Farewell Songs and New Beginnings in Late Night TV

The Colbert Report sing-along send-off (Photo: Comedy Central)

How late night TV talk shows move on musically.

2017 Talk Shows: Small Doses, Viral Videos, and Car Pool Karaoke

Today’s landscape of TV talk show hosts are refreshing only in that they make no pretense as to their role as tastemakers and mind-changers in the immediate pop culture landscape. The eponymous host of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon enjoys participatory games with his guests, slow-jamming the news with the help of his band The Roots, and playing pop songs with children’s instruments. The host of The Jimmy Kimmel Show enjoys pranks and on the street interviews with the denizens of Hollywood Boulevard. The “Carpool Karaoke” feature of James Corden’s The Late Late Show features the host engaging in duets with (among many) Mariah Carey, Rod Stewart, and Michelle Obama.

The shows are unapologetically designed primarily as vehicles for viral videos and Facebook links for a viewing public with many more options now than even five years ago. What late night TV is now can really only be understood by examining not just what it was back in the day, but the distinct ways some of the architects of the form said goodbye.

The King of Late Night

Johnny Carson was your father’s talk show host. If you were born between 1957-1977, when the small-framed, white-haired Nebraskan was at the height of his popularity and influence as the face of NBC’s The Tonight Show, Carson was the benchmark for what would now be called detached, fixed white privilege and shameless chauvinism. From 1962-1992, Carson stood tight and sturdy during his monologues, sometimes rocking back and forth on his heels, his hands never moving save for the final swing of his imaginary golf club as he finished the jokes. The camera focused on Doc Severinsen, his colorful bandleader, and Carson made his way to his desk.

Simply put, Carson was the voice of an America, which today can seem acerbic, extremely politically incorrect, even sexist verging on abusive. Johnny Carson’s sensibility was of the drinker, the smoker, the serial marrying entitled white male who saw the world through vapid interviews with movie stars, the bimbo du jour, and the occasional regular citizen. View him through present day lenses and he’s hopelessly out of tune, a pale and corn-fed Don Draper. Understand him through the context of his time, and the power this man had as a national tastemaker and a barometer of cool and funny was enormous.

When Carson chose to end his reign on top, tributes came from all corners of entertainment still relevant in the early '90s. For the penultimate show, comic Robin Williams gave Carson a farewell equal parts manic and schmaltzy. The choice for a farewell song was “One for My Baby (and one more for the road)”. Bette Midler, who had been a chanteuse/pop star for 20 years by that point, serenaded the host with this ultimate torch song. It’s much later than anybody would want it to be. The world has gone home and the only living remnants of a now dead era are you and the bartender. You want him to pour another while you ramble on about how you might still have relevancy: “And when I’m gloomy / You simply gotta listen to me / ’til it’s all talked away.”

Midler is sweet and comforting as she looks over at Carson. The two keep glancing at each other, host and guest. He’s at his desk, she’s several yards away on the stage, in the spotlight, and there’s a sincere, touching moment of television melancholy. Almost a year later to the day, in an episode of “The Simpsons” called “Krusty Gets Cancelled”, Midler sings “Wind Beneath My Wings” with the boozy, insufferable Herschel Krustofski (AKA Krusty.)

Performance Art I: A Comic Tackles the Form

Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show Aired on HBO from August 1992 to May 1998. It came at the tail-end of Carson’s reign on The Tonight Show and stayed long enough to document what became known as “The Late Night Wars”, a furious and juvenile competition between Carson’s successor Jay Leno and David Letterman. Popular sentiment believed Letterman should have succeeded Carson, but instead it went to Leno. Letterman went from NBC to CBS in 1993, and The Larry Sanders Show served as a regular, hilarious, often cynical look at the foolishness. How, then, would it end? Comic Jim Carrey came on to sing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, the show-stopping number from Broadway’s DreamGirls. It was as perfectly bombastic as a viewer might want from a satirical HBO comedy.

Conan O’Brien was given seven months at the helm of The Tonight Show, June 2009-January 2010. Jay Leno seemed to have retired only to re-assume the position when it seemed O’Brien was not viable for the network. By the end of his short but interesting tenure, the stakes seemed higher. How would he musically wrap things up? Neil Young had come on early in the show to sing “Long May We Run”, but it was comic Will Ferrell, in the guise of a lost member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, (long hair and beard) who delivered a funny yet heartfelt version of “Freebird”. The stage was stuffed with comics both assuming a persona and delivering a performance, and the results were fun.

Performance Art II: Indiana’s Native Son Walks Away From the Stage

David Letterman’s penultimate show, on 19 May 2015, almost exactly 23 years after Carson’s, mirrored the latter’s in several ways. It was no secret that Letterman was Carson’s golden boy, and the way NBC transitioned from Carson to Leno did irreparable harm to the integrity and legacy of the brand. Years pass and people move on, but there always seemed to be an undercurrent of bitterness, of regret that what could have been would never be.

Letterman announced his retirement on 2 April 2014, which meant he had over a year to resolve things. Whether he did or didn’t is only for him to say.

Letterman is from Indiana, another in a line of corn-fed country boy TV comics/talk show hosts, from Dick Cavett to Carson and others, who made it big on a national stage. New York and Los Angeles may have always been the centers of broadcast media, but the sensibility seems somewhere in the middle. Letterman had a rebellious life at NBC (1982-1993) and a storied history at CBS: open-heart surgery, extortion threats, and infidelity disclosures. He transformed from the acerbic bitter upstart of NBC who believed in cynical anti-comedy to an older sentimentalist. We all grow old and change our ways, and Letterman probably chose his retirement date to match Carson’s, but motivations are irrelevant when it’s the music that’s our primary concern here.

Comic Bill Murray opened Letterman’s first show on NBC late night in 1982, and was his first guest on CBS in 1993, so it made sense he’d lead the farewell for the last regular episode. The actual final episode would be (like Carson’s) a direct address to the TV audience, the studio audience, and various clip montages. Murray was effective (coming out from inside a cake), but it was musical guest Bob Dylan who made the last impression. In typical Dylan fashion, the man who Letterman introduced as the world’s greatest living songwriter performed a track from his latest album, Shadows In The Night, a collection of cover songs made most famous by Frank Sinatra.

The video of Bob Dylan performing “The Night We Called It A Day” for that broadcast is typical of the man’s 21st century persona: moody dark lighting, a vocal mic caressed by the singer, gentle brush strokes used by the drummer. This is salon music for a night that will never end. That this 1941 American standard is really a love song (“You kissed me and went on your way / The night we called it a day”) doesn’t jar the viewer so much as provide comfort. There’s a sad owl hooting alone in the sky. The evening ends, but the sun doesn’t rise with the dawn. “There wasn’t a thing left to say / The night we called it a day.” It might have been a song about a love affair dwindling down to its final drops, but on this night Dylan re-purposed it for an even more interesting role. Letterman was saying goodbye to his audience, his nightly forum for sharing whatever was on his mind. It’s moody and somber, and Dylan seemed to understand the importance of saying goodbye.

There’s a strange sense of melancholy not just in the song and the mood it creates, or the fact that this is Letterman’s farewell. As Dylan finishes and the crowd applauds, Letterman comes over to thank the man and shake his hand. He gushes over the performance, drummer George Recile’s gentle use of brushes on the snare.

There’s a palpable sense of fear that surrounds Dylan during this performance, as if he’s either just seen a ghost or is privy to an impending demise that will soon befall Letterman (or both of them.) It was a heartfelt, beautiful performance from Dylan, as much as he can apparently provide these days in the autumn of his years, but the sadness came across most strongly in those last few moments when the singer bid farewell to the host. Dylan’s handshake he offers Letterman seems as limp as possible. You can almost feel the moisture on his palm. Perhaps Dylan (six years older than Letterman) was sensing that the end was near for him as well.

Performance Art III: The Half-hour Stars Move on

The other major recent host farewells of late came from the half-hour satirical news programs The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert, the ingenious comic satirist, had already been playing the role of Stephen Colbert for over nine years. The bloviating, pontificating all-knowing conservative talking head was most perfectly realized in Colbert’s characterization. His move to CBS as the new host of The Late Show in September 2015, taking over from Letterman, marks the end of the Colbert character.

Jon Stewart’s tenure in The Daily Show lasted 16 years, 1999-2015. Unlike Colbert, however, Stewart’s face will no longer be a nightly fixture on TV. The difference in the way both men ended their shows marks a clear division between how the medium will transform in the coming years. Stewart spoke sincerely, in a balance that seemed equal parts pedantic and truthful but always from the heart. Stewart’s musical farewell performance for the 6 August 2015 broadcast was two songs from Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band: “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “Born to Run”.

The strength and appropriateness of this performance was comforting for long-time viewers of Stewart and fans of Springsteen. Both have New Jersey in their blood, and a righteousness that can sometimes be turned up to "11". “Land of Hope and Dreams” carried on in the great tradition of songs about train cars filled with saints and sinners, the paradise of an all-inclusive society headed towards a better place. “Born to Run”, a 40-year-old warhorse, came off as strong and urgent from Springsteen that night as if he still was trying to make his mark on society.

Performance Art IV: A Satirist Transitions into Something Else

All legendary talk show hosts have understood that most of the job is cultivating a presence, maintaining a persona, and keeping viewers. There’s nothing real beneath the surface and nobody mortal behind the curtain. Colbert seemed to understand this better than anybody. For over nine years he developed and fed the beast of his blowhard conservative talk show host and crammed more brilliant substance into a half hour episode than any other show on television at the time. Ostensibly a spin-off from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report started in 2005 with a built-in audience. We knew the character. We knew his ridiculous nature and how much he thought about himself. We just had no idea how far he’d be able to take it.

The 18 December 2014 farewell song came from Colbert himself. In 1939, British singer Vera Lynn introduced “We’ll Meet Again” as a song intended to re-assure soldiers going off to war that there will somehow be a reunion. It’s equal parts sweet and somber, and was put to terrifying use by Stanley Kubrick at the end of his 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The evil title character experiences an apotheosis, a surge of life, as death reigns on everybody else:

The strength of a great song rests in the fact that it can be easily and frequently re-purposed. Colbert turned it into a legendary singalong. He spoke some farewell words from his desk to the audience, then gradually walked to the stage. There’s Randy Newman on piano starting “We’ll Meet Again”. There’s Jon Stewart, Big Bird, George Lucas, Charlie Rose, Patrick Stewart, Cyndi Lauper, Barry Manilow, and scores of others. By the end of the bit, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the sweet sincerity here. The greatest asset the Stephen Colbert character offered was his ability to be brilliantly quick and incisive -- but he never forgot his vulnerability.

The Future’s So Bright. (Or Maybe Not).

The departures of Letterman and the Colbert character marked a clear dividing line between a different era of late night TV talk shows and what we have come to expect (and accept) since 2015. Colbert shed the skin of his legendary blowhard arch-conservative Comedy Central persona when he succeeded David Letterman on The Late Show. As America's political mood becomes more divisive and dangerous in 2017, the old persona sometimes surfaces at times during Colbert’s show, and it’s interesting to see where that might go.

Letterman recently re-surfaced briefly for an interview with The New Yorker Radio Hour and as the host of a National Geographic documentary on global warming, but he’s otherwise been as silent post-TV show as his mentor, Johnny Carson. The most exciting aspect of late night TV talk shows in 2017 is the unspoken likelihood that no matter the commercial needs of each show to sell advertising time, echoes of the golden age of irony and unforgettable musical performances (for a final episode or not) will come again.

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