Since that night in 1962 when Jack Paar hefted his wooden stool under his arm, waved to the audience, and sauntered off the stage of “The Tonight Show” to be replaced by Johnny Carson, the latenight format has become as ritualized as a Navy command ceremony.
Whether it is Jay Leno or David Letterman or Conan O’Brien, there is the opening standup monologue with its racy winks at the day’s news. Then a scripted comedy sketch, followed by the host plotzing behind the desk for the interview with the guest celebrity perched in a chair to his immediate right.
“…And they have their band. Whether it’s a modernized version of Doc’s (Severinsen) band, it’s still the same format,” insists Darrell Vickers. Vickers wrote “The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson” from 1986-92, and was head writer along with partner Andrew Nicholls for Carson’s last three years. “It’s just too tough nowadays with the ratings and pressures and cancellations the way they are to take a huge leap away from that format. They just can’t reinvent it.
“Johnny is the standard by which everybody’s judged, so everybody is afraid to try something else where they could fail miserably. They’d rather play it safer and stay close to his coattails,” Vickers says.
The format includes the shtick of the big entrance of the stunning actress, say that of Yasmine Bleeth on Leno or Vivica A. Fox on O’Brien in recent days — where every little movement has a double entendre all its own to which the audience, conditioned by Carson for 30 years, responds rambunctiously on cue.
“We deliberately try to have the more classic look and feel of ‘The Tonight Show’ when Johnny Carson hosted it,” acknowledges Jonathan Groff, O’Brien’s head writer. “But we also have some elements of ‘Saturday Night Live’ in the sketch material. But the sketches succeed or fail on their own merit, without that net of deconstructing it or making fun of it, as Letterman did — that way he mocked the medium and then NBC, and now CBS.
“We all owe a great debt to Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, and Steve Allen who created this original template for a talkshow,” admits Groff. “David Letterman in the ’80s took a left turn and went against that. What Letterman did was deconstruct television, make fun of it, break down the fourth wall. His show was about the medium, and I still think that’s what he does in a great way.
“When Conan took over the spot in 1993, trying to do more of Letterman’s ironic, alternative approach didn’t seem feasible. One of the secrets of the show’s success is to have it look very traditional and then depart from that in its sensibility.”
In short, with the newest kid on the block, the future is back to the past. “Our show resembles the Carson format more than any of the others with the traditional sidekick, traditional set, and the very traditional show business band with a lot of horns. Conan and Andy wear jackets and ties. There was a brief period where Conan wore jeans and a knotted tie, but that was quickly discarded. It worked better being very traditional looking,” Groff explains.
“We try to present it without irony, although, in a way, an ironic outlook informs the whole thing. The attempt was to almost go back to the territory of the Johnny Carson type of show or the sketch show the way Steve Allen did it. Or ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”
“Saturday Night Live” “almost single-handedly redefined latenight American television” declares scholars David Marc and Robert J. Thompson in their study “Prime Times, Prime Movers.”
The irony is that when “SNL” went on the air in 1975, “We took over the ‘Tonight Show’ rerun time period,” notes Lorne Michaels, the show’s producer. “We were given the same commercial format. That was the only shape of the show that there was — nine acts.” And Carson’s extended time period of 90 minutes.
Michaels had already won two Emmys for his primetime Lily Tomlin specials. “I was interested in what was working on records, in movies, and on stage. But we were told the show wouldn’t work in prime time, because it wouldn’t attract a big enough audience. The pressure on network television was to deliver an audience of 50 million-60 million people, but on latenight you could purer in your work,” Michaels says.
“The baby boom came of age, and ‘Saturday Night’ was the first of the latenight shows that represented that generational change. Just having music that wasn’t big-band music was considered a bold change.
“It’s still heavy on the horn section. Because we’re live, the band has to pump a certain amount of energy into the commercial breaks. It keeps the energy level in the studio up.”
And Monday-to-Friday latenight television is the frequent object of Saturday night satire. When a recent lampoon of Letterman by Norm Macdonald is mentioned, Michaels says, “No more brutal than when Dana Carvey did Johnny Carson. We’ve done Jay Leno, Ted Koppel all the time. We feed off latenight, and always have. Dan Aykroyd used to do Tom Snyder, when he was doing the Tomorrow show. That’s been our meat for 20 years.
“Originally, in the DNA of the show, the audience that was watching us, was not watching much primetime. Whereas I think that’s no longer true, a lot of people who watch ‘Seinfeld,’ watch us.”
The original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” — Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner — accelerated and continued another hallowed latenight tradition — the discovery, and honing, of the next generation of comedy talent.
The wildly inventive Steve Allen, who hosted “Tonight” from 1954-57, assembled his own off-the-wall repertory company of comics like Don Knotts who became stars in their own right.
But during Paar’s reign from 1957-62, he featured unknown young standups like Bob Newhart, the Smothers Brothers, Godfrey Cambridge and Nichols & May.
“If you got on the Jack Paar show,” recalls Bill Cosby, “and if you performed well, it opened up all of the nightclubs for you.
“Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago, the hungry i in San Francisco — in order to make it, these were the clubs you had to play. So when Jack Paar put the stamp on you,” Cosby says, “I mean, that was it for you. That was the first thing they put on the piece of cardboard with your name and picture — ‘Recently seen on the Jack Paar Show.’ ”
It was the ’60s and Cosby was fresh out of Temple U. “It was before ‘I Spy.’ And here is a Negro coming out, and this Negro is not going to talk about, ‘Get in the back of the bus,’ ” recalls Cosby. “It’s a young college-educated Negro, and he’s going to talk about life. … I was the first who really didn’t do anything, except come out, be young, and say, ‘Here is the coming of a new age of comedians.’ ”
And that, in retrospective — aside from national sleep deprivation — may be latenight television’s greatest cultural impact. In the Carson format, the new age was that unknown standup comic, third or fourth on the bill, who didn’t yet rate being invited to the desk for a chat.
Now, like Letterman and Leno they each have, or like Chevy Chase or Joan Rivers once had, their own latenight shows.
Or, like “SNL” alum Dennis Miller, back from “the Federal talkshow-host relocation program,” they continue as featured guests on both Letterman and Leno, yet have, and have had, their own shows.
In the past three years HBO’s “Dennis Miller Live” has won two Emmys and six nominations with a half-hour of self-described “vitriolic” monologue, guest interviews, and news-of-the-week recap that competes with Leno and Letterman on Friday night.
Producer and head writer Eddie Feldman questions the word “compete.” “Being on HBO, we’re different. It’s controversial, edgy, we’re not looking to please the masses. We’re looking to please the people who purchase HBO. It’s a subscription service. Some people may perceive it as more of an adult content, or as an edgier content that wouldn’t be on the regular networks.
“We write for Dennis, and Dennis is a singular personality. We don’t think, ‘Supposed we have Dennis come out and jump into a giant vat of margarine. Maybe that’ll get us some of the Letterman viewers.’ No, you write for whomever your host is.”
Feldman expounds, “The media are always trumpeting ‘the Late Night Wars,’ but I have friends who work for Leno, Letterman, and Bill Maher. We don’t think of it as war. We think of it as work. You’re loyal to your host. We all go out together and have a fun time. It’s not like we’re at each other’s throats going, ‘You not going to survive in this town.’ ”
But they do take notes. “Because of cable, because of younger audiences with their expectations,” notes Groff, “there’s a lot more risque stuff that we would do than even David Letterman would do in the ’80s in our timeslot. We’re a little bit more, well, sometimes infantile than he was. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. We throw it out there and see if it sticks a little more.”
The impact of cable in recent years has given a harder, more risque edge to all the monologues. “Politically Incorrect” hosted by comedian Bill Maher has moved from cable to ABC to compete against last half of “Late Show” and “Tonight.” With a strong lead-in from “Nightline,” it is beating the New York-based Letterman in several major cities, including Los Angeles.
Although neither Leno nor Letterman violate the old Carson format, they both are increasingly stretching it with more elaborately produced sketches, taped on-the-street features, unannounced celebrity pop-ins. Leno takes his show to Las Vegas and restages all that mecca’s magic acts. And Letterman wings to San Francisco, setting up in the Palace of Fine Arts with a set that includes miniature cable cars climbing the hills.
But, in a sense, even that is a throwback to Paar, who traveled “Tonight” to Hawaii, Madrid, Japan, East Germany, Africa, and London, introducing himself to an audience at the Palladium, “It is almost impossible to dislike me … because I do nothing.”
Neither Leno nor Letterman can afford that kind of gentleness.
In upcoming weeks, the latenight wars will balkanize with “The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show,” “Vibe” produced by Quincy Jones and hosted by standup Chris Spencer, and a third show featuring Magic Johnson, all courting the young, urban demographic that once tuned in Arsenio Hall.
“It’s a very tough gig,” warns Carson’s former head writer Vickers. “The guys who are starting out now, if they only knew how hard it was to kill yourself all week to do shows, and then have to do it the next week, and the next week, and the next week, and have it never stop.”