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Conan O’Brien and the State of Late Night T.V.

Conan O'Brien appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Conan O'Brien appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
Conan O’Brien was the only host of a conventional late night talk show whose show was nominated for an Emmy this year. Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, and Craig Ferguson were all left out in favor of Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart. There was a time when one format dominated late night, but the television landscape has changed over the years.

Starting in the mid-1950s and continuing through the 1990’s, late night television viewers were familiar with the type of talk show format pioneered by Steve Allen. A show typically began with a topical, comedic monologue sometimes followed by a skit or gag of some kind, and led to interview segments with celebrity guests. 

The Tonight Show was the vehicle for Allen, who also introduced such staples as the house band and comedy segments shot outside the studio. The format approached the height of its popularity under Johnny Carson, who also hosted The Tonight Show.

It’s that very same program, this time with Conan O’Brien as host, that is nominated for a 2010 Primetime Emmy Award – the number one industry award for television. But O’Brien’s version of the iconic show was cut short, lasting just 146 episodes, a far cry from the 3,000+ hosted by Jay Leno or 4000+ hosted by Johnny Carson.

So what does it mean that the only late night show in the traditional talk show format nominated this year was a show with ratings so poor it lasted less than a year?

If nothing else, it suggests that Americans are hungry for diversity in their late night programming.

Real Time with Bill Maher has the most familiar format of the other nominated shows. But Maher’s show is without a house band or musical guest, and forgoes many other late night talk show staples in favor of a round table discussion of current social and political topics.

Meanwhile, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, veer even further from the classic format. Both shows rely heavily on satire, and spend a large portion of their time doing comedy bits, rather than coming off like a variety show a la The Tonight Show.

But perhaps what’s more notable than the divergences are the similarities between the new formats and the old. Sure, there’s no house band, no witty banter between host and band leader, no musical guests, and a minimum of time spent with a guest of any kind. However, each of the shows discussed above is anchored by an established comedic personality and features at least one celebrity guest per episode.

America may be in the mood for change, but nothing too drastic. The formula made famous by Steve Allen in the ‘50s still provides the skeleton for today’s best late night programming. Whether Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart and his Daily Show, or the political satire of Stephen Colbert, late night T.V. still has a prominent place in the homes of North American viewers. Regardless of format.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 26 October 2010 20:33

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