The Late Night Shuffle
By David Barratt
March 24, 2009
The late night television switch is in full swing now, with SNL alum Jimmy Fallon filling Conan O’Brien’s sizable shoes, and O’Brien soon to move into Jay Leno’s coveted and time-honored spot. Leno will move into an earlier primetime slot more accessible to his older-skewing audience. Fallon’s first couple weeks have been shaky. His hosting skills haven’t developed much from his days of mugging for the camera and laughing at himself on Saturday Night Live, but he is utilizing something none of the other late night hosts seem to be tapping into: technology. A self-proclaimed tech geek, Fallon has made the show interactive through Twitter updates. When Cameron Diaz was his guest, he asked viewers to Twitter ideas for questions he should ask in the interview. One of his comedy bits involves fake Facebook status updates for audience members. He has stated that video game releases will be given the same coverage on his show as major movie releases. But perhaps the biggest indication of the show’s commitment to tech culture is Fallon bringing the hosts of web-only show Diggnation on as guests. While the show is obviously shooting for a young, Internet-savvy demographic, time will tell if its emphasis on web trends and tech will pay off. Twentysomethings like technology, but they also like humor. It’s been in fairly short supply on Fallon’s show thus far.
While it remains to be seen if NBC will give Fallon a chance to build an audience or yank the rug out from under him at the first sign of trouble, O’Brien seems like the ultimate loser in the entire late night shuffle. The wacky, self-deprecating host has waited a long time to make the move to the most coveted spot in late night television. It’s the show that birthed the late night genre, and raised an entire generation of Americans. O’Brien seems more than suited for the role. If anyone can continue The Tonight Show’s dominance over Letterman’s Late Show, it’s O’Brien who appeals to much the same demographic with his sarcasm and bizarre non-sequiturs. However, with Leno moving to an earlier slot, it seems as though O’Brien’s position hasn’t changed much. He’s still playing second fiddle to Jay Leno. It’s hard to imagine much of Leno’s aging audience will shift to O’Brien with the option of watching Leno in an earlier slot available.And then there’s Craig Ferguson. The Late Late Show host took over for Craig Kilborn four years ago, and at the time CBS’ offering at that timeslot was a veritable black hole. Yet, Ferguson has carved out a niche for himself as a late night host that seems to utterly break the mold. There’s no band, no monologue and the sets are incredibly sparse. To put it bluntly, the show looks cheap. Somehow, though, Ferguson managed to consistently beat O’Brien in the ratings for O’Brien’s last month on air, and has drawn acclaim from many television critics as the true king of late night.
What Ferguson brings is an almost total deconstruction of the late night genre. Rather than pre-written puns, Ferguson riffs extemporaneously on topics picked by his writers. What’s more surprising is that he manages to sound witty, sincere and wise while doing it. His passionate rant about the responsibility of voting—which he made after gaining his American citizenship—became a YouTube sensation and appeared in countless email forwards. During his recent interview of anti-apartheid crusader Bishop Desmond Tutu, Ferguson made the comment that resentment is like “drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.” He can be a profound soothsayer one moment, and a self-deprecating jester the next. Slowly, and with little fanfare, he’s becoming the most influential voice in late night. After an initial bump of interest boosted Fallon above Ferguson in the ratings, Ferguson overtook Late Night (and perennial third, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel) after its second week with Fallon as host. Ferguson, however, told the Associated Press that he doesn’t see Fallon as competition. “I’m actually kind of pleased that Fallon’s doing what he’s doing,” Ferguson said. “I think the competition for his show is more Adult Swim than me. I don’t think we’re going for the same audience.”
The most interesting thing about Ferguson's dominance is what it says about the changing face of American culture. What this trend may indicate is that younger viewers are not as concerned with technology and interactivity as they are with depth. Ferguson certainly has the ability to do low-brow humor, but he ultimately comes across as more genuine than his late night competitors. Vulnerability and authenticity are valued by people in their twenties, and Ferguson has both. Moreover, he comes across as authoritative. He’s as likely to offer a stern cultural admonition as he is a humorous quip. Perhaps in a time of economic turmoil, when many Americans feel less hopeful about the future, the biggest shift in late night television is from escapism to substance.