For a few years there, as the late-night spats continued to rage on through the 2000s and the early 2010s, I was one of many who were mystified. The talk-show genre was so stale, with its obligatorily snarky monologues and its prefabricated, assembly-line interviews, that it hardly seemed worth all the lather. Jay, Conan, Dave, whatever. They seemed like the aging custodians of a dying estate, “The Remains of the Night.”
But 2014 was a turning point, and now late-night TV is less about rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship and more about reviving a TV institution. This year, Jimmy Fallon took over “The Tonight Show” in February and showed us just how burnt out Jay Leno truly was. Fallon stepped up his sketch work and created viral-ready celebrity games, many of them involving song and dance. He brought some joy back to the show, as light on his feet and as excited about his job as Leno wasn’t. Thankfully, Leno left without a fuss.
And Fallon was just the start. By April, arguably humbled by Fallon’s success, David Letterman announced his retirement after two-plus decades at CBS and a decade before that on NBC, to begin on May 20, 2015. Letterman was responsible for his own infusion of late-night energy and edge back in the 1980s, and his influence — irony and absurdity — can still be felt throughout the world of entertainment. He is on late night’s Mount Rushmore, near Johnny Carson. But in recent years his tone has devolved from dry sarcastic wit into something a little less clever and engaging — let’s call it tolerable misery. He wisely gave up his seat, and CBS wisely chose Stephen Colbert to fill it.
Colbert has been a critical part of Comedy Central’s vibrant late-night alternative for a decade, and he is about to bring his distinct brand of wacky to a bigger audience. On “The Colbert Report,” which ended on Dec. 18, he was all about teasing conservatives. Let’s see how he expands his material and uses his comedic and improv skills in a more conventional setting. I’m optimistic that he’ll provide a smart option for those who don’t fancy Fallon’s fanboy approach — but at least his effort will be something to see. The wide variety of guest stars on the “Report” finale — from Robert Pinsky and Doris Kearns Goodwin to Big Bird, Bill de Blasio, and James Franco — is an indication of the range of Colbert’s interests, many of which will inevitably spill over to the “Late Show.”
And again I say to anyone who wonders what the real Colbert will be like, look behind the eyes of his blowhard character and you’ll see the real man smiling and laughing along with the fun. He has been there all along. His transition from “Colbert” to Colbert will likely be a breeze. Also a mystery whose outcome will probably be positive: Larry Wilmore, the “Senior Black Correspondent” from “The Daily Show,” will fill the 11:30 slot on Comedy Central with his “The Nightly Show,” beginning Jan. 19. An executive producer of “black-ish” whose credits include the creation of “The Bernie Mac Show,” Wilmore is a great choice, not least of all because his satire on racial topics is so sharp.
Other changes were afoot this year in the late-late-night slots, adding to the overall sense of fresh air. When Fallon went to 11:35, his fellow “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Seth Meyers took over the 12:35 slot. And the wry Craig Ferguson stepped down this month, to be replaced early next year by British entertainer James Corden. These aren’t among the most visible shifts, but they point to a pair of new hosts who just might wind up at 11:35 someday, just as late-laters Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel did.
Also in the mix: HBO’s excellent “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” which premiered in April. It’s a weekly late-night show, but a strong addition to the pack. For one thing, Oliver has perfected the art of the breathless rant. His disbelief is a beautiful thing to behold. For another, he bucked the quick jokey news trend by spending entire segments going deep on various issues, including the dangers of sugar and the silliness of state lotteries. Maybe we can get HBO to give Oliver a nightly perch? Quick, go make it a thing.
Not in the mix in late night during this year of change: women. Alas, late night remains a land where, except for Wilmore next year, white men roam. Even the female-skewing Bravo, home of fashion and beauty tips, has a guy talker, Andy Cohen. Chelsea Handler left her E! show, “Chelsea Lately,” in August, and she announced that she’ll be premiering a talk show on Netflix in 2016. But she’s the only one. Oddly enough, women have been enjoying a surge of great roles in prime time, but late night still appears to be off limits. Quick, go make that a thing, too.