From Late Night Wars to The Get Along Gang: How We Got Here

This Tuesday on the Jimmy Fallon-produced prime time revival of Password, Fallon will face off against a celebrity guest also named Jimmy.

Kimmel, that is. You know, the guy who has a late-night show just like his on at the exact same time on a different broadcast network.

Aren’t these two supposed to be competing for viewers among the same diminishing pool of folks who watch actual television at 11:30 at night?

They may be fighting for viewers, but they are certainly not fighting with each other. Nor are they fighting with CBS’s Late Show host Stephen Colbert, who completes the network triumvirate at 11:30—or, for that matter with any of the hosts of any other late-night series.

In promos for his Password appearance, Jimmy Kimmel sure seems to be enjoying himself. Jimmy Fallon told me: “The Kimmel episode is a great episode of the show. He came on and was super funny.”

Then he made his own joke. “I just wanted to prove to people that we’re different people.” After Kimmel hosted the Oscars, Fallon said he had people congratulating him. (Apparently Joy Behar was one of them.) “I get it all the time. Hey, we’re different humans.”

Just more evidence that, if there ever was a war for late night—and I am here to tell you there once was—it has long since passed the Armistice stage and is well into the Era of Good Feelings.

That idea was officially cemented during the writer and actor strikes of this past summer, when five of the top late-night hosts—Seth Meyers and John Oliver joined the 11:30 Three—banded together to do a podcast called Strike Force Five, where they all yakked it up about mutual concerns, high points and low points of their shared employment—along with tossing various good-natured insults back and forth.

The hosts talked on the podcast about what fun the idea—hatched by Kimmel, who recruited the others—was for all of them. “We’re friends but we don’t get to talk that much,” Jimmy Fallon said. “It was really interesting to see everyone’s point of view.”

Somehow, I can’t imagine Dave and Jay—or especially Conan and Jay—yukking it up in similar fashion over the good old days of fighting over who would get The Tonight Show. Or Letterman going on as a celebrity contestant on You Bet Your Life with Leno; or O’Brien traveling to Outer Mongolia on his upcoming Max series with Leno as his traveling companion.

Just too much lingering bad (or at least not funny) blood.

To be fair, the idea of vicious rivalries on the order of the 100-Years War between England and France was a bit of an exaggeration. The personal conflicts among late-night hosts were limited to only a few periods of high dudgeon.

Before the prolonged, Henriad-like Shakespeare succession saga involving Johnny Carson, Letterman, Leno and Conan (with Jimmy Fallon ending as the last prince standing), there weren’t really all that many shows in late night, and no serious competition anyway because Carson was the Sun King. There was a brief period of unpleasantness when Joan Rivers, Johnny’s regular guest host, jumped ship to try a show on Fox, kicking off a bitter separation between Carson and Rivers.

And Larry Sanders was always intensely worried about the other hosts, (“no flipping!”) but he was a fictional character.

Things changed a bit, first when Conan, a devoted acolyte of Letterman, arrived to take over Late Night, the NBC show Dave abandoned for CBS. Dave was surely embittered at being passed over for Jay at NBC, but he gave his imprimatur to a then-embattled Conan, by appearing as a guest in the early, struggling months of Conan’s tenure.

Letterman also lent his presence to another acolyte, Kimmel, by coming on as a guest.

Maybe nothing has eased whatever tensions might have still existed in late night more than the guiding hand in the careers of a trio of major late-night stars, Colbert, Kimmel, and Jon Stewart. That hand belongs to the redoubtable “Baby Doll,” Mr. James Dixon, who manages the careers of all three of those talented gents.

Somehow Baby Doll has steered the careers of all three to safe harbors, free from any internecine torpedoing.

Is there ever any low-key, off-the-record sniping about any of the current late-night hosts? You might hear some of that sotte voce if you happen to be in the vicinity of one or more of them.

But it’s soft stuff, nothing like the edgy commentary of the past—like the night Kimmel appeared on Leno’s short-lived prime-time show and made sure to fire non-stop pointed jokes at Jay for coming back to reclaim The Tonight Show. (Later Jay said Kimmel had a “mean streak.”)

One could argue there is far less reason for any enmity now, because the idea of a dominant late-night show has run aground in the general shipwreck that is most of linear television now.

The measure of success is so much different, based not merely on ratings, but how many views are piling up on web sites, that it’s probably counterproductive to throw bombs at each other.

But ah, those were the days.

1 Comment

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  1. SS says:

    The late night hosts came together before the strike when they appeared on James Corden’s last show.