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Dead Tree Alert: In Late Night, Time to Fire the Desk

My column in the new print TIME magazine looks at who might replace Jimmy Fallon. Or rather, what might replace him.

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Lloyd Bishop/NBC

Now that we know Jimmy Fallon is going to take over for Jay Leno, my column in the new print TIME magazine (subscription required) looks at who might replace Fallon. Or rather, what might replace him:

Let’s be blunt: the problem is the desk. Late night is saturated with the guy behind a desk, giving a monologue, doing comedy bits and interviewing actors with movies to plug. That desk feels more and more like an antique.

As I say in the column, there is already a diversity problem in late night, which I wrote about the last time we had a late-night shuffle: “there’s one field the ‘mancession’ has not touched: late-night comedy, still (with exceptions like Chelsea Handler) a preserve of silverbacks. We spent much of this year wondering whether TV could make room for that one white guy who lost his show to that other white guy, in a field in which red hair counts as diversity.”

That looks unlike to change radically, soon. Press reports give Seth Meyers–funny guy, but the most Fallon-like option imaginable–the inside track for Late Night, and this week NBC was reported to be in talks with Alec Baldwin for a very-late-show. (He won’t get Carson Daly’s slot, though; Last Call was just renewed for another season.)

But there’s also a diversity problem when it comes to the show’s formats. It’s no more necessary that late-night be dominated by the monologue-desk-interview format than that it be dominated by white guys.

And as I write in the column, cable talk is proof of both. Besides Stewart and Colbert (who essentially do ironic takes on the desk-of-power setup), there’s the political humor of W. Kamau Bell, the pop-culture chat of Andy Cohen and MTV’s Nikki and Sara, the geek obsessions of Chris Hardwick’s The Nerdist and Talking Dead.

You could argue that network late-night shows need to be more generalist, offering something for everyone. But that’s chasing a vanishing model of TV–audiences are more and more drawn to the specific.

I don’t expect NBC to put a full-out cable-style talk show at 12:35, but the time seems perfect to acknowledge the changes in broadcasting and experiment a little. If NBC and Lorne Michaels really want to sign Meyers, for instance, maybe the Weekend Update anchor could do a news-oriented talk show more along the lines of The Daily Show than Late Night. (Though, nothing against him, there are actually comics besides white guys who can do that kind of TV as well.)

After all, 12:35 should be a time slot where the networks feel freer to mix things up than the prime 11:35 slot. Take a chance, NBC! It would be a lot more exciting than merely rearranging the desk chairs.



I like how in the print edition of the article you group Craig Ferguson in as the same tried late night format when clearly he is probably only late night talk show host willing to take risks.  

Do research and actually watch the shows before writing an article.  : /

TheHoobie like.author.displayName 1 Like

I was so glad to see the reference to W. Kamau Bell's person-on-the-street interviews in the Dead-Tree article, James! They're awesome, and one of my favorite parts of his show. Bell is so congenial and smart-and-funny-on-his-feet, I wind up totally endeared both to him and to whoever he's talking to. He has this great, relaxed way of respecting and "elevating" his interviewees---the exact opposite of Jay Leno's horrible condescension in his execrable Jaywalking segments, which I am so happy to know will not be fouling the public airwaves for much longer. Yecch! Ptui.

anon76 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Didn't Leno do something like that when he got his 10:00 "slightly earlier Tonight" show?  I'm too anti-Leno to actually go back and look, but my recollection was he got rid of the desk and did interviews with just him and the guest sitting in cozy chairs.  My recollection is also that a certain Time TV critic also did an electronic eye roll at the gimmick, but again, I'd hate to have to go back and check.

jponiewozik moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

@anon76 Ha, touche! Yes, getting rid of the desk is not in itself going to fix anything; big problem with The Jay Leno show is it ended up essentially being the Tonight Show, but no desk so you had to look at Jay's socks. Conversely (I think I had this in my column and cut it for space), Stewart and Colbert have desks, but their shows are much more different from the Tonight template; they use the desks ironically, to subvert the idea of the anchor/pundit's authority (especially Colbert). Think of the desk as a metaphor (metonym?) for the overused format. IT'S A DESK OF THE MIND, MAN.