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No Expectations 041: Talk Show Host
Coming to terms with the death of late-night TV. Plus, a new Mitski LP and PUP at Riot Fest.
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I’m grateful for all the new signups after last week’s Vampire Weekend Discography Deep Dive (Triple D). While this week’s essay is on late-night TV, No Expectations is first and foremost a music newsletter. I’m definitely planning on doing more album-to-album catalog breakdowns in the future so please stick around if you only care about good tunes. If you have a suggestion on who I should cover next for a Triple D, feel free to either email me or write a comment below. Keep your eyes peeled for a Taste Profile interview next week too.
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Late Night Talk Shows Are Basically Dead
It’s not hyperbole to say the state of late-night television is the worst it’s ever been. This isn’t because of the necessary WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes happening right now—though the fact that none of the major shows have aired new episodes since May hasn’t helped. It’s that the medium has been experiencing a long, slow death for almost a decade. With the ubiquity of streaming and TikTok, network TV audiences and advertising revenue have declined for years. No one seems to really love any host the way audiences revered Johnny Carson or even David Letterman (if Seth Meyers or Jimmy Kimmel can make a reasonable case as the most likable late-night host right now, things are dismal). Is there a long-term future for the late-night talk show? Does it matter?
If you look at late night’s current landscape, it’s hard to come up with an optimistic forecast. Before the strike, the highest-rated late-night talk show was Fox News’s Gutfeld!, the comedically dire political gabfest hosted by pundit Greg Gutfeld. That garnered an average of 400,000 more viewers than second place The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS. (NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! respectively rounded out the top four). In the past year or so, two hosts voluntarily left their posts and one had their show canceled. TBS cut ties with Full Frontal with Samantha Bee in 2022 while James Corden mercifully ended his run as the host of CBS’s The Late Late Show in April and in September Trevor Noah announced his departure from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. Though Comedy Central is still looking for Noah’s replacement, CBS will sunset The Late Late Show in favor of a revival of Comedy Central’s @midnight, a comedy game show that aired from 2013-2017.
Even for the hosts currently holding prestigious on-air gigs, it’s been rough. Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show was the subject of a damning Rolling Stone expose, which detailed allegations of a toxic workplace environment and the host’s erratic, occasionally intoxicated behavior on-set and behind the scenes. HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher somehow took another blow to its dwindling audience when its host threatened to break the WGA strike and bring back the show without its writers. (After a unanimously negative public reaction, Maher reneged on that a few days later). Colbert, Kimmel, Meyers, and Fallon are all under contract until 2025 and 2026 but the future of the format beyond that feels in flux. Since 2016, ad revenue is down more than 60 percent. Streaming and TV competitors have floundered with talk shows hosted by Hasan Minhaj, Sarah Silverman, Joel McHale, Ziwe, Desus & Mero, Michelle Wolf, and Chelsea Handler all canceled in recent years. Jon Stewart still has his The Problem with Jon Stewart on Apple TV+ but I don’t know anyone who’s watched that.
I haven’t religiously tuned in to late-night TV since Craig Ferguson left The Late Late Show in 2014. Growing up, it was a major staple of my childhood. My parents would tape Letterman and sometimes Kimmel or Conan but more often than not, I couldn’t sleep and secretly watched them when they aired. I remember seeing the infamous Courtney Love interview in 2004 and Joaquin Phoenix’s 2009 I’m Not There Letterman appearance live. I caught on to a ton of great bands on Letterman, Conan, and occasionally Leno. When Craig Ferguson took over on The Late Late Show in 2005, he became my favorite. He was a better improviser than his peers, his jokes were a little more left-field, and he often showed genuine interest in his guests without forced laughs. Late-night TV was formative in developing my own sense of humor and critical tastes (learning early on that Leno is not for me was crucial).
There’s something about the format that’s comforting and reliable. Getting a monologue, a couple interviews with celebrities, and maybe a performance from a comedian or a band was a pretty solid pre-bed routine for decades. I miss it. I miss the hosts I grew up with and I think there’s something collectively lost as these types of shows sink further out of the mainstream. None of the hosts rise to the level of Carson, Letterman, Ferguson, or Conan. Not even The Roots can make me want to watch Fallon suck the air out of a room guffawing too loud at his guest’s underwhelming joke. Colbert’s transition from an incisive satirical political character to an earnest Catholic liberal has been mixed. He’s definitely thrived when he’s shown his genuine human decency but hasn’t been as successful when it comes to comedy. I’m not going to write what I think about Corden and Carpool Karaoke.
Over the past month, I binged The Larry Sanders Show, which is why I’ve been thinking about The State of Late Night Television lately. That sitcom, which aired on HBO from 1992-1998, basically ushered in what critics called “The Golden Age of Television” through its satirical and humane look at behind-the-scenes of a fictional late-night show. Created by and starring the comedian Garry Shandling, who had guest hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, it was basically two shows in one: a single-camera workplace comedy about the people making a fictional late-night program The Larry Sanders Show and that fake talk show itself. The thing about this show is that both are excellent. At one end there’s a hilarious, human, and heartfelt comedy about the workers on the show and the actual talk show, which has great monologues, guests, and musical performances. The show switches perspective throughout but it’s never jarring. Even the songs artists play on the talk show lyrically fit with the plot of the behind-the-scenes storylines.
Reading about the upsetting allegations of workplace abuse and disarray plaguing The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon while watching The Larry Sanders Show was a pretty disorienting experience. The day the expose came out, I was in the middle of season two where things get so bad at The Larry Sanders Show that its host eventually quits and moves to Montana by the end. In one S2 episode, life imitated art as the show’s booker Paula (Janeane Garofalo) jokes about killing herself on-set (as did the former Tonight Show employees according to Rolling Stone) during an episode where producer Artie (Rip Torn) couldn’t make it to work to run the show. The fictional Larry Sanders Show is objectively a horrible place to work: Larry’s an erratic, self-obsessed host, and there’s rampant bullying, sexual harassment, as well as pummeling anti-art pressures from the network. Shandling uses these issues as a lens to eviscerate the industry and his ego (he funnels a lot of his real-life insecurity into his character Larry Sanders). The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The reason The Larry Sanders Show started in the first place is that Garry Shandling decided to not take over for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. For most of his career, that gig was Shandling’s main professional goal but he burnt himself out guest hosting for Carson. He ultimately decided to pursue sitcoms because they’d be more creatively fulfilling and he used his experiences with Carson as plot fodder. (Shandling even refused to take over for Letterman while making The Larry Sanders Show and turned down a $5 million per year contract). Though watching Larry made me nostalgic for late-night TV, it also made me realize the medium might not be worth mourning in the future. They seem like miserable places to work and if you’re a host, you have to be on for 200 nights a year, year over year. Just look at how much more relaxed and in his element Conan O’Brien is as a podcast host. He’s able to go long with his guests and is doing some of his best work ever on Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend.
I still love late-night TV and hope the format never fully goes away. I worry about how the decay of late-night is going to affect smaller artists and comedians who used these programs to break out. Can something like Future Islands’ breakthrough Letterman appearance happen again? When was the last time a late-night interview became a cultural moment? I still believe there’s a future there, especially if the major networks allow women and people of color to take the reins as hosts. That said, there’s never going to be a galvanizing figure like Johnny Carson or Letterman who’s equipped, competent, and decent enough to host a late-night show for three decades or more. What happens when there are no longer ubiquitous, shared cultural experiences?
Culture is no longer universal. With streaming, podcasts, and social media, things are too fragmented and too tailored to niche interests for there to ever be a host with that amount of on-air authority and cultural cache. Plus, given the choice between the current hosts giving out five-minute celebrity interviews between commercial breaks or a long-form podcast about their careers, it’s easy to see why people are going elsewhere beyond late-night network TV. At this point in my life, however, I don’t think falling asleep to the TikTok feed or Instagram Reels is better than falling asleep to a network talk show. Maybe we should all be reading books rather than all that.
Despite that reality, there’s an opportunity for networks to get weird, loose, and experimental—maybe something as chaotic and funny as when Adam Pally and Ben Schwartz guest hosted The Late Late Show. Saturday Night Live became the cultural institution it is now through irreverently subverting the form and highlighting unknown comedic talents. Almost 50 years later, you see SNL’s mark on almost everything in modern comedy. Something cool, subversive, and totally new could happen to revitalize the medium. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. It might it be something like Call Her Daddy on CBS, Bobbi Althoff on NBC, and Theo Von on ABC in 2027 instead.
Since I finished The Larry Sanders Show, I’ve been watching old episodes of late-night talk shows online. The entire archive (all 2,057 shows) of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson is available on YouTube. Before dinner, I’ll queue up a random episode. I picked one from 2009 where Garry Shandling guests. Craig opens the show in a raincoat—inclement weather has hit California and the studio where the show films is literally leaking—and his entire monologue is off-the-cuff riffing on the flooded CBS studio. He kills it. When Shandling’s interview happens, the one-time late-night host can’t stop complimenting Craig on the show. At one point, Shandling says, “How do you do that every night?” Given Shandling’s history as Carson’s would-be-successor, it’s a perfect moment. I don’t know how they did it every night either but I’m happy they did.
What I listened to:
Stephen Steinbrink, “Cruiser (Reprise)”
SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, “human debenture”
Osees, “Chaos Heart”
Truth Club, “Uh Oh”
Katie Von Schleicher, “Montagnard People”
Tex Crick, “Barefoot Blues”
Angel Du$t, “I’m Not Ready”
Fog Lake, “Shampoo”
Mitski, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We
Mitski has been one of the more undeniably talented songwriters of the past decade. She’s an unflinching and ambitious artist that a ton of my peers along with myself saw play understated shows in small rooms before going in bigger directions and exploding in popularity. Whenever an ascent like Mitski’s happens, there are always some growing pains. To protect herself from undue public attention and overzealous fans, Mitski’s no longer super online and posting about her life but she’s used the newfound seclusion to double down on her art. Now based in Nashville, she’s funneled some of the city’s timeless musical sensibilities into her new album The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We. It might be her best yet. At 11 songs and a lean 32 minutes, no moment feels wasted. It’s uniformly gorgeous and powerful even at its most subdued. While she once expanded her sound into increasingly pop-forward directions, by reining it in here, she’s making the most radical art of her career yet.
Gig reports: PUP at Concord Music Hall and Riot Fest (9/15-9/16)
If you write about music long enough, chances are you’ll befriend someone you once wrote about. It’s not supposed to happen if you want to keep some sense of critical distance and journalism ethics. But sometimes it does and you just gotta write about other bands after the fact. Canadian punks PUP were the first band I ever truly got along with beyond just having a solid press interview. I wrote about their first album almost a decade ago, met them in Chicago around that time. We quickly became buds so I never wrote about them for an outlet since (the newsletter doesn’t count). I remain a huge fan and their friendship has been some of the most treasured relationships of my life. A big shoutout to Jaime Coletta for sending that first email to me about them in 2013.
A lot has happened since 2014. From the earliest days, PUP toured relentlessly. They wrote some truly fantastic songs too. I saw more and more people wearing PUP shirts around Chicago to gigs. Throughout, the band maintained a professionalism, a kindness, and a dogged work ethic that taught me a lot about what it takes as a person to make a career in music. It’s a road full of long drives, packed dates, a level of inhuman patience, and a welcoming atmosphere to their fans and tourmates. They made a point and still do to bring on a diverse set of openers that maybe aren’t what their fans expected but still brought down the house. Seeing them grow as people and musicians has been one of the coolest things I’ve witnessed as their friend and fan.
Seeing PUP twice this past weekend at Concord Music Hall and then the following day at Riot Fest was truly special. I’ve caught them live dozens of times over the years in multiple cities and even when the band will complain about how a set sounded post-show, I’ve never seen them play a dud. Sure, things may go off the rails, something will malfunction, or a fan might break a bone in the mosh pit, but it’s always a good time and it’s always worth it. This is PUP in a nutshell. Across four albums (and a fifth one in the works), they’ve amassed a bonafide greatest-hits catalog of galvanizing, self-lacerating punk. Hearing my personal favorite “Mabu” from their debut reenter the setlist at Concord was a treat and watching the set at the festival with the guitarist Steve’s father-in-law was too. Fans recognized him like he was part of the band. It was sweet.
Reading this back now, I understand how sappy this reads but I promise you it would’ve been way more cringe had I treated my friends’ sets in this newsletter like a traditional concert review. Know this is all coming from a biased writer but also understand that being fans of your friends is an unequivocal good thing.
What I watched:
The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (Max)
After Garry Shandling died at 66 of a heart attack in 2016, his mentee and friend Judd Apatow compiled a 259-minute documentary celebrating and excavating the iconic comedian’s life. The film uses Shandling’s obsessive note-taking and diaries as a vessel to uncover truths about his personal struggles and professional accomplishments. And in those writings, the doc paints a revealing portrait of a comic genius who was ambitious, clever, and hurting. A family tragedy at a young age colors Shandling’s entire life to the point where his career milestones feel bittersweet throughout. Garry’s body of work speaks for itself but his life is a reminder of the importance of taking time to heal and be there for yourself. Worth a watch if you’re familiar with his work.
What I read:
Is Måneskin the Last Rock Band? (Dan Brooks, The New York Times)
One question that emerged early in my discussions with Måneskin’s friendly and professional management team was whether I was going to say that their music was bad. This concern seemed related to the aforementioned viral Pitchfork review, in which the editor Jeremy Larson wrote that their new album, “RUSH!” sounds “like it’s made for introducing the all-new Ford F-150” and “seems to be optimized for getting busy in a Buffalo Wild Wings bathroom” en route to a score of 2.0 (out of 10). While the members of Måneskin seemed to take this review philosophically, their press liaisons were concerned that I was coming to Italy to have a similar type of fun.
Bob Dylan: The Wanderer (1995) (Alex Ross, The New Yorker)
But Dylan has survived without becoming a “survivor”—a professional star acting out the role of himself. He has a curious, sub-rosa place in pop culture, seeming to be everywhere and nowhere at once. He is historical enough to be the subject of university seminars, yet he wanders the land playing to beery crowds. The Dylan that people thought they knew—“the voice of a generation”—is going away. So I went searching for whatever might be taking its place. I went to the shows; I listened to the records; I patronized dusty Greenwich Village stores in search of bootlegs; I sought out the Dylanologists who are arguing over his legacy in print. Strange to say, Dylan himself may explain his songs best, just by singing them.
The Weekly No Expectations Chicago Show Calendar:
Thursday, Sept. 21: Bridget St. John, Steve Gunn at Judson and Moore. Tickets.
Friday, Sept. 22: Bridget St. John, Steve Gunn at Judson and Moore. Tickets.
Friday, Sept. 22: Califone at Fitzgerald’s. Tickets.
Friday, Sept. 22: Strange Ranger, Husk at the Hideout. Tickets.
Friday, Sept. 22: Vallis Alps, Kweku Collins at Schubas. Tickets.
Saturday, Sept. 23: The Postal Service, Death Cab for Cutie, Warpaint at Salt Shed. Sold out.
Monday, Sept. 25: Chat Pile, Nerver, Urine Hell at Sleeping Village. Sold out.
Monday, Sept. 25: Explosions in the Sky, FACS, Lifeguard at Salt Shed. Tickets
Tuesday, Sept. 26: Chat Pile, Meth, Nerver at Sleeping Village. Sold out.
Wednesday, Sept. 27: Benny Sings, Joe Powers at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Wednesday, Sept. 27: Run the Jewels at Salt Shed. Tickets.