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The Ten Biggest Fails in Late-Night TV History

There's no train wreck like a midnight train wreck.
  • Photos: Everett Collection/CBS/NBC/Fox
    Photos: Everett Collection/CBS/NBC/Fox

    We are rapidly approaching the day when young people will hear their oldies make a reference to late-night TV and say in reply, "What's late-night TV?" Before that happens, let's remember television's most interesting daypart with this list of wannabe late-night hosts who just didn't get it.

    For late night is not a time period so much as a sensibility. After about 1960 most "late night" shows taped in the afternoon or early evening. But put an hour of Stephen Colbert up against an hour of Ellen and the difference is plain. The sets are darker. The music sounds like what you'd hear at a club instead of the mall. The talent aren't straining to sound bright and cheery.

    Late-night TV is a grind — writing jokes, rehearsing sketches and numbers, coaching guests, doing it live-to-tape and then starting over the next day. This is the routine that produced three generations of comedy greats and still churns out some of the most watched comedy clips on YouTube.

    But celebrities, and their agents, have occasionally deluded themselves into thinking they could be the next Carson or Letterman, only to wind up a punchline themselves. Here are the 10 that failed the worst.

    Thicke of the Night (1983)

    The Canadian actor — dad of Kirk Cameron on Growing Pains and Robin Thicke IRL — is a classic case of someone with a successful daytime talk show (on Canada's CTV) thinking he could do the exact same thing in late night.

    His syndicated show competed in most markets with Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, which was unfortunate for Thicke since he couldn't deliver a monologue, had terrible writers and was given only B-level talent to work with, because A-listers only did Johnny's show.

    In the above clip, Thicke is introduced by his announcer, future late-night supernova Arsenio Hall.

    The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers (1986)

    Tragedy more than comedy overshadowed this ill-fated venture. Joan Rivers had worked her way seemingly inch by inch up the show business ladder, only to have it all come crashing down in the fall of 1986.

    After earning the job of Johnny Carson's permanent guest host, Rivers was wooed by Rupert Murdoch's fledgling new Fox network to take on Johnny.

    The response from Burbank was brutal: Carson's bookers threatened to blackball any celeb who did her show. (Wikipedia has a very good summary of the backstage chicanery.) Things unwound quickly from there.

    Obviously Joan Rivers was fully qualified to host this show, but she was betrayed or let down by key people — and, another little secret of late night, franchises matter.

    The Late Show was literally Fox's first network show. The network didn't know how to sell her to America and the affiliates were not fully behind her (unlike CBS affiliates when David Letterman debuted there with a nearly same-named show).

    Fox finally yanked Rivers in May 1987, but kept the show going for a time after substitute host Arsenio Hall became a surprise hit. Despondent over the failure of the show, Rivers's husband-manager Edgar Rosenberg killed himself later that year.

    The next two hosts of The Tonight Show blackballed Rivers, too; she didn't appear on the show again until 2014.

    The Wilton North Report (1988)

    Not content to step once on a rake, Fox would do it four times in seven years before bailing out of the late-night business for good.

    The next error was letting Arsenio Hall after a successful 13-week run so that they could debut The Wilton North Report, a kind of lighthearted version of the PBS NewsHour hosted by Sacramento radio duo Paul Robins and Phil Cowan.

    Reflecting on his time at Wilton North, writer Conan O'Brien once said, "I learned it takes a lot of smart people working really hard to make a crappy show."

    The Pat Sajak Show (1989)

    Fox wasn't the only network desperate to make big bucks in late night. CBS was tired of having its late-night movies mocked by David Letterman. But at least those made money, whereas it's likely CBS lost a pile on this turkey, hosted by the man — then as now — known mainly for Wheel of Fortune.

    The show got off to a decent enough, if low-energy start, although ominously Chevy Chase was a guest on the first show, and Pat's bandleader went on to be Chevy Chase's bandleader.

    But the big problem with The Pat Sajak Show was that over time, Pat didn't work that hard at it. And it was basically a daytime show masquerading as something it wasn't.

    By 1990 CBS had cut Sajak from 90 minutes to 60 minutes and had started using guest hosts. ("It was going so well that they actually auditioned replacements for me on the air," Sajak joked years later.) That led to the most notorious moment in the show's history, when guest host Rush Limbaugh was repeatedly booed and yelled at by a crowd of gay-rights protestors who had scored tickets to his taping.

    The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (1992)

    You can't have a comeback without a setback, and Leno's clunky upgrade to host of The Tonight Show from permanent guest host made possible his reinvention as the most successful late-night host in history not named Johnny.

    All the problems that would eventually get fixed are on full display here: monologue too short, host too far from the audience, no chemistry with the bandleader, lame political humor (well, he didn't fix that so much as lean into it). And yes, Robert Krulwich was a guest on the first show.

    The Chevy Chase Show (1993)

    The fishtank was more compelling than the host. And to think Fox cancelled Studs for this. A low-energy actor who — even during the first season of SNL — never extemporized, and was a difficult talent by all accounts, Chase was the worst possible person to give a late-night show to. He lasted four weeks.

    Later with Greg Kinnear (1994)

    Greg Kinnear was already a late-night star as host of E!'s Talk Soup when the NBC finger of fate touched him. Kinnear was asked to succeed Bob Costas as the host of Later, and everybody knew why.

    NBC executives were nervous about Conan O'Brien, the host of Late Night, to whom they were issuing 13-week renewal deals, such was their confidence in him. But Conan struck back.

    On the very night that Kinnear debuted on Later, Conan welcomed the biggest name in late night, David Letterman, to his show. Letterman showered praise on Conan, said he and his writers were changing the face of comedy — basically daring NBC executives to cancel him. (Dave held the option on what show would appear after his Late Show on CBS.)

    Kinnear was polished, glib, prepared … and dead in the water from Day 1. He didn't last three years before landing a movie role and saying sayanora to late night.

    Last Call (1994)

    Television genius Brandon Tartikoff had the golden touch, as evidenced by shows he shepherded to success: Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, The Cosby Show, and especially Seinfeld. But his all-too-brief tenure after NBC (he died at age 48) included this late-night discussion show featuring Elvis Mitchell and some others.

    By the third taping Last Call had turned into an unwatchable food fight "with the shrill British woman and the loudmouthed MTV jock bulldozing the other panelists, while stunned guests seem to ask themselves whether or not they should answer their five inquisitors in a normal tone of voice," wrote one critic at the time (me).

    The Magic Hour (1998)

    Three Black-themed late night talk shows launched at about the same time, and while none got very far, the one hosted by basketball great Earvin "Magic" Johnson was easily the cringiest.

    And never was it cringier than the night of July 2, 1998, when — after weeks of pummeling this show on the air — Howard Stern accepted possibly the most ill-advised invitation in late-night annals to appear as Magic's guest and inquisitor.

    "What amazes me even now, several days after the fact, is the extraordinary stupidity of Earvin Johnson and his people for extending the invite to Stern despite learning what Stern planned to do on the show," wrote an incredulous critic (me again).

    "He had demanded that his 'band,' The Losers, be allowed to perform their flatulent version of 'Wipe Out' as a condition for doing the show. He said he would tell the host exactly what he thought of The Magic Hour … And they let him do the show anyway! The whole show!"

    If you've got an hour, watch the YouTube, it's still golden.

    Wilmore (2020)

    When Peacock launched as a streaming service, it had precious little original content. So it rolled out not one but two late-night programs, one hosted by Comedy Central veteran Larry Wilmore (who had hosted a show on that channel), and one hosted by Seth Meyers writer Amber Ruffin.

    If the presence of a known quantity like Wilmore got the world to pay more attention to Ruffin, that's great. But his show was uninspired and unnecessary.

    Peacock later claimed the show was always going to end after 11 episodes, and Wilmore in an interview suggested he'd done it as a favor to a friend, which may the best-ever excuse for late-night failure.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Late Night, The Chevy Chase Show, Last Call, Later with Greg Kinnear, The Late Show with Joan Rivers, The Magic Hour, The Pat Sajak Show, Thicke of the Night, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Wilmore, The Wilton North Report, Alan Thicke, Arsenio Hall, Chevy Chase, Greg Kinnear, Howard Stern, Joan Rivers, Larry Wilmore, Magic Johnson, Pat Sajak