Why Late-Night TV Still Matters

Editor’s note: Over a 26 year career at the New York Times, Bill Carter chronicled late-night TV’s many machinations from the Carson era onward. We’re thrilled he’s back on the beat as LateNighter’s editor-at-large.

Late-night television is not what it once was.

But let’s face it: what is? Except for death, taxes, and cockroaches, pretty much everything comes and goes — eventually.

Television itself, as an institution, as a concept, isn’t close to what it used to be. The way networks, studios, and streamers produce entertainment now, television, the linear version, is barely even an “is” anymore. It’s almost all a “was.”

Given all that, why do we have—depending on what criteria you use—10 to 12 shows still looking and sounding like what has come to be defined as “late-night TV?”

And why are they still worth talking about on a new website like the one you’re reading now?

A few reasons:

1-Because they remain a daily source of new, professional entertainment, seven days a week (counting Saturday Night Live on Saturdays and John Oliver’s Emmy cornucopia Last Week Tonight on Sundays.) People go to clubs in America every night and plunk down cash to see comics tell jokes. Late night offers that for free every night; the comics are better, and so are the jokes (usually.)

2-Because they are an American institution. No other country has produced anything close to the Allen-Paar-Carson-Letterman-Leno-O’Brien-Stewart-Colbert-Kimmel-Fallon-Meyers-SNL juggernaut that represents the best of late-night TV, nor could any other country come close. Even if they had access to the phalanx of A-list comedic talent represented on that list (good luck with that), no other country could provide the constant stream of entertainer/celebrity talent to occupy the couches, chairs, and other desk-adjacent seating, enough to generate an endless supply of anecdotes, bon mots, and clips of seven decades worth of upcoming projects.

3-Because they are still popular. That’s right, people really are still watching late-night shows. Not exclusively on their TV sets anymore, with toes up on a bed at 11 or 11:30 or 12:30 at night as a last-minute diversion before sleep. Those numbers, like the rest of non-sports television, are down for late-night shows, to somewhere between 1 million and 3 million viewers a night — with SNL usually north of 4 million. (Given the state of the rest of shows on that old-fashioned device called television, those numbers are not all that bad).

But fans are finding their favorite late-night bits on You Tube and other online services, where the numbers can be far, far bigger. Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show on NBC seldom “wins” the linear total viewer ratings, but he has more than the population of Australia subscribing to his You Tube channel alone — about 31.5 million. (The numbers balloon further, up toward 100 million, when followers on Facebook, Instagram, and Tik Tok are counted in.)

On ABC, Jimmy Kimmel’s 19 million-plus You Tube number tops Romania. These folks may not be watching something every night, but they are clearly interested in late-night.

4-Because they are a vital part of the national cultural dialogue. If there was any doubt of this, would the publicists for just about every actor, comedian, news anchor, and reality show contestant still push to get their clients booked on these shows?

The cultural relevance is heightened in election season, which is another good reason to be starting up a late-night website right now. The essence of late-night television is a nightly (sometimes weekly) summation of the day’s events. That’s one reason these shows don’t work as well on streaming, which, instead of the calendar, adheres to the space and time continuum.

Perhaps the most significant shift in late night’s topical comedy has been the emergence of unapologetic point-of-view potshots at politicians. The shift away from the strictly non-partisan political skewering that defined the Johnny Carson era seemingly started with Jon Stewart’s often bruising battering of President George W. Bush. With Colbert, Kimmel, and Seth Meyers now enfilading Donald Trump with hostile comedic fire every night, the era of neutral feelings is mostly over.

Conservative blowback has centered on blaming all the Trumpmockery for the decline in ratings for late-night shows. The “Late Night Is Irrelevant” theme is popular on the Right, except from Fox News’s Greg Gutfeld, who is clearly proud to cite his strong ratings and label himself (as he has in his book) “King of Late Night.” That boast wouldn’t mean much if the whole genre was irrelevant. (Gutfeld is now on at 10 pm, which is technically out of late night, if anyone is really counting.)

Resistance to point-of-view comedy was not evident at all in the return of Stewart to The Daily Show on Comedy Central. His presence has seriously pumped up the show’s Monday night audience (the one night of the week he is working.)

5-Because late-night hosts are now likely more valuable than ever. They are essentially the signature stars of their network, a presence multiple times a week. They are relevant enough to be hosts of big award shows, like this year’s Grammys, which featured The Daily Show’s former host Trevor Noah, and the Oscars, which Kimmel will host for the fourth time March 10.

I have written a lot about late-night television in my career. Late night has been, one could say, berry, berry good to me. I am happy to be writing about it again, because I’m sure there will be more good stories to tell — and because I simply enjoy it. You can now get all sorts of amusement and engagement from all sorts of screens and services (usually for a fee); but late night remains among the most dependable forms of entertainment ever invented.

If, during the last hour of the day, you happen to be walking past that old TV screen, plastered onto a wall or sitting on a table somewhere in your home, a big, tasty loaf of entertainment is still reliably, enticingly, right under your nose.

There’s nothing like a whiff of late night, baked fresh every day.


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  1. Jim Willson says:

    Thrilled to find this site….just happened to read about it in Oliver Darcy’s newsletter. Thanks for doing this…I hope you have great success.

  2. Fard Muhammad says:

    Welcome Back, Mr. Carter.

    Hope this site finds as many fellow late-night TV enthusiasts as possible and grows from here on in.

  3. Frank Radice says:

    You are the real deal, Bill. Your words carry a lot of weight I’m proud to have been on the fringes of your orbit when I was working.