In what seems like the blink of an eye, the late night landscape has upended two decades of stability.
Does anyone doubt that we live in a time of change?
Losing Jay Leno and then David Letterman in quick succession only underscores the reality that – wait, I think I just realized – I’ve been actually watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for years and playing catch-up with the older guys.
I used to know what to expect. It used to be that you could toggle channels between Dave and Jay and you’d be good for the national water cooler conversation. Jay would give up the guaranteed laughs during the monologue, but you always had to watch Dave because the genius would slip out at any given moment. (You can’t really watch Dave on mute, or in 10-second sound bites. He’s liable to do something brilliant when you’re not paying attention.)
But now all that stability is gone, left in pieces on a fractured late night tundra. Dave has tired of 21 years of the same old. Jay has been ushered out, ushered back and ushered back out.
It’s kind of like the end of the Cold War, the close of a long battle between two comedy superpowers. (Neither are known to me as Communists, for the record.) Now it’s like the post-Gorbachev confusion – there’s no more simple clarity. Late night has so many facets and midrange powers that we’re in for at least a year of guerrilla skirmishing over who will claim Dave Letterman’s throne. Will it be Craig Ferguson? Or Louis CK? Might Conan elbow his way back onto a broadcast network? And what about Chelsea Handler, who just told E! that she’s outta there???
Whoever wins that battle, we are going to be faced with the same content traffic jam after 11 pm that we face trying to keep up with “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” “Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad” and “Girls.” Between Jimmy, Jimmy, Chelsea, Conan, whoever gets Letterman’s chair and the required viewing of Stewart and Colbert – it’s going to be overwhelming.
Already I’m feeling exhausted. Jimmy Fallon has to be watched because he may do something viral on any given night, but sometimes Jimmy Kimmel kills it, so I’m watching that out of the corner of my eye. Plus Conan is still on the air (right?). Meanwhile, Stewart and Colbert are required viewing in my opinion.
Could Jon Stewart move to broadcast television? The very thought gives me a shiver up the spine. How deliciously subversive that would be.
In the end, we can only be grateful for the two decades of relative stability that we’ve had between Jay and Dave. During that time empires ended, skyscrapers fell, economies crumbled, wars began and ended, presidents changed, but Jay and Dave were there.
No more. Let the late night skirmishes begin anew.