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Dumpster Bust Media Shakedown: Does Anyone Watch Late-Night Talk Shows?

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Slate is running a fun week-long feature: Dana Stevens is watching the The Late Late Show and new host Craig Ferguson (the annoying Scottish boss on The Drew Carey Show and apparently a well-renowned actor-director-something-or-other in Scotland) for one full week and blogging about her reaction each subsequent day.

This bit about Wednesday’s show:

According to experts at the College of Comedy Knowledge, Fergie’s opening utterances are, indeed, jokes: “a device for expressing humor that employs a setup which contains a target assumption to misdirect the audience […] and a punch which contains a reinterpretation […] that shatters the target assumption.” They have not yet achieved the added value of being funny.

Okay, so not so far so good. To be fair, she does point out that Conan O’Brien was widely panned after his debut over ten years ago, but is now riding high after the recent announcement that he’ll take over Jay Leno’s Tonight Show slot in five years and the airing of his 2,000th show on NBC.

Pretty interesting stuff, I guess. But then I started thinking: do I really care? Does anyone really care? Does anyone really watch late-night talk shows anymore? I mean, sure, I’ll flip on Conan during a bad bout of insomnia, but are there people out there who think: okay, Jude Law’s on The Tonight Show, so that’s a must-see, then later I’ll flip over to Ferguson to see how that’s going, then during commercial I’ll skip over to Kimmel, just out of pity really, and then….

To be fair, I find the entire talk show format contrived to the point of maddening. For many years now, the only part of any late night talk show I can stomach is the several minutes between opening monologue and first guest, when there’s a half-way decent shot that an avant-garde comedy writer manages to lobby some kind of interesting bit or sketch onto the air. Opening monologues are snoozers, even if told by Chris Rock or Dave Attell, and I can’t remember the last time I was interested in hearing Charlize Theron tell a funny dog story or Jason Alexander give a sardonic grin when asked for the hundred-thousandth time about the Seinfeld days. Give me Inside the Actor’s Studio or Howard Stern, an interviewer with actual balls and gumption. But not this… anything but late-night snooze-format.

Of a mediocre lot working in a dead format, Conan is the cream of the crop. His strange mannerisms and goofy asides are amusing, and he has a comedian’s sensibility for wanting to keep the audience at home interested. Leno, a very good and bright stand-up comedian, became Mr. Milquetoast after he succeeded Johnny Carson. Letterman stopped being funny right around 1992 (every time I see the high-budget computer graphics that prelude bits like the Top 10 List I’m haunted by memories of the first Wayne’s World film… did anyone watch that and learn?), and the new crop of Kimmel, Ferguson, and the recently departed Craig Kilborn (who was quite good as the original Daily Show host) are uninspiring at best.

It’s amazing that someone like Jon Stewart, who was brilliant even back in his low budget WWOR and MTV days, wasn’t given a shot at a late-night show. And now it seems that Norm Macdonald, a finalist for The Late Late Show gig, will be developing a sketch comedy show modeled after the loony and edgy Chappelle’s Show on Comedy Central. Given the recent results, that’s a good thing, I guess.

So I ask again: does anyone really watch late night talk shows these days?

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