Letterman Leaves at an Interesting Time in Late Night Comedy

It’s funny that a little over a year ago the late night comedy landscape looked much different than it does now. Hell, even SNL looks like a completely new program. So what gives?

Well, for starters, we know people aren’t watching network television anymore period. But do you know what they are watching when they do take the time to tune in? Late night. Or they’re at least watching YouTube clips of Jimmy Fallon the next day. Young people, myself included, are picky when it comes to what we spend our free time consuming. If you’re like me and you choose to listen/watch/write comedy in your free time that probably means you’re more than likely to be picky about the comedy you do consume on a day to day basis.

Which makes late night comedy unique. It’s on every night, just like the news. You don’t have to wait from week to week to see an episode. You don’t have to wait for seasons to start again. You don’t have to wait for podcasts or movies to come out. It’s always going to be there for you and it’s easy to access because it’s on a network.

This shift in network watching and comedy taste in general is what shapes the late night landscape. Jay Leno needed to go because he was older and young, up-and-coming comedy consumers didn’t understand him. He was no longer hitting his mark and, to his credit, he knew it and so did the network. Plus, they had more people staying up later to catch their real star Jimmy Fallon. So moving Fallon to “The Tonight Show” was just about the only good decision NBC has been able to make in the last few years.

NBC almost fell behind, too. There was almost a moment when Jimmy Kimmel was beating them over at ABC at their own game. Of course, that quickly ended when Fallon took center stage. No one can beat Fallon. Why? Because everyone, not just the youths, loves him.

Don’t believe me? Let’s put it through the mom test. My mother, Lisa, does not get comedy. She never thinks anything is funny. She doesn’t have a favorite comedian or movie. She would much rather watch cooking shows on the Food Network. But she’ll be damned if she misses a second of Fallon on any given night. While I was in college she would text me almost every night wanting to discuss “The Tonight Show.” Even when Fallon can get annoying. Even when he does characters and bits with celebrities that she can’t remember.

My mom remembers Letterman for the way he paved for Fallon, Kimmel, Leno, Seth Meyers, and even James Corden. But she chose Fallon over him every night. I have my own strong opinions about Letterman that don’t really matter now that he’s gone, but really, when was the last time he was actually relevant? In thinking about what I was going to write about him this morning I asked some of my friends what they thought of him. Most didn’t have an opinion because they said they had never in their life watched him. A few didn’t even know who he was. Letterman has been irrelevant for the past 20 years. I read an article earlier today that said his finale got his highest number of views for the show since 1994.

Letterman is getting out of the late night game right when we need him to. Tina Fey was quoted as saying that she worried about young men now that they didn’t have a figure like Letterman to look up to and act like. But the truth is no young dude my age wants to be like Letterman. They may not even want to be like Fallon, either. Which makes the next change in late night comedy so damn interesting.

Enter Colbert. Beloved by the youths and cult Comedy Central viewers everywhere. Unknown to most everyone else. I personally find myself liking Colbert more than Jon Stewart more and more these days. But maybe that’s my own personal taste. My mom, however, has no idea who he is. She just knows that he’s “not Jon Stewart.”

Colbert is in an ultimately tough spot. CBS no doubt wants him to have the mass appeal that Fallon does, but his style is wildly different from wholesome, lovable Jimmy. But we’ve been told that he won’t be playing his “Stephen Colbert” character on “The Late Show.” He’ll just be himself. He’ll just be a host. But one has to wonder: will that be enough? Older people won’t know who he is. It’ll be easy for them to just turn the channel to Fallon. But they won’t be expecting to see any sort of Comedy Central character. Maybe that’s a good thing? Youths will tune in to watch, but may quickly be disappointed that he’s no longer yelling and challenging his guests. And further, will Colbert still be funny if he’s not being “Stephen Colbert?”

But we know that Colbert is extremely smart. And we know he’s got a team of writers and producers behind him that will not let him become Conan. I didn’t realize until I watched Letterman give a tear-less goodbye last night just how much I’m looking forward to seeing the real human version of Colbert cracking jokes and talking to Megan Fox. It will be a transition for some, but I do think that we’ll get some really great late night comedy out of it.

And with a comedy landscape that changes every 20 years or so, just think: maybe the next time the networks decide to do a late night sweep they’ll put a woman at a desk. Because comedy, just like ideas and television, evolves.

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