It's incredible how things can change.
In the 1970s The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was directly responsible for 20-25% of all the revenue earned by the then struggling NBC Network.
With its entire profit margin in the hands of one man, host and producer Johnny Carson, NBC couldn't do enough for him. He was treated like royalty, and any attempt to "bring him under heel" tended to backfire in the face of the network executives.
As I said at the beginning, things have changed, drastically.
This past week The Tonight Show with Jay Leno lost 20 staffers, and Leno himself took a multimillion dollar pay cut to avoid any more job losses. Now the official word is that the cuts are a way to adjust the show's budget back to its original late night standard, after bumping it up for Leno's disastrous prime-time run in 2009. However there just happens to be an even larger wave of layoffs hitting the NBC-Universal media
congealment conglomerate ordered by their owners Comcast.
However, I'll stick with talking about the late night talk shows.
Apparently, The Tonight Show is only just breaking even. That's shocking, not only because of its past as a money machine, but because of its status as the number one late night talk show in America.
However, having the number one late night talk show in America right now is like having the nicest house made of shit in all of Shitsville.
Overall viewership is down, their demographics are aging, and the cultural influence of talk shows is practically non-existent.
I can remember a time when a relatively unknown performer could appear on the Tonight Show and have his or her career made overnight. If you're a comedian having Johnny Carson call you to the couch at the end of your set was like getting blessed by the Pope of Comedy, and your life and career would never be the same.
Nowadays, appearing on what the networks consider their flagship late night talk shows really doesn't do anything for anyone. If you're a big star you're not going to be affected unless you show up sans pants and your antics get you mentioned negatively in other media outlets, and if you're an up and coming performer, you're not really going to get any real benefits from it.
Part of this is because of the fragmentation of the audience. There are a hell of a lot more entertainment options out there than just three TV channels, but that's not the whole story.
Another part of the story is that both the fundamental natures of the format and the hosts of the 11:30 flagship network shows* just don't measure up the way they used to.
Now socially Johnny Carson was, by his own admission, shy and stand-offish, however, on air, he was very relaxed, quick, and a master of getting the funny out of his guests. His casual, conversational style humanized his celebrity guests. When things went wrong, he didn't freak out, he rolled with it, made a joke out of it, and made everyone involved look good. He really looked like he enjoyed being there on stage with his quests, and that he loved show business in general.
Leno and Letterman both look like they are only there to fill time until the other either quits or drops dead. Leno strikes me like he wants to get the whole thing over with so he can get back to his car collection. He doesn't seem remotely interested in his guests, just that they're over and done with before the next commercial break.
David Letterman doesn't strike me any better. All I get from Letterman is a desire to show that he's smarter than his guests, which isn't that hard; which I'll get to in a minute, pandering to the critics and the elite New York media social circle, and outliving Leno.
Neither host seems like they want to get to know their guests the way Carson did. If they can't be interested in their guests, than there's no way their audience is going to get interested, and they tune out.
The format's also a problem. There's not time really for the audience to get to know anyone, no time really to be funny, just get them on, get them off, to make room for an appearance by the latest brain-dead reality TV troglodyte, or inarticulate kiddie pop star in the vain hope that their fans aren't already in bed before the monologue's done.
There's no room for casual conversation or even a funny story, just make your plug and get the hell out.
But it's not all the fault of the hosts and the network. The current crop of celebrities is hurtin' for certain when it comes to being an entertaining guest. Far too many are inarticulate, uninteresting, and completely incapable of being funny or charming. Those that are, have to fight to get a slot on a talk show because Leno's afraid of them replacing him, and Letterman's afraid of them looking smarter than him, unless they're an old friend.
What's happening to the late night talk show is what's happening to the old-school variety show in the 1970s. Too many shows, not enough talent, and not enough material to go around.
Eventually those old variety shows disappeared from American TV, and I fear the late night talk show might go the same way.
*And yes, I know I left out Jimmy Kimmel and the other after midnight talk shows, but they're not really in the same time-slot, or given the same cultural importance by the media.