A Word… About NBC’s Late Night State Of Affairs

And now, a side bar into the world of late night television as of late…

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This is a big week for Fred Armisen as not only Portlandia is returning to IFC this Thursday, but tonight he will be debuting his new band 8G as they become the house band for Late Night with Seth Meyers. It will be interesting to not only see how Armisen rises to running a band for Late Night (which has always had a great musical lineage – from Paul Shaffer to Max Weinberg to Questlove and The Roots) but to how Meyers transitions from his long-running Weekend Update anchor spot (which he had the longest tenure on of anyone on Saturday Night Live) to serving as the late night follow-up to his former SNL colleague. While I can’t make any predictions, I hope that Meyers’s time behind the Weekend Update anchor desk (along with his tenure as head writer of SNL) will serve him well.

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Speaking of that former SNL colleague, I’ve been rather “meh” about The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a much needed change of pace and Fallon is a breath of fresh air after the turgidness of the end of Jay Leno’s tenure, but there’s a disconnect at work that’s undermining what Fallon and his team are trying to achieve. Even though this is the first week, it seems that The Tonight Show is still trying to figure out what it wants to be under the new management. Unlike the Late Night franchise, which has always supported more experimentation in terms of form, content, and guests (recall the  frankness that David Letterman brought to his monologues and interviews, or the more subversive humor Conan O’Brien brought to the table), The Tonight Show by its nature and its time slot has to appeal to more people (for example, I could never see The Tonight Show in any of its previous incarnations devote so much time and effort to a parody as ornate as Downton Sixby). So the hosts have to be a little more… I don’t want to say sedate but broader appealing. This isn’t to say that the host of The Tonight Show can’t put their own imprimatur on the show. Steve Allen did it by being the smartest, hippest guy in the room. Johnny Carson did it by slyly making fun of everyone while still appreciating them as guests under his watch. Fallon just hasn’t found his way yet and for every bit that works (his first monologue, the $100 bet gag, getting U2 to perform on the top of Rockefeller Center) you had gags that were slightly off (the Harry Styles running gag, even thought the reveal of Kristen Wiig as Harry Styles was a fun capper) or sketches that fell flat (the “Ew” sketch with Will Ferrell and Michelle Obama was painfull, and Will Ferrell’s “skating routine” was an overindulget miss). Even bits that were smashes during Fallon’s Late Night tenure lost some of their snap; Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s fifth installment of their “History Of Rap” bit was the weakest of the series so far. I realize that this is only the second week, and he has a lot going for him (strong writers, a winning on-screen presence, more booking power thanks to the new time slot, and in The Roots the best house band ever). But he needs to come to terms with the burden that is The Tonight Show legacy and find his own way to work with it, rather than around it.

Photo Credits: NBC

Originally Published on 24 February 2014 as part of “The Idiot Box,” my column for l’etoile

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