At the Washington Walrus, we usually focus on politics and the more immediate issues concerning government. Every now and then however, we like to dip our toes in the murky waters of culture and entertainment; in this particular case, one of the more shallow bodies of such water.
It’s not that I dislike talk shows (or chat shows) or their hosts. It’s not that I even bemoan the format, rather what it’s been reduced to in this day and age. You see, there was a time when these shows didn’t desperately grasp for whatever little nugget of attention was left out there, lost in the cracks of YouTube and Prime and Netflix. There was a time when actual proper conversation was involved, unburdened by pre-rehearsed garbage and bit jokes resulting in a pie in the face. There was a time when it wasn’t all so juvenile and pandering, when Americans tuned in for a bit of humor, yes, but also out of genuine interest.
Johnny Carson was of course, the “King of Late Night”. He hosted the Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992 and became an icon in the American world of entertainment. If you wanted a movie plugged, you wanted his show. If you were looking to get your big break as a comedian and possibly bag a sitcom, you hoped to impress Carson himself. Even politicians like Ronald Reagan found their way onto the couch, though Carson, himself, never declared any political allegiance (a far cry from the suitors of today). By the end of his tenure, he garnered north of 10 million viewers a night on average, which is over three times what Colbert did in 2018. He had the business at his command in many respects and he did it with great timing and affability, that never gave way to piousness or crude frivolity. He had the numbers and the respect of the masses.
So what went wrong? Carson may have dominated the late night sphere for the longest time but he was not the only talk show host out there. Day-time hosts like Oprah, of course, made more than a splash in the 1980s and in the decade before, Dick Cavett interviewed some of the world’s biggest stars and directors, including Orson Welles. But just as the news networks began to multiply, so did the demand for content in the talk show format. You didn’t need 10 million viewers every to become a success. You could be a Leno or Letterman fan or after that, someone who watched Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, or a splash of all. Some unique talents came about in the 1990s and 2000s who just wouldn’t have had a shot before like Bill Maher, Conan O’ Brien, and Craig Ferguson. For awhile, it all worked out quite well… before TV began to matter less and less.
Jimmy Fallon may not have been the first to recognize the value of “viral bits” spreading across social media and YouTube but he was the most diligent host in the late 2000s and early 2010s to capitalize on this trend. His show, today, barely resembles a chat show at all because of this, successful though he may be. And like him, Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden, and others have become increasingly reliant on bits like “Carpool Karaoke”, “Mean Tweets”, etc. for gaining viewership/followers/subscribers.
It’s a different market in many ways and not one without its plaudits. Some of these bits are funny. I enjoy watching the Matt Damon-Jimmy Kimmel feud. I like the odd “Wheel of Musical Impressions”. I may even have chuckled at one or two Corden sketches (the Shape of Water one, though I felt pretty guilty afterwards… cause it’s Corden.) The problem (okay, not a real problem) however is that most these bits are desperate and stupid and bringing what could be an interesting format right down to the bottom of the barrel. When actual conversation is conducted too, it’s painfully rehearsed, concerned with the most trivial schlep (did you actually eat a pizza at the Oscars???) and disingenuous/cringe-worthy ass-kissing to the point that I contort and fold in on myself, much like the Witch King of Angmar’s death in Return of the King. Especially with Fallon and Corden. Especially with Corden to further that bracket.
I also agree with the mega-chinned Jay Leno who believes too many hosts are “one-sided” nowadays. In 1993, when Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher aired, the host opining their political persuasion was pretty different and bold. Today however, every dumb comedian with a desk goes for the low-hanging fruit that is Donald Trump with the result being sheer weariness among viewers and a decrease in general intellect. Undoubtedly, we inhabit a far more outrageous political climate than any in recent memory but is there anything to be gained in the preaching-to-the-choir mantra of Stephen Colbert or Seth Meyers? It all seems so trite and easy for such clever comedians. If that wasn’t enough too, even the likes of Fallon, Kimmel, and Corden are going after the president despite their complete lack of political “wokeness” five years ago. It’s not challenging and it’s not funny anymore. Part of me even suspects it tilts those on the fence in a rightward direction, just as that “Fight Song” (for Hillary) did in 2016… sigh…
Today, people are looking elsewhere for a decent interview, on the radio with Howard Stern or on podcasts with the likes of Joe Rogan (though everything leads back to MMA with him). The decline of the chat show is hardly a crisis, given all the other actual crises we face today, but it is something which sheds a rather depressing light on our cultural mindset today. Our attentiveness is shorter than ever. We need jokes and we need them now. Celebrities are awesome. You were hoping to hear about Tom Cruise’s filmography? Well, too bad cause his dog did something crazy! I know you’re running for president but what is your favorite flavor of ice cream? Is it strawberry? How did Trump’s latest foreign visit affect the premise of the new Pitch Perfect movie… etc.
We can do better than this. We can plug a movie or album and have an actual conversation with a celebrity without forcing them to play hop-scotch. Call me a crazy optimist but if general broadcasting’s going to die in the face of streaming services like Netflix, at least do it with some dignity and not on all fours in a ball pit with James Corden.