Late-night TV follows tired format into irrelevance

The waters of late-night television are roiling.

On NBC, Jimmy Fallon is taking over Jay Leno's show, and Seth Meyers is taking Fallon's. ABC's Jimmy Kimmel has moved up half an hour to compete directly with Leno now, and then Fallon in winter 2014. At CBS, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson chug along, hoping the changes will bring new viewers to their shows.

Off the networks, Conan O'Brien is probably kicking himself, figuring he jumped to cable too soon and wondering why Leno would abdicate the "Tonight Show" throne for Fallon but not, a few years back, for him. Chelsea Handler does her thing on cable too. And in syndication this fall, Arsenio Hall will return to a much more crowded fray than the one he left behind.

And in Hall's heyday 20 years ago - or even 10 years ago - all of this would have been edge-of-the-seat news for television devotees, the stuff of agitated headlines: Turmoil in Late Night! Who Will Be the New King? Is It Jimmy's Turn? And, If So, Which Jimmy?

But in 2013, I listen to all the chatter and ask myself: So what?

It's like hearing about dinosaurs banging their necks against each other in a pit of tar just over that hill, out of my field of vision. I'm much more enthused about the mammals that have evolved in front of my very eyes.

To translate that out of metaphor and into reality, those old-line shows following roughly the same 50-plus-year-old format - monologue, celebrity guests, band - seem less and less relevant to me with each passing year.

A small part of it is that their comparatively languid pace is at odds with the contemporary information style. Who has 12 minutes to spend hoping movie star A promoting new film B will say one fresh and recognizably human thing during two segments with show host C? The movie star might well have already been more engaging on her Twitter feed; ditto for the host. And if I've got 12 minutes, I can surely find something more compelling on the Web.

But the much bigger part of it is that the shows, no matter how talented their hosts or how top line their bookings, have simply been eclipsed.

In the 1980s and early '90s, if you cared about comedy, you watched, respectively, Dave and Conan. They were the innovators, the ones bending the rules of the medium to take audiences by surprise. Now the most concentrated viewer payoffs - in terms of number of laughs - come from Jon and Stephen.

With each passing year of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" and Stephen Colbert's "The Colbert Report," both on Comedy Central, I have watched the other late-night shows less and less. In the past year, what used to be idle curiosity leading me to check in on Dave and Jimmy (Jimmies) and Craig and, yes, even Jay every now and again has all but vanished. I now look at them so infrequently that I don't even feel right calling them by their first names anymore.

Stewart and Colbert deliver taut, compelling and innovative cultural and political satire. (And this has remained true while "Daily Show" correspondent John Oliver has filled in for Stewart during the host's three-month leave to direct a film derived in part from a "Daily Show" field report.) Mr. Leno, Mr. Letterman and Mr. Kimmel, to name three, bring varying degrees of effort and achieve varying degrees of success. But what they have in common is a laconic format that is meant to be winningly casual but comes across, too often, as dead weight.

Case in point: June 24. "The Daily Show" found blistering topical comedy in a Rolling Stone report alleging credit rating agencies took payouts to allow banks to get away with risky financial dealings before the economic collapse.

It culled old footage (why can't network news be as sharp about combing through archives, holding people responsible for what they've said and done, as "The Daily Show" is?) of Al Franken explaining a political cartoon to his fellow senators, with Oliver noting that the Minnesota Democrat "has cracked the code on how to talk to senators - as though they were 6-year-old children." It savaged the TV financial analysts who pretended not to understand an amendment Franken had introduced.

Then it followed it up with a field report on how Canada's highly regulated banking system has been so much more stable over the decades than that of the U.S., with our much freer markets. While this may sound in recap like the opinion page, you can look it up online to see how funny it all became on air. And it was a deeper, richer humor because it was rooted in uncomfortable truths about the world. When the other shows get political, it's not to tell us that our politicians and bankers are failing us in profound ways; it's to make fun, yet again, of John Boehner's skin tone.

Colbert goes after that same level of truth-telling, but he wraps it, to great effect, in more delirium and goofiness. Yes, he is playing a character - dim-bulb right-wing host Stephen Colbert - and so he has license to be a little giddy, but it's also a looser tone he sets. Where Stewart and team manage to be very funny en route to their goal of making a point, occasionally landing on the side of sanctimony, Colbert's first goal is being funny.

But then Colbert's recent "The Word" essay was an expertly crafted takedown of the trend in media to ask viewers for their opinions and then reflect them right back at people. "We report what you decided" is the new mantra, he said. It's not just humor; it's cutting-edge media criticism. It's comedy with flesh on its bones, with a point of view about the bigger world.

You can argue that I'm comparing apples and oranges, but that's the point. The orange has come along, and while it is still a fruit, it's made that old, mealy apple not worth the trouble it would take to chew. Whether there are more apples than ever, and what their current and future arrangements in the fruit bowl might be, just doesn't matter very much.

You, late-night host, will be right back, as people in your line of work are fond of saying. I'm already gone.

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