Late night talk will never be the same

Published 8:47 pm Thursday, June 4, 2009

It’s the beginning of a new era in late night talk television, so, by extension, it’s the beginning of a new era in the American pop consciousness.

Conan O’Brien made his debut Monday as host of The Tonight Show, replacing Jay Leno. I’ve been impressed so far with the freshness that O’Brien has brought to the show. I watched Leno’s last show, also, and there was a recurring theme–I would rather have been watching David Letterman on The Late Show.

Letterman, for me, is far and away the best late-night talk show host since Johnny Carson retired. I don’t remember ever watching The Tonight Show with Carson, but I realize there would be more than a few people that would disagree with me if I compared Letterman, or anyone else for that matter, to Carson.

Letterman is just a funny person. He could make me laugh by talking about the 12th century of the Shang Dynasty. Neither Leno nor O’Brien does that for me, though both usually have more entertaining segments on their shows. The Late Show comes off as, “We’re not even trying here,” which is consistent with the program being shown on CBS and NBC’s controversial decision to choose Leno over Letterman as Carson’s replacement.

The most interesting part of the situation might be the effect that Leno’s decision to host a show earlier on NBC will have on his legacy, O’Brien’s success, and late night TV in general. Someone has to lose here. It might be Leno because his show, as a result of the 10 p.m. Eastern Time start, won’t have the sense of rebelliousness associated with a later time slot. It might be O’Brien because The Tonight Show takes a back seat to another program for the first time. It might be Letterman because of the attention paid to the other network.

Whatever happens, it will be neat to one day say we were a witness to it.