I have always been a night person. It became obvious from an early age, and my mother said it only made sense since I was born at two minutes till midnight. Today’s science doesn’t embrace that astrological explanation, but does insist that there are such things as chronotypes dictated by biologial and genetic predelictions which may amount to the same thing.
Practically speaking, what’s it matter? You am what you am and that’s all what you am, as Popeye would say. However I got this way, I have always been happiest staying up late and rising later. That means I was in my element during college where I managed to get through several degrees with only one class earlier that 11 AM, a nine o’clock.
Needless to say the need to earn a buck and the birth of children, no respecters of unconventional hours, put a painful end to those halcyon days — or rather afternoons and evenings. I was compelled to rise at unspeakably early hours, but was not wired to go to sleep like a farmer, when the sun went down.
This has resulted in thirty or forty years of sleep deprivation and a habitual resort to a couple hours of late night talk shows if movies I have never seen are unavailable. The first that I remember well, and maybe funniest ever, was “The Steve Allen Show,” a short-lived syndicated show that lasted from 1962 to 1964. It featured comedy, music by jazz performers rarely seen on TV, eccentric guests, audience interviews and cameras prowling the streets of Hollywood looking for trouble.
Many of the bits from that show have been recycled ever since, Carson’s “stump the band,” Letterman, Kimmel and Leno’s roving cameras and interactions with civilians. Johnny Carson was the acknowledged gold standard of late night for many years, though his range was narrower than Allen’s and he began to fade and seem dated near the end.
Dick Cavett, following Paar’s earlier example, ran an actual talk show and chose to book guests with something to say or a raconteur’s wit, rather than just celebrity twits plugging their latest dreck and bereft without a script. The amazing people Cavett got to sit for an interview was impressive, though the host’s egomania tended to obtrude.
The only real survivor in that tradition is Charlie Rose who is admirable in straying beyond show business to interview foreign luminaries, architects, curators, scientists and all the other accomplished members of the human species never seen anywhere else on TV.
After Johnny, Dave has been, as Dave would say, my late night TV friend, though like his idol Carson he has become steadily less zany and more staid. It must be a characteristic of the life cycle of TV hosts — or humans.
Other than these high water marks, there have been years and years of second and third string players. Some have just been dire — Joey Bishop, Arsenio, Craig Kilborn, Conan, with perhaps Jimmy Fallon having achieved a new low in witlessness. His interviews are worthless celebrity-stroking gush, in which the guest can hardly get a word in edgewise. And since talk seems not his natural habitat he fills the rest of his hour with celebrity impressions, children’s games and me, me, me.
Other hosts have been watchable if the first stringers were taking a week off or preempted by basketball and you were desperate — Leno, Craig Ferguson, Kimmel. Some were so odd and sui generis as to be hard not to watch, particularly Tom Snyder’s “The Tomorrow Show” and Mike Wallace’s “PM East.”
I admits there is a whole universe of newer folks I have occasionally dropped in on — Chelsea Handler, Graham Norton — but generally I had no idea who their comic, movie, musical guests were or what they were talking about so missed the jokes if there were jokes. For pure old school talk shows, there are no real competitors for the big three of the late night pantheon — Allen, Carson, Letterman.
Undoubtedly the greatest of all, in an alternative format, has been Jon Stewart with his pioneering fake news broadcast. This rich hybrid of satiric monologue, topical sketch and talk with a guest, often an author, often of a serious non-fiction work has few precursors. Only perhaps “That Was the Week That Was.” His Sancho Panza, Colbert, is a worthy runner-up.
But now both Letterman and Stewart are leaving. Colbert is already gone, but will return to take Letterman’s seat. He may be great, but he won’t be Dave. The children of late night don’t like change. We like continuity and familiarity. It’s why Johnny and Dave lasted decades.
So our late night friends are leaving, but we’re still here — left all alone. We don’t want new hosts introducing new musicians we have never heard of, pencil-necked leading men and wan ingenues apparently in their tweens, monologues that read more like tweets than pointed satire aimed at the events of the day. More and more it looks like the night life ain’t gonna be no good life, but it’s our life.
Mr. Letterman, Mr Stewart, speaking for all the bereft night owls, I implore you — don’t leave us. If you won’t amusingly conduct us sleep-ward and into the arms of Morpheus, what are we supposed to do as the clock ticks on into the dead vast and middle of the night? Read with drooping lids? Watch Fallon, Conan, Nightline, Seth Meyers, Chris Hardwick, Anderson Cooper? If you won’t amuse us anymore, whooooo?