This week marks the return of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to HBO after a nearly three-month hiatus. I’ve been looking forward to it, and not just because I need some obscure aspect of Biden’s education policy explained in 21 hilarious minutes with F-bombs. Last week Desus & Mero returned to Showtime, and with Amber Ruffin killing it on Peacock, I feel like “late” “night” television is as vital as it was when I began writing about it 27 years ago this month.
I’ve been putting “late night” in quotes for a while now, since only a fraction of the audience for these shows actually watches them late at night anymore. Beginning now, though, the word “night” will now have its own set of quote marks. (And the crew members standing off-camera clapped wildly.)
My reasoning is sound: The best late-night TV isn’t nightly anymore. It’s weekly. And it’s not just one flavor like it was in the Dave-versus-Jay era. There’s something for everybody in “late” “night.” Angry progressives have Sam Bee. Stoners have Joe Pera. Larry Wilmore fans have Larry Wilmore. Even Elmo was killing it on his Not-So-Late Show early in pandemic. (Please bring Elmo back, HBO or HBO Max, whatever your name is.)
Hasan Minhaj’s weekly Patriot Act was fresh, smart, and funny, but because Netflix doesn’t actually want to be in the “late” “night” business, they threw Minhaj and his Peabody Award under the bus. Well, at least Jon Stewart is back, having signed a deal with Apple TV+ to host “hourlong, single-subject episodes” about “current affairs” — sounds a lot like a weekly show. Unclear is whether Stewart’s return will come before or after Conan O’Brien’s new weekly program debuts on HBO Max, shortly after nightly Conan wraps in June.
This brings up an important question: If “late” “night” TV isn’t late and if much of it isn’t nightly, what exactly is it? I would define it as a sensibility, one that has existed since Steve Allen wandered out on stage in 1954. It’s a sensibility that says: I know there’s a lot out there to keep a person up at night, but if I can lighten your load for a few minutes, maybe you’ll sleep better. Of course you can escape into a crime drama, too, or fall asleep to a podcast of a grown man reading you a story. No, the magic of “late” “night” has always been that it’s done on the fly. It’s a dish of steaming hot cultural stew cooked up by writers and celebrities and producers and crew, all of them running around madly before showtime as one imperturbable talent sits calmly at the center, usually behind a desk.
That’s why so many smart and funny people have pined for this gig — one of the most demanding grinds in show business — because it’s so badass. Stephen Colbert isn’t really my cup of chai anymore, but for more than three million people a night, and millions more by day, he’s cathartic. I’ve seen Kenan Thompson’s new sitcom and it’s fine, but he’d be nuts to quit SNL, because where else would he get to play characters like Black Donald Trump?
If there’s a downside to the “late” “night” style, it’s that it’s so topical and thus, doesn’t age well. Or does it? My friend Don Giller’s YouTube channel, with its thousands of lovingly curated David Letterman show videos, saw its traffic accelerate in the pandemic, whizzing past both the 100 thousand subscriber and 100 million view milestones. To watch Dave at his peak on NBC — the super-short monologues, Viewer Mail segments, cutting-edge guests, Chris Elliott disruptions, and that amazing band — is, for people of a certain age anyway, a reminder that however forgettable the ’80s may have been, they did give us the Suit of Velcro.
Lately, I’ve found myself oddly drawn to another late great, the one whom Dave was supposedly the opposite of — Johnny Carson. Watching his lightly edited reruns on Antenna TV, where they have been a nightly fixture for years, I’m surprised how well it holds up. Partly that’s because The Tonight Show was the premier stage for standup comedy in America back then, and the “A” material from Jerry Seinfeld or Rodney Dangerfield has stood the test of time.
But partly it’s because Johnny’s show is such a fascinating time capsule. I was watching this one Tonight Show from 1973 that Jack Benny was on. He was quite old and hard of hearing, and he started off with a story that ate up six minutes of air time for exactly two laughs. Johnny mostly nodded and stayed quiet. That alone was amazing. Afterward, Johnny eased Jack into some one-liners that would never fly today, but the audience loved. “That’s what women are for, to spend money!” complained Benny, a famous tightwad. Talking about his friend Frank Sinatra, who was between wives at the time, Benny noted that “Sinatra has a lot of hobbies — a lot of young hobbies.”
Then Jack moved over one place to make room for the German actress Elke Sommer, who was wearing an incredibly flimsy top. Sommer mostly appeared in Italian horror films, but she was well known to American viewers from regular appearances on The Hollywood Squares and Johnny’s show. She spent most of her segment fielding questions about being beautiful and getting hit on. At one point Benny leaned over and kissed her, because men did that. Later, Doc Severinsen, who was filling in for Ed McMahon, demonstrated how to launch a gob of chewing tobacco juice into a spittoon.
The whole show exuded a Seventies California party vibe. Watching it, I felt a strange sense of relief about our own times. In 1973 the country was barely starting to recover from the trauma of Vietnam while getting shellacked by inflation, the energy crisis, and Watergate. At every level of society men were in charge. They did and said as they pleased, and as uncomfortable as it may be now to watch an old man kissing a sexy actress, such cultural gestures were how we made it through that mess.
Who knows what people are going to say in 50 years about our current affairs, viewed through the prism of Bill Maher or Chelsea Handler or one of the Jimmys. Forget about the masks and empty studios — what will future video dumpster-divers make of our political correctness and alternate facts, our Wrestlemania president, our obsession with tiny screens and big bottoms? I have no idea, but I feel better knowing that the perpetual hologram of Conan O’Brien will be around to make jokes about it.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, The Amber Ruffin Show, Conan, Desus & Mero, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Late Night with David Letterman, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, The Problem With Jon Stewart, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson