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‘The Late Shift’ author Bill Carter on CNN’s deep-dive docuseries into late-night TV

May 5, 2021
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‘The Late Shift’ author Bill Carter on CNN’s deep-dive docuseries into late-night TV (AP file photo)

CNN is taking a deep dive into late night television history with its six-part docuseries “The Story of Late Night,” scheduled to air Sundays at 9 p.m. through June 6. The series spans six decades of late-night TV history’s most memorable moments while analyzing how the format has survived and adapted to an ever-changing society.

“The Story of Late Night” executive producer Bill Carter has authored four books on television, including 1994’s “The Late Shift” and “The War for Late Night.” Carter was chief television correspondent for the New York Times for 26 years and currently serves as Senior Media Analyst for CNN.

(The following excerpts are from a longer interview that aired last weekend on BIG 104 FM.)

The Maine Edge: Johnny Carson will forever be the undisputed king of late-night TV. Is there any way to describe the impact and power Johnny had for younger viewers who weren’t alive during his reign?

Bill Carter: It’s hard because if you look at the show now, a younger person might think it was a little old-fashioned. Johnny was not old-fashioned. Even as he got older, he was very hip, he kept up with everything. His comedy style was spectacular. There was no other show like his on the air and he was the biggest star in television for sure. You had a nightly meeting of America at his monologue. Upwards of 20 million people watched every night. It was really something America did together every night which doesn’t really happen anymore.

The Maine Edge: You recently wrote an article for CNN Business outlining how difficult the job of late-night TV host actually is. Here’s a quote: “It’s scary, crazy, flop sweaty hard.” The great ones make it look easy but why is that job so hard?

Bill Carter: You go in in the morning to an absolutely empty space. By 5 p.m., you need to tape a polished, funny, sophisticated show. People think it’s easy because you have writers but so much is riding on the host to make it work. The flop-sweaty part of it comes when you realize “Hey, it’s 4:30 and what we have is pretty bad. I’m going out there in a half hour and it’s got to be good.” It really is a demanding job.

The Maine Edge: Maine has a statewide late night talk show called “The Nite Show.” I reached out to host Dan Cashman and asked if he had any questions for you. Here’s one: He’d love to hear your thoughts on Conan O’Brien ending his 28-year run in less than two months. Dan asks why is nobody talking about it? Is it indicative of the state of late-night, the state of late-night on basic cable, or is it just the state of Conan?

Bill Carter: Part of all of that, in a way. What Conan did is amazing. He was a writer, he had never performed in his life. He talked his way into becoming the successor to Letterman on NBC. For a while he struggled badly and was almost cancelled, but then he became phenomenally popular, especially among young people. He got the chance to finally host “The Tonight Show” and it was a disaster for him and for NBC – the way they put that together and moved Jay Leno to prime time – it just didn’t work. He didn’t have the option to jump to another network show. He wound up on TBS and they gave him a nice run, but it wasn’t high profile. Even though the shows were great and his talent was the same, he lost something of that profile. I think it became less compelling for him to do it as time went on. I think he also feels that the late-night format has changed enormously. I look forward to what he’s going to do with his variety show. I think he’s a great talent, and by the way, he’s also a great guy.

The Maine Edge: I’d like to get your thoughts on an interview Johnny Carson gave decades ago to Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes.”

First, Wallace’s question: “Why don’t you feel that it’s your place to take on important social issues?”

Johnny’s response: “That’s not what I’m there for, can’t they see that? Why do they think that just because you have ‘The Tonight Show’ that you must deal in serious issues? That’s a danger, it’s a real danger. Once you start that, you start to get that self-important feeling that what you say has great import. Strangely enough, you could use that show as a forum, you could sway people, and I don’t think you should as an entertainer.”

The current crop of late-night hosts, most of whom you accurately point out in that CNN article are named some variation of Jim seem to feel compelled to turn their show into some sort of political platform. Do you think that’s what viewers really want?

Bill Carter: I don’t think they felt compelled necessarily as much as they didn’t think they had a choice. During the Trump era, that’s what drove it. Before that, Jimmy Kimmel wouldn’t have been someone you said had an overt point of view or was one to take on issues. His baby boy was born with this terrible health problem. It was overwhelming to him and it happened in the middle of the healthcare debate. He can’t not be dragged into it, it’s too personal and emotional for him.

I also think presenting a point of view became a thing when John Stewart started on “The Daily Show.” That show really had an invented format, but it started to make everybody think if you don’t do that, you sound sort of milquetoasty or whatever. Jimmy Fallon actually tried not to do this and it hurt him in the long run because people thought he wasn’t honest or open. The idea that the host is someone you understand and connect with has become far more important. We didn’t know that much about Johnny other than the fact that he got divorced a lot, but his views were probably in sync with the rest of the entertainment world. He didn’t expose them because he wanted to reach everybody. He had a show for everybody and now it’s very fragmented.

Last modified on Wednesday, 05 May 2021 06:12

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