the network, all of the people who have worked here, all of the people in the theater, all of the people on the staff, everybody at home, thank you very much,” Letterman said. “What this means now is that Paul [Shaffer] and I can be married.”

We have a lot of time to process this and pay tribute to his brilliance — Letterman’s retiring, after all, not dying, and not for a year — but for now, a few thoughts on what this means:

* The Jay Leno Connection. No, I’m not saying that CBS is going to give Leno Letterman’s job. (Though begin popping the popcorn if it happens.) But I do have to wonder if Leno’s retirement wasn’t part of the impetus for Letterman to call it a day. After Leno left Tonight in 2009, the Letterman crew hoped it would be Letterman’s chance to rule the late-night ratings in the last stage of his run. But Conan O’Brien was gone in half a year, Letterman fell behind Leno again, and it doesn’t look like he’s catching Jimmy Fallon, the new standard-bearer of anti-snark, anytime soon. But he’s outlasted Leno, and — having begun his career as an iconoclastic anti-showbiz host and grown into a reflective elder TV statesman — it probably seems time to end things on his own schedule.

* The Succession. Now comes the volley of rumored candidates to succeed Letterman. Many of the suggestions will be brilliant hosts and comedians who nonetheless are probably better off hosting anything but an 11:35 show on CBS. Craig Ferguson’s conversational quirk is perfect for late-late night, where it already is. (Before you say it: Yes, Ferguson has a paper deal to take the time slot, and no, it’s not cast in stone if CBS wants to pay him off.) Ditto Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, whose names are already being tossed around. (O’Brien is another matter, but it would be interesting to see if CBS wants him, and if he wants it.) But first I’m interested to see if CBS is committed to the idea of keeping a traditional late-night interview show, period. When Late Show began in 1993, there was only Tonight to compete with; now there’s ABC, and cable besides. CBS did something radical by hiring Letterman in the first place; will it do something radical again?

* The Legacy. When I say Letterman was the dominant late-night figure of his era, someone will probably say — someone always does — that can’t be true, since he rarely had the highest ratings. Influence, though, isn’t something you measure by one show. It’s Letterman’s Late Show and Late Night – not Leno’s or even Johnny Carson’s, really — that you see reflected in the style and attitude of one late-night show after another: Comedy Central’s satires, O’Brien and, really, probably just about every comedy writers’ room in TV to one extent or another.

Really, Letterman’s successor has already been named, in the form of all of those people — as well as in his current competitors. There’s a bit of him even in the nice-guy Fallon, and a whole hell of a lot in Jimmy Kimmel, who has already responded to the news. “David Letterman,” he tweeted, “is the best there is and ever was.”

Amen. And now it’s time for CBS to think about the “will be.”

Update: Some followers on Twitter have already taken the headline of this piece as a slight against Johnny Carson. They’re both greats. Carson ruled late night for three decades (though he didn’t invent the format) and David Letterman defined the tone of comedy for decades. For that, I’d put Letterman slightly higher — slightly! – but I’m also not interested in making this a Highlander-style showdown between two of the best broadcasters there ever were. If you prefer Carson, here’s a tribute I wrote to the Great Telecommunicator when he died in 2005.

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