Thoughts From the Big Chair: TV’s Late Night Talk Shows and Johnny Carson – A Quantitative Analysis

Thoughts From the Big Chair
Comments on Television and Associated Media From a Lifelong Addict.

TV’s Late Night Talk Shows and Johnny Carson – A Quantitative Analysis

Part I – Grading the Shows

As with the TV drama that I talked about in my last column, we are also in a special time when it comes to late night TV talk shows – we, again, now have an embarrassment of riches and many options for our watching pleasure.

As in my previous columns, you’ll get my take on it through commentary, but I’ll give you an added bonus in Part II. I’ll demonstrate for you in a quantitative, i.e. measurable, way, how I think today’s shows stack up.

I’ll talk about the classic late night talk show of the format spear-headed by The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Before Carson, The Tonight Show was really experimental and variable in intent and execution; so Carson substantially solidified today’s classic late night format.

With Part I, I’ll introduce the players and give them grades based on the components of each show, along with a justification for that grading.

Next week, we’ll take the report card, turn it into numbers, and do some high-level data analysis. You’ll see how all the shows relate to each other; what shows are similar, and what shows are very different.

Sounds complex, I know, but it will be fun  and I’ll try to make it easy to understand.

You’ll notice I’m ignoring the feuds around Leno, as you can read about them in various books and articles (e.g., Bill Carter’s book “The War for Late Night”). I’m reviewing Leno’s shows without considering any other baggage.

The Players:

So, we’ll start with a quick description of the players (E = Early, typically 10:00 to 11:00 PM here in Mountain Time; L = Late, typically after 11:00; NY – recorded in New York; LA = recorded in L.A.) :

0. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson(NBC, E, NY then LA). This is the gold standard. The canonical exemplar. The best there ever was. The best example.

Carson was great at all aspects of the show and his grades in this analysis reflect that. Carson is what everyone else is trying to live up to in one way or another. I include him as a reference point for comparison with what we have today.

Carson started in 1962 and lasted until he was subtly, or perhaps not so subtly, pushed out in 1992. Most of us still miss him and the show, as it was a reliably excellent  presence in our lives for 30 years.

1. The Late Show with David Letterman(CBS, E, NY). Dave’s been doing this since 1980, first with a morning show that was amazing, and then during late night starting in 1982. The show reflects a purist Carson model with Paul Schaffer and the CBS Orchestra as an integral part.

The show moved to the earlier time period and CBS in 1992. Letterman started as a stand-up comedian and did various TV appearances before doing this show.

2. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno(NBC, E, LA). Started following Carson’s departure in 1992 and lasted until 2009, when he went to prime time. He then returned back to it in 2010.

Leno started in stand-up and was the country’s top stand-up comedian in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. He also did lots of guest spots on TV shows, and guest-hosted for Letterman frequently.

3. Conan O’Brien(TNT, E, LA). Started in 1993, moved briefly to The Tonight Show, but is now on early on TNT.

Conan, a comedy wunderkind, started at the Harvard Lampoon. He then moved to SNL and The Simpsons as a writer before ascending to his talk show.

His show started later in the evening, and then moved to the prime slot in 2009.

4. Jimmy Kimmel Live!(ABC, E, LA). Letterman purist who started on late night in 2003 and recently moved to the earlier prime slot. Did lots of TV appearances and a series – The Man Show – on basic cable before graduating to his own talk show.

5. Late Night with Jimmy Fallon(NBC, L, NY). Fallon took over Conan’s show in 2009, when Conan graduated to The Tonight Show. He was an SNL all-star before that, and has The Roots as his house band.

6. The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson(CBS, L, LA). The show started in 2004. Ferguson works for Letterman’s World Wide Pants, Inc..

Simply, Ferguson is insane, and the show reflects this nicely. It is wild and mondo, but has also found a pretty good-sized audience.

Ferguson started by doing lots of stand-up and guest spots on TV comedy series. He had a long-time gig on the old Drew Carey Show.

The Analysis:

The Data:

Any analysis depends on data. The selection and collection of these data can affect the outcome; in other words, all analyses must be interpreted based on the nature of the data collected.

In this case, I have chosen to evaluate the quality of the shows in question by rating how they do in eight categories that comprise the standard sections of the show, such as the monologue, or define more general aspects of the program, such as the house band or how good the sidekick is.

I rate them using basic grades from A+ to B-. The programs available these days are really of high quality, so I could not see going below B-.

I constructed a table (really a data matrix as you’ll see) of the grades for each category for each of the seven shows; Carson’s classic Tonight Show and the six shows on right now. So, in familiar terms, it’s a report card for seven students  (the shows) for eight classes (the categories).

Obviously, this is a reflection of my own biases but I suspect many will agree with the grading in general terms.

It should also be noted that, in a way, the grades are really reflecting how well each show does relative to Carson’s iconic model; this is not to assume that this necessarily defines the only way to be a good show.

I define the skits and similar stuff that most shows use early on as their schtick, reflecting my roots growing up near New York.

The categories are described below:

A. the Monologue: The introduction, the first segment, the welcome to the show.  Perhaps the most critical show segment as it needs to convince the viewer to continue watching.

It is mostly comprised of the host doing a series of jokes or funny observations with some intermingled but short schtick elements.

Sometimes this also includes audience interaction. The host is always standing for this segment. The better the monologue is, typically, the better the grade.

B. The Side Kick: The star’s support structure. It provides an important counterpoint to the star.

This can be one individual, such as Andy Richter for Conan, or the band leader or band members, or some combination.

A strong sidekick is usually very important and gets high grades. The funnier the better, although this can be the result of the star bouncing things off the sidekick.

C. Music / Band: The musical support throughout the show, typically provided by the house band. For Ferguson, it comes from canned music and this is pleasant, buthe will get a lower grade for non-live music.

A great grade is given if there is a band you would pay to see away from the show, such as Paul Shaffer’s band, or Fallon’s The Roots. Also, the more the band is integrated into the program, the higher the grade.

D.The B Slot: The 2nd show segment, typically used for more schtick. Carson would do Carnac here and Letterman his Top 10 lists. Sometimes, some big audience interaction stuff also happens here. The grade is based on the quality of the segments.

E. The Main Interview: The top celebrity for the evening comes in and, often, does two time units with a commercial break in-between. Rated by celebrity level  and the interviewing skills of the star.

F. The 2nd Interview: Typically a “lesser” guest spot for a single show time unit. Rated the same way as the main interview.

G. The Finish: The final segment. Typically a stand-up routine or a musical guest performing. In lesser cases, this can be a bit of throw-away segment.

For the better scores, the music has to be solid and comedy typically strong. Ferguson messes with the format some and his grade for this is based on the pre-monologue and the farewell.

H. Audience Interaction: How the star interacts with the live audience. This is a very tricky category to score because it often is more subtly evidenced, and even done off-camera. However, it affects the whole show by infusing energy into it.

Interaction typically happens during the monologue and the B Slot. Man-on-the-street stuff does not apply here as it is just one form of general schtick and does not use the audience itself.

For example, Letterman only rarely goes into the audience for schtick,  but generally refers to members of the audience during the monologue based on interactions done before the show. This gets a great grade as the audience clearly loves him

Conan almost always interacts with the audience during the monologue and this grades well also. If the interaction is just one of osmosis, then middle scores are given.

The Report Card:

I have graded the seven shows for these categories; here is my report card:

Grade Justifications:

The first thing to note is that there really are no bad grades; all the shows are professional and watchable and have found their audiences. However, there are clear indications of the strengths and weaknesses of the various shows by the range of the  grades.

As I noted above, these grades reflect my biases. The more like Carson – the more a show really reflects a bit of a strong team effort with a great band, great sidekick presence, great audience interaction or audience karma, and, especially, great opening sections, the better the show is to me.

If you prefer a show with more of a singular spotlight on the star, you might grade very differently. If you didn’t care for Carson, you’ll hate the grading done here.

General Comments:

Some shows were easier to grade than others. Letterman, Conan, and Leno are Carson purists in their format and were easy to grade.

Kimmel is a Letterman purist and by extension a Carson purist. Ferguson and Fallon mess with the format a lot and are more difficult to grade.

For example, Ferguson often has a pre-monologue bit with the audience and less of a finish. I combine these two to grade his finish. I truly believe that Ferguson’s show is even better than comes across in the analysis; it’s just difficult to quantify it.

Fallon is all over the place. He has very little monologue – just a few minutes – and combines the B slot into the front end. He then adds stuff later that would supplement that.

Fallon’s show, not surprisingly, has a strong SNL flavor to it, including SNL like skits. I did the best I could with grading it but that show’s quality is probably even better than this analysis reflects as well.

Jimmy Kimmel is really a bit of a journeyman. He doesn’t excel at much but does it all competently, getting B’s or A-‘s. He still has an enjoyable show but he also has the most room for improving it compared with the Carson model.

Network shows still get the top guests and this helps their interview scores.

The Hip Factor and Wackiness:

Carson had it – the smell of the Rat Pack – and his show was the place to be. Letterman and Fallon have it as well, in part, because they come out of New York; but it is also just what they are as people.

Conan is also hip in his own way; a nerdier hip.

The Hip Factor is why some guests go out of their way to do special schtick for them like Bill Murray on Letterman and Justin Timberlake on Fallon.

Hipness really affects the audience in a positive way and adds to the environment and excitement of the show; the audience feels in on something special.

Kimmel and Leno really don’t have it at all, and this is one of the reasons why many reviewers, like Tom Shales, don’t like these shows. Lack of hipness may be a fatal flaw to many reviewers, but not necessarily to lots of viewers.

Wackiness is a different flavor. Crazy and nonsensical, it’s something many people feel is insanely funny and wonderful, and others just get uncomfortable around.

Letterman was very wacky when he started and he still is, but less so, now that he is older. Conan is pretty wacky and this is one of the hooks that keep his audience so loyal to him.

Ferguson is hyper wacky and will either delight people or confuse them. I doubt there is much middle ground with him.

Not being hip or wacky is a safer and a more comfortable bet for many older and/or conservative viewers. It’s probably why Leno has the largest audience of all current shows.  

Conan probably was just too wacky for the older demographic of The Tonight Show audience, and that show’s ratings dropped while he was doing his stint there. The ratings rebounded some as the show got safe again, although not better in quality.

It is important to note that nothing I used to grade these shows reflects either hip or wacky directly. It is real interesting, however,  to interpret the final patterns with these two aspects in mind and I do that a lot in next week’s column.

Now we’ll go category by category:

A. Monologue. Everyone does well with this. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have a show.

Carson was phenomenal at it. With Carson, when it was a great monologue, it was really funny. When it bombed, it was even funnier.

Letterman is great as well. He gives a great welcome to his show.

Dave had a low point about 5 or 6 years ago and the opening suffered during that time.

These days, especially since The Kennedy Center Honors, he is absolutely ebullient and great at the opening and the whole show. Right now, his show is better than it has been for over a decade.

When I started thinking about this subject, I assumed Leno would be tops here, as he was a brilliant stand-up when I saw him live in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. However, he has slipped recently on many shows.

It’s all about the jokes with him and he can be brilliant. I saw a rerun of his Feb. 5, 2013 show recently and it was a great show and monologue.

All too often these days, however, his timing is totally off; he runs through the jokes way too fast as if he is desperate to get them out. It’s a shame.

He is up and down a lot these days and goes from great (A or better) to mediocre (down to a B or less). That’s why he is down to a A- monologue grade overall.

Obviously, this is an area he could easily fix with little effort  to the betterment of his show.

Fallon does a great monologue but he does it for only a couple minutes before sitting down and going into schtick. This is one area he could improve greatly at, especially with more writing support.

Ferguson has an insane monologue (and pre-monologue) and it is wonderful. It’s probably not for everyone, however (but is for me). It’s always worth watching the opening of his show.

B. Sidekick. This category has a great amount of variability among the shows, and the widest range of scores. I think a great sidekick (or combo-sidekick) adds a great deal to the show.

Carson had Ed McMahon, who was a very good sidekick (probably B+ to A- level), but he was there more for Carson than the audience. He was someone Carson could lean on.

What took Carson up on this category is that he also used Doc Severinsen as a bonus sidekick and the three of them really made the show hop.

Letterman learned from Carson and combined the two with Paul Shaffer, who is great and essential. Alan Kalter and some other staff also contribute in relevant ways.

For Conan, Andy Richter is great and essential as well. La Bamba and the band add to it at times, as well.

It was really an act of sabotage of Conan’s show by NBC when they pushed him to get rid of Andy, which he did for a number of years. The show suffered greatly from the lack of him.

Ferguson has Geoff Peterson, a gay, skeletal robot with a Mohawk and half a body (did I mention Ferguson is wacky?). Geoff’s voice comes from someone off screen and he is excellent and an integral part of the show.

Lack of a significant sidekick is a real loss for Fallon. His show has the announcer, Steve Higgins, who does a little of it  and seems nice and funny enough, but he often is no real sidekick; when he is used more, the show improves.

Fallon also converses with members of The Roots as well and this helps some. If Fallon had a hip and funny sidekick – perhaps if one The Roots stepped up into the role – it would go far towards really congealing his show even more.

The main fail on Kimmel’s and Leno’s shows is the lack of a good sidekick; someone who keeps them on track and provides a counterbalance to the star. It leaves a hole and the shows are less for it.

C. Music/Band. The show’s band makes it a party. It keeps the audience up and in-touch and makes the show better. The stronger the band, the better.

Ferguson uses canned music and it is pleasant, but it’s not a band. The show is designed to be a smaller affair than the others, so it works for him, in a way, to keep it intimate.

It’s odd because Ferguson started as a drummer for a rock band.

Adding a band would require some scale adjustment, so it may not be worth it. So he gets a B- for the ambiance of the music he does use, although this may be too low.

Carson had a great band – as good as it has ever been on a show. Letterman learned this from Carson and has the same.

Fallon, being smart and hip, went out and got his own version of a great band, The Roots, and they work well. In a few years with more experience, they probably will work into A+ territory.

Conan has Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band and they are excellent, but not great.

Kimmel has Cleto and the Cletones. They are a very good as a band from what I can tell, but not much of a show presence.

Leno has Rickey Minor and the Tonight Show Band – who you know are probably phenomenal musicians – but Leno really doesn’t use them much and they are not well integrated into the show. He did better with Kevin Eubanks and Branford Marsalis earlier, but not much. A waste of great talent.

D. The B slot. This is schtick central and Carson worked it well with Carnac and other fun stuff. Letterman has developed lots of hall-of-fame gags as well for the B slot, such as his Top 10 Lists and stupid pet tricks.

The rest all do a passable job as well and have scored in the mid range.

E. & F. The Interviews. The middle part of the show with the guests. Grades really depend on the level of the guests (A-list, D-list, etc.), the star’s interviewing skills, and if there is some degradation going from the main to the 2nd interview segment.

Carson was a great interviewer; I think it was a matter of pride for him. Best guests ever.

Letterman is great, especially with top people, and he has frequent, great interviews. He gets the best stars and also brings on great people who talk science, news or, a wonderful thing recently, Congressional Medal of Honor awardees.

Fallon is a tremendous interviewer. He gets an excellent and hip assortment of guests.

Kimmel is a fine, but not a great, interviewer. He gets a good assortment of stars, however, with a real ABC flavor.

Conan is very good to excellent. The main fault for him – getting him a little grade reduction – is he tends to have a limited and very redundant guest list; perhaps a cable limitation.

Leno gets the top guests as well, although not quite as hip an assortment as Letterman and Fallon. He has in the past often been a relatively disinterested interviewer, but seems a bit better now.

Ferguson gets an interesting assortment of top, B-list, and hip people. He does a very good job as an interviewer, although he does trend on the quirky.

G. Finish. This is a catch-all category for the end of the show and some segments that are missed in the other categories. Pretty much, a good grade typically  depends on strong music acts and, hopefully, decent comedian sets.

Please note that good music does not depend on my personal taste, just a good variety of good musicians.

This was the coveted comedian spot on Carson and many of the best comics made their bones here. Best ever.

Leno, Letterman, and Conan all do well here. Often with good to great music.

Ferguson tends to peter out but, since I include the typically fabulous pre-monologue segment here, he does ok with his grade.

This is one segment where Kimmel tends to do great; he almost always has a high-energy music ending.

Fallon’s tendency to mess with the structure of the show ends up plopping a great variety of things in this category, even an added interview sometimes. They all tend to be pretty good to great, so he scores well.

H. Audience. The audience is essential to the show’s energy. The interaction of the star and the audience can manifest itself in many different ways.

Carson was adored by his audience and it always showed. He did some nice schtick with them as well.

Letterman seems to warm the audience up before the show off-camera, and almost always makes reference to them during the monologue. His audience loves him as well.

Conan has the most active interaction on-camera and great audience karma.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kimmel does just OK.

Fallon has the advantage of an audience that knows it’s in on something hip and they tend to react strongly and positively to everything, even when the bit really doesn’t deserve it.

Ferguson has the most intimate show, so the audience is right there and reacts nicely to the wacky and quirky goings-on. He starts typically by grilling some audience members on stage, so they are always with the program.

Leno’s show is the most difficult to grade. He gets people who are enthusiastic because they are visiting the institution of The Tonight Show.

He has an odd start to the show where he steps into the front of the stage and high-five’s select audience members. It really comes across as phony to me but perhaps not to others.

So, Leno tends to get high-ish marks mostly because he gets a ready audience who believe they are visiting history. I don’t really see him do much with the audience, however.

Going Further:

So that’s the basic summary. You can see the report card and make your own conclusions or do your own grading.

Think about how you would grade it. Would enjoy hearing alternative viewpoints.

Next week I’ll take the report card and translate the grades into numbers. I’ll do the same analyses that scientists and statisticians use to study multi-dimensional data for climate change, testing medicines, evaluating voting trends, etc.

From this I’ll be able to demonstrate how each of the shows relate to each other, and start teasing out why some shows are similar or why they are different.

As you reflect on my late night TV talk show example, you’ll gain some understanding of how scientists make sense of very complex data; data your life may depend upon.

Really fun from my perspective—TV and statistics together.

See you next column.


Editor’s note: Ralph Chapman is a paleontologist, technologist and statistician who enjoys living in Los Alamos, New Mexico – a place with great history; whether it be geological, ancient, old, or recent.

(Twitter @RalphEChapman) ©2013, Ralph E. Chapman

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