The landscape of late-night TV changed forever in May, when David Letterman said a few pungent final words: “In light of all this praise, merited or not, do me a favor. Save a little for my funeral.” Then the host uttered his last “thank you and goodnight,” introduced the Foo Fighters, and left the building, making no effort to hide how relieved he was to bail out of there. It’s a totally different place without him. Like Steely Dan used to sing, daddy don’t live in that New York City no more. Dave was the last grizzled elder, the last link to the Johnny Carson era, the revered inspiration for all the current pretenders. His historic exit made 2015 a chaotic year, as all these bros in suits jockey for position in the new late-night turf.
The death of the old-school after-hours chat show has been predicted many times, but the fact remains that it’s one of the most efficient machines ever built for pimping product — and so as long as celebrities have product to pimp, these couches will remain hotly contested real estate. Just under two years ago, Jay Leno stepped down from The Tonight Show (again), and aprés Jay, le déluge — Letterman left The Late Show, Craig Ferguson quit The Late Late Show and Jon Stewart fled The Daily Show. The guys of late night — and they’re all guys — are a mix of old and new faces: Jimmy Kimmel (now the elder statesman, though too fresh to seem that way), Jimmy Fallon (the crowd pleaser), Seth Meyers (the voice of reason), Stephen Colbert (now playing himself), John Oliver (weekly is the new daily), Larry Wilmore (nightly is the new daily), James Corden (so likeable), Bill Maher (so abrasive), Trevor Noah (trying so hard), and what’s the name of that redhead over on TBS — ah yes, Conan O’Brien.
Oliver is the one who’s changed the game most, because of that magical word “weekly.” The idea of remaking The Daily Show as a once-a-week half-hour news round-up on HBO seemed so laughably old-fashioned at first, Oliver mocked the premise in his title: Last Week Tonight. Yet that slow-news concept turned out to be a brilliant move, giving him room to step outside the content-dump hustle and do extended long-form rants that stayed relevant and viral and shareable all week long, which Daily Show clips now often conspicuously don’t.
Oliver’s creative breakthrough took a toll on his old boss Jon Stewart, who seemed to get a hundred years wearier as soon as Last Week Tonight hit the airwaves. When he made the abrupt announcement he was quitting, he talked a good game about how Fox News drove him away, but he didn’t fool anyone — ’twas weekly killed the Daily. Once Stewart was done, he was done; there were some famous guests on his final few nights (Amy Schumer, Louis C.K., Bruce Springsteen), but he didn’t make it an event the way Letterman did. Stewart clearly couldn’t wait to get out of the office — and jump over to the network where his former protegee was killing it. He was funnier in his Emmys acceptance speech than he’d been his final months at The Daily Show. “To everybody on television, I just want to tell you … cling to it,” Stewart said. “I have been off television for six weeks, seven weeks, whatever it is. This is the first applause I’ve heard. It is a barren wasteland out there.” But then, at that point, he already knew he had an HBO deal in the works.
Trevor Noah took over Stewart’s desk, determined to prove himself as the third-best Daily Show host ever (fourth if you count Oliver, though he just kept Jon’s seat toasty for a few months). When Stewart made his big return to the old stomping grounds recently, it just looked sad, like Rob Lowe showing up back at the old frat house in St. Elmo’s Fire. Larry Wilmore started in January as the host of the Daily spin-off The Nightly Show, with a welcome touch of moral pique, though Maher’s Real Time remained the place to go for cerebral vitriol.
Another Daily Show alum, Stephen Colbert, took over from Letterman, stepping out of character after all those years of playing a right-wing blowhard on The Colbert Report. Since he’s on one of the Big Three 11:30 franchises, his new mandate is to play it safe and aim broad, which is new for him. He’s still working on the transition — he has a habit of slipping halfway back into character, especially during interviews — but his warmth and enthusiasm make his Late Show the best of the bunch. (Colbert has improved on Letterman’s ratings, though he and Kimmel remain behind Fallon.) Obviously, Colbert comes in with a load of political baggage, as he makes the jump from cable satirist to network schmoozer; in a different political climate, it would have been easier for the host to make the transition by politely cozying up to some mainstream Republicans. Unfortunately for him, mainstream Republicans have opted to sit this election cycle out, leaving only the yahoo extremists, which is bad news for talk-show hosts everywhere.
Fallon tops the ratings with his eager-to-please Tonight Show, with a lot of help from Questlove and the Roots, who are really more co-hosts than a mere house band. Music is what makes Fallon’s version a success, from the lip-sync battles to the hip-hop history interludes. He learned his most valuable lessons from Kimmel, the innovator who figured out how to use viral video bits, recognizing them as a future to be embraced rather than a menace to be feared. (His 2008 clip with Sarah Silverman singing “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” did for talk shows and YouTube what Sgt. Pepper did for rock bands and headphones.)
One of Conan’s writers threw a Twitter tantrum over these shows, calling them “Prom King Comedy” and accusing them of destroying the art of sophisticated repartee (and this from the home of the Masturbating Bear). Yet Conan’s still hanging in there, six years after the Tonight Show fiasco. Seth Meyers remains the most thoughtful interviewer in this crew, having a genuine discussion with Hilary Clinton (though Sarah Palin was beyond his powers). As for next year, Chelsea Handler will return to late night in some fashion on Netflix, though it won’t be like her popular E! show Chelsea Lately, since the author of Uganda Be Kidding Me has made it clear she has no desire to resume the workload of a nightly show. Samantha Bee will host Full Frontal on TBS, which will hopefully fare better than The Pete Holmes Show.
But Dave had the late-night run of the year, finally lumbering back to life in his final weeks, after so many years in a surly deep-freeze. Every night was a surprise: Bill Murray jumping out of a cake, Tina Fey wearing Spanx, George Clooney handcuffing himself to the host, Bob Dylan singing “The Night We Called It A Day.” He also flipped off some old enemies. (“I’ll be honest with you — it’s beginning to look like I’m not gonna get The Tonight Show.“) Years after he stopped caring, Letterman seemed energized by the whole scope of what a late-night comedy show could try. That final montage of highlights — as the Foo Fighters played “Everlong,” stopping on cue so Farrah Fawcett could utter her legendary “woooow”— was a glorious and endlessly rewatchable celebration of how David Letterman made late-night TV matter. And by the time the montage ended, Dave was probably already in a car to the airport. The king is gone.