We find ourselves at a funny crossroads with the end of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Letterman seems to have enjoyed himself and there’s been enough that long term fans can insist he’s brought something good to the table. Yet the idea that Letterman has maybe added something new to his substantial legacy would be a stretch at best. The two late night talk shows he did were very different beasts to this program designed to entertain every minute they were on air (whether they did or didn’t) and paced to reflect this while still padding out with formula wherever you could since the workload was so high you had to have some reliable mainstays. It is not surprising to find myself wistfully missing the band, the sketches and the up to date nature of that program to comment on whatever was making headlines at the time. On the other hand Letterman can do great interviews and the long leisurely pace of his Netflix show showed potential for deeper conversations. The remotes also showed great promise to have Letterman out in the field but as the show went on this aspect more and more seemed an afterthought or a side dish that deserved to be the main. By the way let me just say that I really enjoyed the opening theme tune by the always great Paul Schaeffer.
I started this program happy with the Obama episode but looking forward to his conversations outside his comfort zone with Malala Yousafzai and maybe Jay-Z. Looking back the obvious candidates bore better episodes President Obama and George Clooney remain probably the best episodes. Malala Yousafzai delivered what I was hoping for, of challenging Dave and I hope to see more of this in the future but Jay-Z was not as good and Tina Fey was mostly entertaining because of her considerable talent. Going into the last episode I decided Howard Stern’s antagonistic needling would probably make for a good episode if not terribly original.
Stern is on point throughout, I enjoyed the relaxed way he asked Dave about his Netflix show at the end of it but Stern surprisingly got serious about his own childhood and about the apologies he owed Letterman and others. It was honest and vulnerable and showed growth but it didn’t necessarily make for good entertainment with Stern even suggesting at one point I can get the Fartman costume in five minutes if this is bad addressing the audience. Stern a contemporary of Dave’s is still in the game I guess and still ‘hot’. It made me reflect on how after all the fanfare during Dave’s victory lap in 2015 that he is maybe a little out of the loop calling on favours to have people show up for this show.
I don’t want to beat on the show, I’m a fan and this was a perfectly good hour of viewing for me with Stern who is such a talent. But its interesting to note that what followed in the form of a bonus episode prepared by Netflix where Jerry Seinfeld and Dave sat down at an industry event as two of their stars and just chatted was far more entertaining and showed a more traditional filming dynamic. They threw back and forth at considerable pace, telling the other about the greatness of their work and vehemently denying it themselves, obviously prepared with some jokes which they fired off but also building to off the cuff remarks however the conversation threw them. At one point Jerry told Letterman he did not want to talk about his kids but he give him one thing a minute later. At another point Letterman talked about the kindness of a baseball player saying good day to him in the VIP part of the crowd. Seinfeld said that was nice of the baseball player but as Letterman insisted the significance of the nature of the gesture the former sitcom star let slip that he’s not doing this past the VIP area concluding “You’re David Letterman, you idiot.” The crowd erupted.
Watching Letterman with Stern and Seinfeld shows he can still improvise something on the spot and riff with the best after coming across unmatched with Fey. I saw him on Seth Meyers the other day and some of it was downright odd as he presented a tick in a snaplock bag from his back, so absurd I’m sure some fans of his 80s work were pleased but he also told some good jokes. So we know Letterman is still sharp and funny and under the right circumstances prickly and dignified. We know he’s earnest and curious and wanting to do good in the world. We know he can still get things out of people and can make a fascinating chat in the long time format of these interviews.
So what’s next? Come back and do another 6 or 10 episodes next year. Interview people like Amal Clooney, Donald Glover, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Margot Robbie, Ryan Coogler, Kumail Nunjiani, Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyongo, Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, Patty Jenkins, or Elizabeth Warren. Maybe that’s a little celebrity heavy or whatever but just for starters. Do the remotes with those people, go with them somewhere or watch them interact with their family or crews. Go to India and look at Turbines, go wherever you like, interview whoever you like and try to change the world for the better. Because I love you Dave and I was happy to have you back and I hope to see you again soon but there’s a few things we could improve upon for next year.
Michael Che is the co-head writer of Saturday Night Live and the co-anchor of the bit Weekend Update that features on that show. In 2009 he started doing stand-up, in 2012 he performed on The Late Show with David Letterman, a year later he was a writer on Saturday Night Live, following highly renowned bits as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart he was made co-anchor of Weekend Update in late 2014. Just over three years later he is head co-writer of SNL, he has released a Netflix special Michael Che Matters and he is touring throughout the world. When I began writing for Scenestr a little less than a year ago I never thought it possible I would get to interview someone like Che who had performed on Letterman or SNL. The fact that it was someone whose comedy I enjoy as much as Che was a real treat. I’m tickled pink that I was put through by a PA for the interview and then told to wrap it up by the PA as well. That’s a new level of fame. 🙂 A personal indulgence on my part became the central focus of the interview for me. I asked Che what it was like to perform on Letterman. His answer I believe is first and foremost an interesting behind the scenes story, but it also reflects something about comedians. Muhammed Ali would move faster when he sparred later in life with Parkinsons then when he walked. Fighters fight. Stand-ups do live comedy. You are your craft and it always comes back to that. I’m very grateful for speaking to Michael Che and to Scenestr and to you all for reading. I hope you enjoy http://scenestr.com.au/comedy/michael-che-using-humour-to-identify-humanity-with-his-australian-tour
Produced by Eyeball Media Enterprises Scenestr. is an online national magazine with local offices around Australia. Celebrating 25 years in 2018 of publishing history they’ve excelled at moving into the digital realm but they remain at heart from the streets. They still publish magazines in print for Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland every month. The interview with Michael Che is the cover story for this month’s Western Australia magazine featuring on pages 10 and 11. You can read a digital version of the printed Western Australia edition here http://scenestr.com.au/read/WA/2018/11-WA/scenestr-WA-11.html#p=11 The Western Australia edition only started up in May 2017 and only with such an expansion I guess could such an opportunity had been made possible. I have now done two cover stories for the Western Australia edition and one for the Queensland edition for which I’m very grateful. If you’re into music Scenestr are a great read but they do cover all of the arts including festivals, stand-up comics, fashion, theatre and film. I feel very fortunate to get to write for them.
Post Super Bowl programming deserves sports parlance as much as anything and in the case of CBS this year you could describe it as Stephen Colbert fumbled a great opportunity and James Corden showed up to play.
Late Night Talk Show Hosts are cults of personalities. Always have been. Johnny Carson the story goes turned to a young producer once about a show he was about to start. The producer had been explaining the skits, the formula, the guests, the production values. When the producer was done Carson leaned in and told him “These shows are all about the guy behind the desk.” They are and I can tell you this because without my guys Craig Ferguson and David Letterman the genre has held less appeal this past year. All that remain are talented entertainers but they’re not Craig Ferguson and David Letterman and so I have not felt compelled to write about them. Where I live and with the technology I have I semi-regularly catch whole shows of Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Jimmy Fallon. I chase down viral bits from Conan, Kimmel and Meyers on YouTube. Alas I’m not catching anything from Comedy Central because “I’m an overseas viewer.” Their loss or mine? Who knows in this social media driven culture. What I see I like and champion.
Coco’s ratings scores have been as low as 300,000 viewers during the low season and he has never crested a million on a regular night in years. Yet a little Cuban special snagged two million viewers taking in DVR recordings after the telecast last year. Relegated to TBS O’Brien has a social media presence and a youthful demographic that belies his years. He is the epitome of punching above his weight. Kids watching him now may not even know about the Leno fiasco of ’09 but they know about Uber, Tinder and Grinder, Ride Along with Kevin Hart and Ice Cube, Call of Duty, Archer, Magic Mike XXL and crucially they know funny and Conan O’Brien remains as funny as he has ever been. At 53 he is out doing remotes when Letterman was sending Biff Henderson and Rupert Jee into the fray. His cultural reach far exceeds his real numbers. Sure some of the interviews are boring, sure sometimes the monologue is lame. Who cares? This man shows up to work again and again and rather than coasting on old NBC bits he’s been reinventing himself for a new generation. GO COCO!
Fallon is King and moment to moment I doubt there’s anybody funnier that’s why he regularly rates higher than his competitors. You tune in for Trump on Colbert. You watch Fallon no matter who’s appearing because Fallon is appearing. His monologues actually make me laugh; he has an easy rapport with his house band The Roots which amongst being bonafide musicians all have unique personalities which are comfortable to get involved in sketches and on the spot riffing. It’s true they’ve had six years to get this down pat but they’re running like a well-oiled machine at this point. The question remains when will we get tired of this routine. Will Fallon ever mature into the statesman Carson and Letterman became? Does it really matter? Jimmy Fallon has no edge, so what? Late last year he asked a question of Trump who replied “These were not the question we agreed to.” In this simple gesture he made Jimmy Fallon more badass than any question he was going to ask would have made him. He once turned to Hilary Clinton and asked “Why don’t you release the e-mails? I’m sick of hearing about it, aren’t you?” and she agreed. He asked the question and he put it in terms that were on most American’s minds. Frustratingly they just moved on but that is not to say Fallon is a push over. He has actually been very steadfast that he wants to make a fun show and he wants his guests to have fun on his show like everybody else. You can tell Fallon’s politics as clearly as Colbert but like Conan O’Brien his show is not about politics but about having fun. As long as that is happening I don’t think he’s going anywhere. Can he be the fun guy for multiple generations? Can he do dance offs with the next pop sensation when he’s 55 or will it lose something when it isn’t a peer like Justin Timberlake? Time will tell but the man is incredibly talented, hardworking and he has the most entertaining show on late night television consistently. However short the reign he has not been a flash in the pan. He is the current King of Late Night Television. Fact.
Colbert is booking CEOs, civil rights leaders and journalists in a way nobody else on network late night television is. This is classic counter programming which won’t place him in No.1 but will hopefully snag enough of a high income audience to justify his existence. The thinking person’s alternative though lost to Kimmel and Meyers throughout the month of December and those guys provide some of what he is selling to audiences as well. That makes it tricky. Plus nobody really bitches about Meyers lack of viralness because his lead in from Fallon makes him the highest rated in his timeslot by a country mile. The Colbert Report was so good for so long that we took for granted what an upheaval a new show would be. Colbert a former improve actor could sing and dance, his quick wit and intelligence was undeniable, his interviews in his old persona were actually really insightful and on top of it all he had a youthful openness, a yearning to ask questions and find answers rather than accuse and demean. Yet The Late Show with Stephen Colbert has been rife with teething problems of any first year out program. Jon Batiste is a talented musician and Colbert and he appear to genuinely like the other but chemistry comes from a variety of factors and right now… they don’t have it. Joe Biden’s interview on Colbert was a gift that reminds us what a great television moment of authenticity can be. A man clearly laying bare his emotions in a public forum without anything to gain from it as it turned out since he didn’t end up running.
I like a lot of the sketches Colbert has established written by his clever writers like “A Big Furry Hat” and even more so “Big Thoughts with even Bigger Stars.” Yet Colbert’s celebrity interviews are often as awkward as Fallon’s ass-kissing routine where everyone is so great and so funny. An easy rapport with Chris Pine and Josh Brolin recently had me questioning why can’t all Colbert interviews be like that? This may not be entirely fair for someone who just renovated a theatre on Broadway and has big numbers in it but Colbert doesn’t seem to do remotes. Neither does Fallon to an extent but you feel it with Colbert. The guy is busting his ass, dabbling in live shows and doing five nights a week but when you take a break six weeks after your debut it feels lazy.
Which brings us to the Superbowl.
CBS took the unprecedented step of following their Super Bowl 50 coverage with a live telecast of their late night programs The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show with James Corden. The Late Show started strong with a monologue that involved him throwing the football to first soldiers overseas, an astronaut and then the President. It’s the kind of extra expense stuff you save for such shows which also tugs at the heart strings of Americana. Support the troops, we can reach outer space and our Commander in Chief enjoys a throw of the ole pigskin as much as we all do. It got even better when Colbert involved in some meta humour. The President pointed out he was in a pre-taped bit to which the host insisted he was doing the show live. President Obama proved his point by bringing Colbert onscreen in the bit to talk to his live studio self. It was a neat sketch and was true to Stephen’s comic sensibilities.
Unfortunately the rest of the show was not as strong at all. Colbert followed with an interview with Tina Fey and Margot Robbie that was average despite Fey usually being funny. It was awkwardly interrupted by a cross to the Super Bowl stadium to have a satellite interview with MVP winner Von Miller. When it concluded Fey joked “Now about this movie.” Will Ferrell followed with a neat joke about being a new animal expert for the show and refusing to talk about Zoolander 2 which he was there to spruik. Yet I couldn’t help but flashback to his lip sync battle with Kevin Hart last year on Fallon and just feel these were half measures. A popular sketch from Key and Poole related to football also made an appearance before finally Megyn Kelly showed up to engage Colbert in the type of interview that he’s good at but at that point the hour had drawn near. 22,000,000 viewers watched this fucking show. Two decades ago at the height of his powers with a four network landscape and a Winter Olympics lead in David Letterman mustered 14 million on a weeknight. Last year when he retired he pulled 13.7 million. You’ll never get 22 million again, this was a golden opportunity to draw a wide net and grab some extra casual viewers over the long haul to hopefully remain a viable competitor. To be fair it wasn’t for lack of tyring, Key and Poole, Fey and Ferrell are all comedy superstars and were well chosen. They referenced football, they got the President and the First Lady to show up and Megyn Kelly is a high profile reporter and brings an audience that doesn’t tune into Colbert. It was the kind of aisle crossing inclusivity the late show host has practiced since he booked Jeb Bush on his first night on CBS. Yet it didn’t flow seamlessly, it was a mess of ideas and priorities. Look here’s celebrities but we’ve got to cross to an actual footballer. Here’s a sketch from another show because it involves football which means it will be fifty minutes before I talk to Megyn Kelly which arguably is going to be the best bit but will not be funny and we need to be funny right?
James Corden On The Other Hand
The Late Late Show followed and scored a franchise high of 5 million which is impressive when you consider some affiliates were going with local news at that point after cutting Colbert’s last few minutes. So let’s talk about James Corden. James Corden a portly British television and theatre star has spent twelve months on his show embracing American culture including kicking a half time field goal at a local game and hanging out at a tailgate party.
Following this formula he did a similar thing with his signature sketch- he did Carpool Karaoke with Elton John. This part of the show referenced nothing about the Super Bowl but it was Corden’s superstar sketch with a major superstar in it for his biggest audience ever. That’s how you do it. By organically filling the rest of the show with football the Elton John bit did not need it and since Carpool Karaoke is such a signature Corden bit its inclusion did not feel awkward or out of place either in the Super Bowl special. Speaking of Carpool Karaoke, a recent one with Adele has hit 67,000,000 views on YouTube. That’s more than anything on YouTube from any late night TV show. The Late Late Show with James Corden is not perfect but I marvel sometimes at it. It has a spirit of fun, has established its own identity within weeks of airing for the first time, Corden’s chemistry with Reggie Watts is easy and Watts is not a sidekick but his own thing. One night I tuned in and James Corden and Tori Kelly went out to restaurants in a remote and sang for their supper. Working outside the studio with a shaky premise and uncertain of how crowds are going to react makes for exciting if awkward television. As it advanced Reggie’s house band came out and Tori Kelly got people up and dancing to her song Nobody Love. The punch line made me smile.
Zoologist Jack Hanna of Letterman fame showed up with Betty White a great animal lover along with Amar’e Soudemire. Rachel Platten closed with a powerful rendition of her pop hit Stand By You. My God it was fun!