5 Unexpected Ways Late Night Talk Shows Changed Everything
We don't exactly think of late-night talk shows as the bleeding edge of entertainment. They're usually comedians at their most inoffensive, interviewing beautiful people about the new superhero movie they're gonna be in or whatever. And aren't half of their ratings just old people who fell asleep during the local news? But the history of these shows is actually full of game-changing moments that helped make the world what it is today ... for better or worse.
Bill Clinton's Sax Solo On Arsenio Meant Politicians Now Have To Act Like Celebrities
Remember the ancient days of September 2016, when Donald Trump went on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and they did this whole bit where he let Fallon tousle his hair?
It was upsetting to people because they knew this was part of the presidential candidate ritual -- doing the talk show rounds, letting the host get in some incredibly gentle barbs, being treated like any other celebrity with a project to plug. This part of the political game plan goes back to 1992, when Bill Clinton did a saxophone solo on The Arsenio Hall Show.
If you weren't around in the early '90s, it's easy to miss the significance of this. Arsenio was considered the cool, edgy host for a hipper and younger audience. It'd be kind of like if Pete Buttigieg showed up on somebody's Fortnite stream, then played the game and held his own. At the time, Clinton didn't have the built-in support of incumbent President Bush, and didn't have the clown show appeal of high-pitched billionaire cowboy hat Ross Perot. It took his PR manager Mandy Grunwald to get him on the show and send him rocketing up the polls.
The sax solo uprooted the Gennifer Flowers story, exploded the draft dodger angle, and got Clinton the humanizing headlines he'd needed. It wasn't the first time a presidential hopeful did something like this. Richard Nixon and his inability to say " Sock it to me!" without sounding like a cartoon dog on Laugh-In in 1968 comes to mind. But Clinton made this a standard part of the playbook.
In 2000, Bush Jr. hit The Late Show With David Letterman, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his 2003 run for governor on The Tonight Show, and during his 2008 run, Obama was a regular on The Daily Show. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney was trying to reach that 47% by slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon (who seems to have a real knack for pickin' 'em). Trump even hosted SNL -- a decision that surely no one involved regrets at all.
Johnny Carson Blacklisting Joan Rivers Screwed Over A Generation Of Women Comedians
Joan Rivers was a powerhouse of the comedy world and a protege of legendary Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. But when it came time for Rivers to get her own show in the mid '80s, the 800-pound gorilla in the room couldn't have taken it worse. When she first appeared on The Tonight Show for Carson in 1965, Rivers, ironically then known more for her writing than delivery, got invited to sit on the couch, and she quickly found herself booking huge gigs and getting an offer to pen gags for the show itself. She made almost 100 appearances, and even took over guest hosting duties whenever Carson needed a golfing break (and Ed McMahon needed to dry out), eventually becoming the #1 guest host as well.
Rivers took an offer from the not-yet-on-the-air Fox network to become the host of her own show in 1986. Suddenly Carson, feeling betrayed, lashed out. He never spoke to or about Rivers ever again. He had his people threaten any guest who booked with Rivers that they'd never get booked on The Tonight Show again (which could be career death at the time), and it worked.
In fact, it worked too well. Rivers' show lasted only a year, and her husband Edgar Rosenberg OD'd on Valium not long after. And Carson's shit fit was the fit that kept on shitting. Stuffed suits running around network hallways slotted daytime TV for women, but kept the night for male hosts for decades after. It took over 30 years -- until Chelsea Handler on E! and Samantha Bee on TBS -- for women to even begin to dip a toe in the market again.
Related: 5 Insane Problems All Women In Comedy Deal With Eventually
Jay Leno's Interview With Hugh Grant Invented The Celebrity "Apology Tour"
In 1995, Hugh Grant was the gawky romantic British leading man. This was long before Tom Hiddleston or Dan Stevens were even a sparkle in a casting director's eye. Dating Elizabeth Hurley at the time, Grant was publicly caught with a prostitute. After his arrest for lewd conduct, the press came baying, definitely in the mood for a career-ending scandal. In what is now the stuff of PR crisis legend, Grant made an appearance on The Tonight Show to humble himself and create the template for the celebrity scandal response.
If this is your first time hearing about this incident, that's by design. Grant, blasting around Los Angeles doing a presser for Nine Months, saw police lights flashing behind him on Sunset Boulevard as he, ummm, conversed with a woman named Divine Brown. Word got out and the press began to feast, picking apart his relationship with Hurley (at the time still a TV actress attempting to get a film career off the ground), the sex worker, all of it. Nine Months director Chris Columbus joked that it could've been worse -- Grant could've been caught with an animal.
But it was the machinations of his PR team, working in a flash, that got Grant on Leno. The host asked him, " What the hell were you thinking?" and in the process saw his ratings soar and overtake those of rival David Letterman. It may seem unremarkable now, but that's only because it's become standard. These days, it's the playbook used by almost every public figure who has something to apologize for. Grant put his awkward charm on full display, beating himself up and absorbing every joke with good humor. No one could stay mad at him, dammit. Career-wise, it wound up being a minor bump in the road.
The biggest irony, perhaps, is that as TV has splintered, so too have the opportunities for celebrities to get themselves out there for their rehabilitation tours. As the late night market has fractured into what feels like dozens of shows and big-timers like Letterman and Leno have retired, its not as clear how exactly you go about the duty of public penitence. Can you just go on Joe Rogan and talk about DMT for three hours?
The Daily Show Made It So That Comedy Shows Had To Get Serious About Politics
Late-night shows have always been more promotion than politics -- or anything else, to put it bluntly. Sure, monologues included plenty of bland jabs at Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, or whatever other scandal was in the news at the moment. What you did not get was long, earnest speeches on healthcare policy:
Or detailed, impassioned pleas for gun control laws:
All of which is common today. It seem clear this dates back to Jon Stewart's heady mixture of political humor and talk that became The Daily Show. Before Stewart, there'd been Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, but it was less of a late-night show and more just Maher being snarky with a parade of his celeb pals. But after Stewart, the late-night landscape was never the same. It was impossible to stay relevant without actively taking a side in policy debates.
Stewart, after all, pummeled both politicians and pundits into submission, deftly taking down Tucker Carlson and Crossfire and Jim Cramer in famous segments. Bill O'Reilly repeatedly had Stewart on, apparently yearning to get spanked on national TV, constantly trying to accuse Stewart of being a legitimate journalist hiding behind comedy.
The Daily Show's offspring are everywhere. The show itself continues under Trevor Noah, but Stephen Colbert went onto the greatest success as both the host of his own acclaimed spinoff, The Colbert Report, and then taking over The Late Show from David Letterman. Larry Wilmore's The Nightly Show and The Opposition With Jordan Klepper both spun off, and Sam Bee's Full Frontal and John Oliver's Last Week Tonight are clearly indebted to The Daily Show. Today, hosts like Seth Meyers make it clear that sincere discussion of politics is just baked into the format. It's now hard to imagine a show staying relevant without it.
This is all an offshoot of the fact that Americans now follow politics as entertainment, to the point that these shows achieve higher ratings when they book politicians and reporters as guests than when they book actors. You can discuss among yourselves whether that's a good thing.
Related: 5 Weird Causes Championed By The Last Celebrity You'd Expect
Dick Gregory Helped Break Down Barriers For Black Comedians
Dick Gregory, comedy legend, came to fame during an era in which African Americans were sometimes allowed on stage, then promptly treated like dirty secrets. They used back entrances, and couldn't use the facilities where they performed. The same attitude also extended to late shows, with The Tonight Show's Jack Paar never having a black standup sit on the guest couch. They could perform and then leave, but never converse with the host. That would change with Gregory.
Hugh Hefner, a man who only read his own magazine for the articles, called on Gregory to perform at the Chicago Playboy Club. Gregory ended up doing jokes before an audience that consisted of a bunch of horny Southern food execs -- usually not the type who'd go in for his type of human being, let alone comedian. But Gregory whupped their heckling asses with a wave of political jokes, leaving them rolling in the aisles in a set so legendary that he subsequently got a call from The Tonight Show.
A friend pointed out that no black comic had ever gotten to sit next to Paar, so Gregory turned the producers down. Then Paar called Gregory personally, and he essentially told Paar he wanted to plant his ass on the same couch where Lenny Bruce's cheeks had before him ... and Paar agreed. The deal broke open the color barrier in a big way, and the wonderful response earned Gregory a further 22 visits to the show, along with huge bookings in clubs that had formerly only hosted white comedians.
A flood of black comedians, including Redd Foxx, Bill "used to be famous for something else" Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Godfrey Cambridge followed Gregory into mainstream entertainment. Meanwhile, Gregory engaged in civil rights work. A close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., he kept fighting for equality wherever he could. He was instrumental in getting the FBI, with the aid of his Playboy pal Hefner, to search for the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, who had been murdered in Mississippi in 1964. It was second nature for a man who definitely knew what it took to overcome the odds.
Andrew McRae has books and eBooks available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. He can also be found on Instagram and Facebook, as well as writing for Lewtonbus.
For more, check out 10 Ways David Letterman Invented YouTube:
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