Who’s next at the ‘late show’?

I have been a fan of David Letterman ever since “Late Night with David Letterman” started on the air in 1982. For years, my shtick at United Methodist singles retreats and Mountain T.O.P. camp events was to do a “Top Ten” list.

I still remember a night back in 1984 when I was feeling hurt and alone because of a romantic disappointment. I was curled up in my bunk in the dorms at ORU. “Late Night” came on. Then, as now, there’s a different humorous introduction of David each night. That night’s introduction, delivered by “Late Night” announcer Bill Wendell: “… and now, a man who’s sick and tired of your whining…. Daaaavid Letterman!”

I nearly fell out of the bunk laughing.

Well, now Dave has announced that he’ll be retiring at some time in 2015. It’s the end of an era – and the beginning of a guessing game about who or what will take that time slot.

I have no knowledge whatsoever, just layman’s guesses from watching the late night scene over the past three decades. Let’s look at some of the names that have come up tonight:

Craig Ferguson: Supposedly, Craig’s contract includes a clause giving him the right to succeed Letterman, but CBS could almost certainly pay him off if they went another direction. I could be wrong – my brother in North Carolina and I are in disagreement on the issue – but I’m not really convinced he really wants the pressure and network supervision that a move to the earlier, more high-profile time slot would entail. He would have to rein in certain aspects of his comedy. He saw what happened to Conan O’Brien when Conan tried to move his show intact to the earlier hour and resisted network interference.

It’s true that Dave himself struggled to translate his comedy from the late time slot to the earlier time slot when he moved from NBC to CBS. I was faithful to him all the way through, but there was a period when he struggled creatively. He ultimately emerged with a quite different kind of show than “Late Night” had been, but there were definitely growing pains – and in the current, much-more-competitive environment, the network suits don’t have as much patience for growing pains.

I think Craig will get some sort of raise out of this, but ultimately CBS will go another direction. After all, Craig was losing consistently to Jimmy Fallon when they were both on in the late time slot, and the network has to be concerned he would lose to Jimmy in the earlier time slot.

Stephen Colbert: An immensely-talented man who could probably break new ground in the time slot. But the question is, would he bring along “Stephen Colbert,” the character he plays so brilliantly in his current venue? Would “Stephen Colbert” translate well to an hour-long talk show format? And if not, would people be confused to see Stephen Colbert instead of “Stephen Colbert”? Then again, maybe Colbert is capable of blowing up the format entirely and creating something new that would suit him and/or his alter ego.

Jon Stewart: He’s denied any interest in such jobs in the past, and rightfully so. He has the perfect format and forum for his talents. Sure, there’s a potential to earn more money on a broadcast network, but Jon’s smart enough to know that money isn’t everything.

Tina Fey / Amy Poehler: While either might be momentarily intrigued by the idea of breaking new ground, I don’t think either is looking for the nightly grind of a talk show, especially Fey, who is now branching out as a writer and producer.

Aisha Tyler: I’ve enjoyed her since “Talk Soup” and think she’d be great. I’m shocked at some of the online vitriol directed at her by people who still want Drew Carey to host “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” But you can find online vitriol directed at just about anyone if you look hard enough. I don’t know if the network suits are willing to bet the farm on her (and lose her from “The Talk”), but I think she’d be a smart choice.

Chelsea Handler: Coincidentally (at least, I think it’s a coincidence), she just announced she’s leaving her E! network show. She’s undoubtedly talented and funny. She would probably have to tone down certain aspects of her bad-girl image for this kind of network gig – as Conan learned during his brief tenure on “The Tonight Show,” the network must not only worry about ratings but about individual affiliate stations, some of them located in parts of the country where Chelsea’s brand of humor may not play as well. I have no doubt that she could do that and still be funny – but would she want to?

Jay Leno: I don’t think this is going to happen. I just don’t. Jay could still get good ratings for a few years, but if the network is going to build up a new show from scratch, they’re going to want a long-term investment — someone younger, and someone with more of an eye towards social media and the younger demographic.

Louis C.K. – a former writer for the Letterman show. I’m not sure he’d do it, because he’s gotten used to a high degree of creative control with his FX show and his self-distributed standup specials that I don’t think CBS would give him in this case.

Format change – The ratings for all the late night talk shows have been declining in recent years, because the sought-after younger demographic isn’t locked into the format and would just as happily watch Adult Swim. ABC and NBC have tried to buck the trend with younger hosts, but maybe CBS will decide to go some complete other direction – a reality show or a game show or some different comedy format or the night-time equivalent to “Today” or “Good Morning America.” I don’t necessarily think this is likely, but I do think it’s possible.

I am guessing that if CBS does stay with a talk show, it will be based in Los Angeles rather than the Ed Sullivan Theater. Moving to L.A. would help restore the balance that was upset when “Tonight” moved east. Currently, Fallon, Seth Meyers and Dave are all in the loop for movie stars on the New York leg of their publicity tours. Dave’s successor will, I think, go to the West Coast.

Some have speculated that CBS has been preparing for this moment and may already have someone waiting in the wings, ready to be announced after a respectful interval. In any case, it should be an interesting few months. Bill Carter, the New York Times writer who has been the unofficial historian of late night, should be busy.

The Super Bowl of Love

In 2007, at a time when conventional wisdom held that there was a feud between Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman, this promo aired during the Super Bowl. Winfrey, of course, was based in Chicago, while Letterman is a native of Indianapolis, so that year’s Bears-Colts matchup made this appropos:

In 2010, the next time CBS telecast the Super Bowl, Letterman was faced with the prospect of having to once more compete with the man for whom he’d been passed over as host of “The Tonight Show” in the early 1990s. That made this promo absolutely unexpected:

Bill Carter of the New York Times reported the story of how the promo was put together. I remember reading it on the Times web site, and then of course Carter re-told it in his book “The War For Late Night” about the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien debacle. Rob Burnett, who heads Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, called Leno’s executive producer Debbie Vickers to describe what they had in mind and ask Leno to participate. When she stopped laughing ten minutes later, Vickers pitched the idea to Leno, who was in need of a little image rehabilitation, having been perceived (rightly or wrongly) as the villain in what happened to O’Brien. Leno flew to New York and, wearing a disguise, was hustled into the front entrance of the Ed Sullivan Theater while Letterman’s nightly show was being taped. (During that time, sightseers and paparazzi tend to congregate at the side entrance, from which guest stars come and go.) After the talk show taping was over, Leno, Dave and Oprah taped the promo there in the theater.

Later, after Leno had returned to California, one of his staffers who wasn’t in on the secret dashed into his office with rumors that Dave had filmed a Super Bowl promo featuring a surprise guest –  maybe even the President. Leno, amused, told the staffer to keep him updated if any new information turned up.

I wonder whether there will be a “Late Show” promo tonight, and if so who will be on it. Letterman recently received the Kennedy Center Honors, of course, and in the weeks surrounding the ceremony he hobnobbed with all sorts of luminaries.

Craig Ferguson, whose show follows Dave’s, will do a special post-Super Bowl edition of “The Late Late Show,” but I think he did the same thing in 2010, so that doesn’t necessarily have any relevance to the Letterman promo.

‘I wish a little of that would rub off on me’

I just got through watching the “American Masters” episode about Johnny Carson, and it was terrific – funny, and moving, and revealing. It’s available to watch online, and if you missed it over the air it would be well worth watching it that way.

They showed a very brief snippet of Johnny’s last TV appearance, which I recall as clearly as if it were yesterday.

Johnny, of course, is widely believed to have thought David Letterman, not Jay Leno, his ideal successor. What is certain is that he never appeared with Leno after retiring.

Anyway, a year or so after Letterman moved to CBS, he did a week of shows from Los Angeles. There was a running gag that week where Dave would introduce some hugely famous celebrity who was supposed to be bringing out the Top Ten list. Each night it would really be Calvert DeForest (a/k/a Larry “Bud” Melman), although the on-screen graphic would display “CLINT EASTWOOD” or “BARBRA STREISAND” or what have you. Calvert would claim to be that person, but obviously would make no effort to actually look, act or talk like that person.

This went on for four nights. On the fifth night, Friday, this happened:

Oprah … Uma …. Yma?

In 1995, just a couple of years after he moved his late-night talk show to CBS, David Letterman hosted the 67th Annual Academy Awards. Letterman’s performance that night was widely – though not universally – criticized, and Letterman himself has made hay out of it ever since with self-deprecating jokes based on the premise that he was the worst host ever.

I actually enjoyed it, although admittedly I tend to be a Letterman apologist, and was even more of one in 1995. I do admit that Letterman brought in a couple of his signature bits (Stupid Pet Tricks? Really?) that, while funny, had no connection to the event and didn’t really belong there.

One of the jokes Dave made that night was based on the fact that both Oprah Winfrey and Uma Thurman were in the audience. Letterman acknowledged them by pretending to introduce them to each other. “Oprah … Uma. Uma … Oprah.” It was gentle fun based on two unusual names, but it became sort of the lightning rod for criticism of Dave’s performance. It also probably contributed to the perception, justified or not, that Oprah had a grudge against Dave.

Here’s where I’m going with this. I am currently reading (through the program which lends library books to Kindles) the book Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from The New Yorker. I was stunned to get to a 1962 piece entitled “Yma Dream” by Thomas Meehan, in which the author has a dream of hosting a party attended by singer Yma Sumac, actresses Ava Gardner, Ona Munson and Ida Lupino, diplomat Abba Eban, Oona O’Neill Chaplin, Italian playwright Ugo Betti, the Aga Khan, and so on, the humor of which stems from the introductions: “Aga – Yma, Ava, Oona, Ona, Ida, Abba, Ugo.”

I have no idea if Letterman or his writers ever read this; Dave would have been 15 in 1962, when the piece was published in the New Yorker. “Fierce Pajamas” didn’t come out until 2002, but it’s possible that the piece was included in some other anthology in the interim.  If nothing else, it’s a funny coincidence, and proof that the joke was funny after all.

Dave and Johnny

A year or two after David Letterman moved from NBC to CBS, he did a week of shows from Los Angeles. Each night, he would announce that some big star, like Clint Eastwood, would be delivering the Top Ten list, and each night, Calvert DeForest (who’d had to leave his character name, Larry “Bud” Melman, back at NBC) would march out with the blue card. An on-screen graphic would flash “CLINT EASTWOOD,” or whomever, and Dave would just take the blue card from “Clint” and the show would continue.

Then, on Friday, this happened:

I wish he had brought out the turban, actually.

It was actually the second time Johnny’s appeared on the show that week – he was briefly visible in a little pre-taped remote segment that had aired earlier in the week.

Johnny never once appeared with Leno after his retirement.

On a winter night 2005, Letterman came out and gave what might have seemed to the casual viewer a somewhat disjointed monologue. Some of the comic references were months or years old, and an attentive viewer might have recognized that all of them had actually been used in previous Letterman monologues:

I’d read news stories and knew the real story behind the monologue. Dave explained it a few moments later. Every joke in that monologue was written by … Johnny Carson, who had died the previous week. Peter Lassally, one of Carson’s producers, went on to work for Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, after Carson retired. When Carson had the itch to comment on some current event he would write a joke and fax it to Lassally, who would pass it along to Dave. Dave, who knows a good thing when he sees it, eagerly received and used the jokes. Lassally revealed this publicly only a few days before Carson’s death.

Letterman collected some of those Johnny-written jokes and made an entire monologue out of them for his first show after Carson’s death.

By the way, one of the things Lassally’s done since working for Worldwide Pants is convince Dave and CBS to install Craig Ferguson as host of the show which follows Dave’s (and which is controlled by Worldwide Pants). I think he is still Ferguson’s executive producer.

Dave’s week of shows from L.A. came from a time when he, Leno and Conan would occasionally take their shows on the road, renting a theater or TV studio on the opposite coast from their usual digs, or in Chicago. In spite of the change of venue, they usually did nothing more than an amped-up version of their normal show.

The old model of taking your show on the road has since been decried by Letterman and others as too expensive and too much trouble. But Ferguson did something unique, different and highly entertaining with last week’s trip to Paris. “Le Late Late Show Avec Craig Ferguson” was not shot in a studio or a theater but on the streets of Paris. The interview segments were done at a card table in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. The show was goofy, inventive and thoroughly watchable. Ferguson’s robot skeleton sidekick, Geoff, and one of his signature guests, Kristen Bell, were on hand every night as well.

I think Johnny would have been proud.

Same joke

It is not unusual for two of the late-night talk shows to make the same or a very similar monologue joke about a current event. (Sometimes, “InfoMania” on Current TV will highlight this, with a feature called “Same Joke.”)

But tonight, “Conan” and “Late Show With David Letterman” had, not a verbal joke, but a piece of produced visual comedy in common. Both hosts made jokes about Newt Gingrich’s supposed Tiffany debt and then said they were surprised at his appearance on CBS’s “Face The Nation .”

And then, both Conan and Letterman showed a clip of Gingrich on “Face The Nation,” with gaudy jewelry superimposed on his face. In Conan’s case, the most prominent piece was a crown; on Letterman it was a tiara. But the production technique, the source material and the joke itself were identical.

The clips aren’t online yet, but I’ll have to look for them tomorrow and post them side-by-side. I don’t think it’s anything but coincidence, but it’s quite a coincidence.

The members of the Academy

All of the furor over Ricky Gervais’ performance hosting the Golden Globe Awards last weekend has helped to reveal the strange split personality of awards shows.

I did not see the Globes; I’d gotten a little tired of Gervais lately, and thought his recent profession of atheism was more insufferably smug than enlightening. However, I’ve read many of his jokes from the awards ceremony, and have to admit they were pretty funny.

The trouble is that an awards show is two different things. To the people who are eligible for awards, and their friends, family and co-workers, an awards show is a time for pride and recognition. I know what that’s like; if I’m up for a Tennessee Press Association award, or a Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors award, it’s an occasion for pride and good feelings.

But somehow, entertainment industry awards are of interest to people outside the circle of past, present and potential recipients. The major awards – the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys and Tonys – were put on television because we, as a society, are fascinated by celebrities and glamour and what have you, even though we don’t have any real stake in the competition.

In the old days, the glamour, and the occasional Bob Hope witticism, used to be enough to sustain our interest. But now, with a new awards show popping up each week, and with some aspects of the traditional awards show telecast seeming tired and shopworn, producers have to try to stack the deck to keep the home viewers interested. Even awards shows have started making self-conscious fun of the scripted patter between award presenters.

Speaking in my role as a home viewer, I like it when there’s a clever host saying funny things, and poking holes in some egotistical entertainment industry windbag. During David Letterman’s funny but much-reviled turn hosting the Oscars, he introduced the politically-active couple of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon as presenters with a plaintive “Let’s see what they’re pissed off about this week,” and I roared with laughter as Robbins and Sarandon glared. I like it when producers try to keep acceptance speeches short, and I am annoyed when someone insists on thanking every single person in the Greater Los Angeles telephone directory, individually, in alphabetical order, despite the orchestra’s best attempts to play him or her off the stage.

But if I were up for an Oscar, or even a Golden Globe, I’m sure I would feel differently.

That’s the problem; the things that make a good awards show telecast, from the perspective of the home viewer, are often at odds with the things that make a good awards ceremony, from the perspective of the people involved in honoring and being honored.

I’m not sure there’s a good way to reconcile the two, and I’m not sure what that says about the future of awards shows on TV.