Goodbye Letterman, Hello Fallon: The Nicening of Late Night

With Dave gone and Jon Stewart on the way out, after-hours schmooze-fests have become way too safe

David Letterman and Jon Stewart Credit: CBS; Comedy Central

Behold the post-Dave hole in our culture: Late-night chat shows have become an oasis of niceness. Late-night TV used to be the domain of cranky old men with a grudge against the world; now it's polite whippersnappers. And with Jon Stewart heading to the final curtain, that hole in our culture is about to get twice as big. When Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999, he was the most easygoing guy in the game. Now he's the surliest — not because he's changed, but because the whole after-hours chattersphere has changed around him, to the point where it's loaded up with terminal pleasantness.

Tina Fey hit the nail on the head when she summed up the post-Letterman era in Rolling Stone: "Now there's nobody left to be scared of." As usual, Tina's right. Fallon, Kimmel, Meyers — those guys are not going to sneak-attack you on live TV. They're not just nice, they're brilliant at being nice, a much harder trick than it looks. Any schmuck can be moody and rude — it takes a comedian of David Letterman's constitution to pull it off, night after week after year, and remain funny. That's why it's all different without him.

It's strange how this has happened while the rest of the TV-gab world has gotten so hostile and contentious. The Fox & Friends era has crammed the airwaves with partisan hacks on parade, yelling at real or imagined enemies. Meanwhile, the late-night circuit has weirdly evolved into the last beacon of civility. Hence the kerfuffle when one of Conan O'Brien's writers posted a Twitter rant that late-night comedy had turned into an ass-kissing schmooze-a-thon. (The fact that Conan had to rebuke him the next day just proves his point. But that this Twitter exchange was dull to read and in no way funny? That just demonstrates there's something elusive about angry laughs.)

Stewart was the last guy holding the line. He doesn't lash out very often — not even every year — but he doesn't need to, just because we already know he can. Stewart is a guy who will rumble when he's ticked off — as in his recent confrontation with Judith Miller. His rant about Tom Brady was a great example of what he can do that his successors can't. "Tommy, you cheating fucker," Stewart said. "Why? You got four Super Bowl rings. You're married to the biggest supermodel in the world. . . . But you, my friend, stood up there in one of America's most sacred places — the podium room before Super Bowl week — and you lied to us." Stewart even managed to work politics in: "You're a Patriot, Tom Brady — a team named after this country's most cherished post-9/11 legislative surveillance act."

Unfortunately, we don't really get to enjoy talk-show catastrophes any more. These productions do not run the risk of bombing — too many smart pros at the controls, starting with the hosts. It wasn't long ago late-night shows were a dicier proposition. There were high-profile after-hours craters starring Magic Johnson, Chevy Chase or Dennis Miller — and even a pre-Daily Show Jon Stewart.

Late night in general has grown too emotionally stable. Johnny Carson and Letterman didn't care if you liked them or not — in those days, what else were you going to watch? So they had no incentive to treat their guests with kid gloves. After all, where else was Cher going to go? If she didn't like being ambushed by a surprise duet with an ex-husband — so what?

The new-school hosts take a friendlier approach because they're fanboys at heart. On some level, they sincerely love showbiz razzle-dazzle in the way Paul Shaffer always parodied. And for the kind of shows they're doing, it really does make better TV if the guest likes them. Fallon's lip-sync contests are a brilliant move because they make even the dullest celebrities feel like they have a sporting chance at being funny. But Letterman didn't care about that; if his guest flopped, that was their problem. The new model is that late night is a place where nobody flops. Something's gained there. But something's lost as well. And with the exit of Letterman and Stewart, it's gone for good.