A couple of follow-up points to my previous post about Conan and Conan, and his under-performance at TBS:
– There’s always a temptation, when a talk show isn’t doing as well as expected, to talk about the format being outdated and the need to do more to attract younger viewers who aren’t used to it. Conan is an example of why that may not be the right point of view to take. It’s a very traditional talk show, which has frustrated fans who expected him to use his new platform to re-invent the format. (“Team CoCo” fans who didn’t regularly watch his NBC shows, but thrilled to the edge-of-your-seat wildness of his last Tonight shows, were hoping that he could sustain that style for a whole series every night. Even if it could be done, that wasn’t what he was trying to do.) He’s having trouble with people in their ’30s and ’40s and older. He might be doing better if more of his core young audience were watching live instead of watching clips on their new-fangled phones, but that’s not his biggest problem. The traditional talk show format seems to be fine for young viewers if, as with Conan, the host is someone they like.
– I wonder if O’Brien’s basically non-topical style of humour is a problem for him as a late-night anchor, as opposed to the follow-up show (Late Night) where he was most successful. As you know, every late night talk show follows a fairly rigid formula – it has to, because without formula you can’t turn out an episode every night. Because we sort of know what kind of things the host will do, there has to be something else to tempt us, the prospect of seeing or hearing something we didn’t hear last time. And one of the things that changes, apart from the identity of the guests, is the actual news in the world that day. Many people watch a talk show to hear the host crack wise about the day’s news.
News junkies watch The Daily Show to hear what Jon will say about the day’s events or the coverage thereof. And believe it or not, Jay Leno was the most popular late-night host for similar reasons. His core audience liked topical humour; according to The War For Late Night, affiliate stations thought Leno was a good fit with their local broadcasts because people would watch the news, and then stick around to hear Leno make jokes about the stories the local news had just covered. His jokes are very bland – much like local news often is. But there’s an audience for bland topical jokes, and he filled it.
When Leno was replaced by O’Brien, Letterman (again according to The War For Late Night) increased his number of political jokes and the length of his monologue; though his political humour has more of an edge to it than Leno’s, and he’s accordingly seen as more of a partisan figure, Letterman did attract some of the Leno viewers who wanted to hear monologue jokes about the day’s headlines. And he knew that these viewers didn’t like O’Brien: O’Brien does topical jokes, but he’s not that interested in them. O’Brien is an absurdist comedian who likes comedy for its own sake, and he’s at his best with more timeless material, not same-day jokes.
That kind of material is, when it works, late night at its most creative and fun. But it seems to work best at 12:30. (In Canada, of course, we get Conan at 12, but that doesn’t do him any good on his own network, where he starts at 11.) O’Brien, Fallon, Ferguson, and the father of them all, NBC-era Letterman. They’re crazy and cheeky and silly, while the 11:00-11-30 show is always more “grown-up” and sober and ripped from the headlines. It may be that to do an 11 o’clock talk show, a host needs to convey some feeling that he (or she – it’ll happen someday, I hope) is the place to go to make sense of the day’s events. Whereas the 12:30 show is where you go when you’re tired of things making sense, and want a little bit of nonsense.
If this is true, then it doesn’t augur well for how Jimmy Fallon will do if he ever takes over The Tonight Show, but on the other hand Fallon is more malleable than O’Brien, and a Fallon Tonight Show might be very different from what he’s doing now (much as Letterman’s Late Show is very different from Late Night).