You know you should've been in bed half an hour ago but, well, it's been a long day. And so, bleary-eyed and mind-numbed after the local news, you leave the TV on for one last dose of "relaxation" before turning in. After all, you've earned a bit of a break—even if it is a wafer-thin confection of comedic candy—before blowing out that last candle.
And so you're greeted by David Letterman. Or Jay Leno. Or one of the Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel). Or maybe even Craig Ferguson. (But not Conan O'Brien anymore. That dance he did with Jay didn't work out so well for him.) Familiar faces. Familiar voices. Familiar comedic takes on our crazy world. It's just what the doctor (that fake one played by an actor on TV) ordered at the end of a frenetic day.
Ferguson's Late Late Show theme song on CBS spells it out: "It's hard to stay up/It's been a long, long day/And you got the sandman at the door/But hang on, leave the TV on/And let's do it anyway/It's OK/You can always sleep through work tomorrow, OK?/Hey, hey, tomorrow's just your future yesterday."
Jay Is the New Jay
When I first starting brainstorming this article with the rest of the Plugged In team, the late-night status quo had just been through a shake up. Jay Leno had moved from his traditional post-news slot to prime time, going head-to-head with the likes of CSI. Conan O'Brien had inherited the coveted Tonight Show host's chair after 16 years in its shadow. No more Dave vs. Jay in the ratings battle. It was a new day. Time, we thought, for a fresh look at late night.
For reasons that low ratings alone don't entirely seem to explain, NBC quickly hit the reset button. Bye-bye Jay in prime time. Bye-bye Conan … period. (Until Fox picks him up?) Hello status quo. Welcome back Dave vs. Jay and the same ratings battle that's raged since shortly after Johnny Carson passed The Tonight Show mantle to Leno in 1992.
I'll admit that I've spent an hour here and there over the years tuned in to Dave or Jay, for exactly the reasons I outlined above. As much as the next guy, late-night frivolity has for me at times seemed like the best way to end a day.
I must say, though, it's an eye-opening exercise to watch all five programs back-to-back, as I did for this story. (But not in the wee hours before midnight, thankfully.) Here was my first surprise: For all intents and purposes, these shows are all exactly the same. Oh, sure, they have different personalities. Different bands. Different sets. Differing running gags (stupid human tricks vs. Jaywalking, for example). Some of us gravitate toward Leno's genial on-air aplomb, others toward Letterman's acerbic unpredictability, and still others just love Ferguson's Scottish brogue. Push past the personalities themselves, however, and not one of these five shows deviates even a single iota from the standard-issue late-night template: Monologue. Guest. Banter with the band. Musical act. George Bush jokes. (Yep. Even now. More on that in a minute).
Why are these shows so similar? I wondered.
And Now, a Word From Our Sponsors …
Product placements are at the very heart of late-night TV. Commercials are too, but I'm not talking about the never-ending stream of ads for Subaru's new Forester or Coke's new Zero. No, the product placements I'm talking about aren't for things you to drive or drink.
They're for Hollywood itself.
These shows may ostensibly be designed to entertain us while our eyelids droop. But they serve a bigger purpose for the networks and the actors and musicians who are involved with them: promotion. As far as the guests and musicians are concerned, it's all about promotion. Product placement. The week I tuned in, for example, Dakota Fanning was on one program promoting her new movie The Runaways while Kristen Stewart did similar duty for the same movie on another program.
Maybe I'm slow learner when I'm half asleep, but I'm waking up to the notion that these shows serve as elevated and brightly lit entertainment industry platforms put in place to promote the biggest things happening in said industry that day or that week. Movies. TV. Music. It's all about visibility and marketing. Brought to you by Dave, Jay and Co.
In short, it's programming designed to get you, the consumer, to consume more programming. And that's why these shows are, apart from their hosts' superficially different quirks, exactly the same.
The View From Google Earth
Another thing I noticed watching these programs in quick succession was how many sex jokes there were. I know, I know, that's hardly a news flash. And, comparatively speaking, the stuff dished out here is neither as rapid fire nor as nasty as, say, a single episode of Two and a Half Men.
Still, I repeatedly found myself thinking, Man, did you have to go there? More so than when I've watched these shows at the end of a long day, I began to notice how frequently these guys turned sleazy verbal corners in search of a cheap laugh.
During Jay's Google Earth/Google Street View feature (have I talked about product placement yet?), the camera zooms in from space to show us what might be happening on any given famous (or infamous) person's property. Like the one owned by former congressman Eric Massa, for example, who just resigned in the wake of allegations about sexual misconduct with male staffers. What does Google Street View show us? Massa in a hot tub with two other men. "Little congressional 'caucus' going on," Jay says, well aware, of course, that his double entendre is pretty crude … and the whole thing is Photoshopped.
Not to be outdone, Dave felt compelled to describe NYC's wild weather … in terms of how it was affecting a local strip club. "At Flashdancers just down the street," he joked, "it was so windy a stripper had to be lashed to the pole." One-liners about prostitutes followed.
I'll spare you the play-by-play on any more such quips, leaving it at this: The other late-night hosts were hardly outdone. (Read: Jimmy Kimmel can really cross the line sometimes.)
Making a Mockery of … Everything
Remember I said we'd get back to George W. Bush? Well, here we are. Mr. Bush has been out of office a little more than a year now. But has that little fact put an end to after-hours cheap shots? Hardly. After mentioning that Bill Clinton called Tiger Woods to encourage him, Kimmel went on to say, "It actually reminds me of a time President Bush called Homer Simpson after Homer stapled his face to a doughnut."
Boy. That's funny. Dave did him one better, drudging up a Dan Quayle joke. Seriously. Eighteen years after the Quayle/Murphy Brown brouhaha, Letterman is still mocking the man.
Which finally brings me to my main point: the problem of mockery.
Much of what passes for comedy in these guys' monologues is nothing more than barely veiled disdain—humor at the expense of someone else's foibles or mistakes, dished out with derision and without mercy. We're all prone to laughing at others' mistakes, especially if they seem like deserving targets from our various positions of limited perspective and understanding. And that's why we'll be hearing Tiger Woods jokes for decades. But indulging in scorn and contempt, even in the name of humor, is spiritually dangerous.
In the first lines of Psalm 1, King David instructs us, "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers." David knew that cultivating an attitude of mockery doesn't please God, perhaps, in part, because it sets us up as judge and jury over the failings of our peers.
I know that in my own life indulging in mockery makes me more cynical and sarcastic, both of which ultimately have a corrosive effect on my soul. A cheap jibe may get a low-priced giggle. But David knew that's not the kind of life God longs for His people to live.
"We Have This Relationship"
In the middle of his monologue during one of the episodes I watched, Craig Ferguson seemed to wander from his script, wondering aloud about his connection with his viewers. "Think about this," Craig suggested. "I don't know you. You don't know me. But we have this relationship … based on what?" It was a brief moment of clarity that offered more honesty than anything else I saw in these five shows. And the candor of his apparently spontaneous question stopped him cold, too.
At least until it was time for another product placement spliced in between a couple of sex jokes. Still, it's a good question, one we'd do well to chew on a bit. Is this really a relationship we want to be in—not just with Ferguson, but with any of these late-night jokesters? Especially if, as Ferguson implies, it's not even a relationship at all?
So say good night. Get some shut-eye for once. Maybe it's later than you think.