After it was confirmed that legendary satirist Jon Stewart would step down as host of “The Daily Show,” I began to reflect on just how dramatically late-night comedy has changed recently.
Stewart’s announcement last Tuesday knocked the wind out of his fan base and seemingly all of social media. But to me, given recent events in late-night television, it kind of made sense.
David Letterman, Jay Leno, Craig Ferguson and Jon Stewart — it seems clear we have reached the end of a paradigm in late night television.
I am recognizing late-night comedy less and less. We’ve had one too many retirements.
For me, Letterman’s retirement, which is set for this year, is the big blow to late night. Letterman began hosting NBC’s “Late Night” the year I was born, and then jumped to CBS’s “Late Show” in 1993. The guy has been behind the desk for as many years as I’ve been alive.
Letterman is in a class of his own. His occasional crabbiness seemed to stem less from pessimism and more from a low tolerance for BS. When he wasn’t “feeling it,” he let you know.
After having a rough day, audience members could relate to that, and it made the good times even better.
Craig Ferguson packed up Secretariat the pantomime horse and Geoff Peterson the gay robot skeleton in late 2014, forever leaving behind his “cheeky monkeys.” Ferguson offered a smart and charming alternative with “The Late Late Show.” His monologues were unconventional, his interviews engaging and all of it felt improvised. But he and CBS never apparently saw common ground for him to take over for Letterman.
This brings us to Stephen Colbert. I think he’s our best bet for a solid replacement on the “Late Show.” However, he will probably not be bringing along his “Colbert Report” character. That’s another loss. His unique ability to mirror and skewer conservative-leaning cable news sensibilities will likely go unmatched from here on out.
Leno is less of a loss. Nothing personal. You’re either Beatles or Rolling Stones. Leno was not my guy. Still, I know he had a lot of fans and I’m sure they’re feeling the same sense of late-night abandonment.
Then, there’s Stewart’s retirement from “The Daily Show.” I’ll skip that eulogy — Jordan Boone did a great job covering that base for The Lantern. And I’m sure we’ll see Stewart in the future, possibly directing films.
Thankfully, we still have Conan O’Brien. After the great “Tonight Show” musical desks debacle of 2010, Conan opted to bow out of the conflict with NBC and Leno, and he eventually found a home at TBS.
Still, I’ve grown up with all these hosts. Their departure from the screen feels like a departure from life. I’m not a huge TV junkie, but these hosts’ tenures weigh on my sense of loss.
I don’t see anyone who can adequately slip into some of these roles. Last week, I watched John Mayer stumble through his interim hosting duties on “The Late Late Show.” Yikes. Jimmy Fallon still laughs at himself way too much and the show has a growing celebrity game show vibe.
I’m holding out for somebody new; somebody who can really shake things up. All the greats, from Carson to Letterman to Conan, brought something new while still having a deep-rooted sense of their late night platform. They knew what they were coming into, but made it their own.
In other words, you have to know rock ‘n’ roll before you can play punk. And all the best hosts were punks. The Ramones got their band name from Paul Ramon, an early Paul McCartney pseudonym. But the Ramones were never going to be the Beatles, so we got something new, fresh, exciting — punk.
Letterman idolized and was mentored by Johnny Carson. But Carson never wore an Alka Seltzer suit. Conan looked up to Letterman. But Letterman never let the leash off Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. Hell, Conan even wears leather jackets. That’s “punk,” right?
Each new generation of late-night hosts was able to take the format and refit to their own style and attitude. I don’t see many of the incoming hosts being able to successfully do that just yet.
I don’t know if that “punk” logic holds up, but it’s what I’ve been telling myself, along with, “The night is darkest before the dawn.”
And for the sake of late-night comedy, I hope someone exciting and original steps into the spotlight soon. Because right now, I have to say, this isn’t funny anymore.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified “Late Show” as a program on NBC. In fact, it airs on CBS.