On Aug. 22, 1988, NBC went someplace no one thought possible. A place where only the most hardcore lost causes resided — the grifters, the drunks, the lonelyhearts, the direct-response advertisers and of course, the insomniacs. NBC went to 1:30 a.m. to launch a nightly talk show called Later with Bob Costas. People still awake at that hour would watch anything, the reasoning went, so why not an affable sportscaster trying his hand at celebrity chat? Thus was a 1:30 franchise born.
The origin story is that David Letterman, then the host of NBC’s Late Night, had watched Bob Costas interviewing Bart Starr, the reticent Hall of Fame quarterback. “Anyone who can make Bart Starr interesting for two hours deserves to have his own show,” Letterman told Brandon Tartikoff, who was running the entertainment division. Tartikoff huddled with Dick Ebersol, an NBC exec with feet in both sports and late night, and a nutty idea was hatched — put Costas on after Letterman and have him banter with stars, one guest per show, for 30 minutes.
Later with Bob Costas didn’t look like a talk show. There was no band, no monologue, and above all, no desk. Host and guest sat in comfy armchairs facing each other and chatted for half an hour. Celebrities who hadn’t talked to Johnny Carson or Letterman in years would talk to Costas because he didn’t intimidate. On more than one occasion — like the middle section of this Richard Lewis three-parter — things got so loose that Ebersol opted not to air the show.
Back then the only way you could watch Later was to set your VCR or catch it live. Yet millions tuned in nightly, lots of them in the desirable 25-54 demographic. (And this was when college, prison and bar viewing didn’t count in the Nielsens.) The show won an Emmy and many fans-for-life. As recently as 2018, one notable critic even called for a revival of Later with Bob Costas.
But five years into the 1:30 experiment, NBC signed a new baseball rights deal. This was Bobby C’s wheelhouse. The network was also hosting the Atlanta Games in 1996 and saw a prominent role for Costas in its Olympics coverage. (In fact, he wound up doing the late-night broadcast.) NBC’s timing proved fortuitous, because by the fall of ’93 Letterman was at CBS and on the prowl for a host for the 12:30 program that would follow Late Show. It would’ve been a perfect fit for Costas, but now he was locked into a new deal. (Dave settled for Old Milwaukee.)
NBC announced that Costas would be quitting the late-late gig and that it would be giving the time slot back to its affiliates — ha! Of course it didn’t. Networks spend years bribing and cajoling affiliates to give up precious time slots. The reason late-night shows now start on the 35’s is that stations demanded one more ad break in their local newscasts. I remember Ted Koppel giving me an earful at a hotel in L.A. after he learned I was from Kansas City, where the ABC affiliate had been delaying Nightline for years to show reruns of Cheers. Bargaining for time slots is one of the hardest negotiations in the TV business. So no, NBC was going to keep doing Later with a replacement, another up-and-coming broadcasting talent named …
Greg Kinnear? Well, yes, at the time Kinnear’s future seemed secure in television. He had created the template for the E! clip show Talk Soup, which would also launch John Henson, Aisha Tyler, and Joel McHale into orbit. And NBC saw in Kinnear a backup plan in case Conan O’Brien, the bright-green replacement for Letterman on Late Night, continued to flail. Kinnear was everything Conan wasn’t: glib, movie-actor handsome, and assured in front of a camera. He wasn’t learning on the job.
NBC announced Kinnear would be taking over the Later franchise, beginning Monday night, Feb. 28, 1994. And that’s when David Letterman did one of the classiest things I have ever seen an entertainer do — he booked himself as Conan O’Brien’s guest that same night on his old show, and proceeded to lavish praise on the struggling host. “You guys do an incredible amount of comedy,” Dave told Conan on the air. “The volume and the quality of the stuff just knocks me out. There's nothing like this show on television and I really, really appreciate that.” That night, it turns out, was the night for Kinnear to struggle. NBC, not being coy about its ambitions, had him do a traditional late-night show with studio audience, desk, and monologue, none of which he was familiar with. And it showed. As one perceptive critic noted afterward, “even after giving Greg what we feel is a very generous benefit of the doubt, we think Conan can breathe easy.”
Kinnear eventually got bored and drifted off to the studio sets, where he’s remained since. With no clear successor in sight, NBC rotated through a bunch of guest hosts. In case you’re wondering where Joe Rogan got the idea that he could interview people for a national audience, he had a week as a Later fill-in in 1997. By 1999 former VH1 personality Cynthia Garrett had landed the spot permanently, a breakthrough for a woman of color in late night. But then Garrett’s life went in a completely different direction and that’s when Carson Daly stepped in.
What all of these 1:35 incarnations had in common — whether they were called Later or Last Call or the current one, A Little Late with Lilly Singh — is that they were a convenient way for NBC to try talk-show hosts on a network stage without too much risk. Singh is a YouTube talent and funny young Indo-Canadian that NBC wanted to snap up before a competitor did. She’s acquitted herself in her two years on the network, but since her show debuted NBC has found an even better way to test out young talent: Peacock.
With a barebones crew and a brand-new streaming outlet, Peacock launched The Amber Ruffin Show during the pandemic and the raves have been pouring in ever since. Ruffin, who came up from the writers’ room like O’Brien and her boss, Seth Meyers, is clearly on her way to hosting NBC’s next big talk show. And she didn’t force viewers to stay up late or set their DVRs.
You know how they say age is just a number? So is time, at least in the streaming era. Later, Later. You were an audacious thing back when 1:30 a.m. actually meant something.
A Little Late with Lilly Singh airs its final episode Thursday June 3rd at 1:35am.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.