CNN digs into late-night TV history in newest series ‘The Story of Late Night’

CNN's "The Story of Late Night" features huge gobs of Johnny Carson (with his sidekick here Ed McMahon) because Carson dominated the late-night scene for 30 years. Courtesy: CNN
CNN's "The Story of Late Night" features huge gobs of Johnny Carson (with his sidekick here Ed McMahon) because Carson dominated the late-night scene for 30 years. Courtesy: CNN

Credit: CNN

Credit: CNN

The six-part series covers seven decades including the infamous Leno/Letterman flap

Late-night TV has been American comfort food for seven decades.

CNN, with help from longtime New York Times TV journalist and bestselling author Bill Carter (”The Late Shift,” “The War for Late Night”), is coming out with a six-episode historical review called “The Story of Late Night” debuting Sunday, May 2 at 9 p.m.

The series starts with the anarchic, improvisational Steve Allen on NBC’s “Tonight” in the 1950s, developing show elements copied or modified by later hosts such as Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Jay Leno. Jack Paar invented the monologue and added the guest couch. The series then tracks the three-decade supremacy of Carson and efforts by rivals (e.g. Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Joan Rivers) to steal his audience.

It features the infamous battle for Carson’s seat in the early 1990s between Leno and Letterman, the arrival of political humor with Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and the Leno/Conan O’Brien succession debacle in the late 2000s. The sixth episode explores the diversity and expansion of voices in late-night the past decade, including Desus + Mero, Hasan Minhaj and Trevor Noah.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently spoke with Carter about the series:

The continuing appeal of late-night TV talk shows: “You would think it would fade. There are so many versions of it now, and the audiences have splintered. What hasn’t changed is the association with this form that people connect with. They get to know a certain host. It’s late at night. This type of entertainment is on while you clear your head from whatever happened that day. It’s a very uniquely American institution that has had enormous impact. Everyone has been on these shows. Plus, it’s fun. We get to air a lot of funny clips. The funny thing is other countries have tried late-night shows like this, but it rarely works.”

So many interviews: Carter talked to a host of luminaries, including Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien and Trevor Noah. “Conan gave us four hours,” he said. “I was there when NBC introduced Conan to the world. Nobody knew who he was. His career has been remarkable.” He was also grateful to 84-year-old Cavett, who competed with Carson in the early 1970s, and provided Carter great insights for the series. Billy Crystal offered perspective as a frequent guest. Carter got no’s from Letterman and Stewart, which is not surprising, but Leno also declined, Carter said, out of deference to Letterman. But it didn’t matter much. Carter has written two bestselling books about late-night TV, so he had plenty of previous material to use.

The power of Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992: “He’s by far the biggest figure in late-night history. No one can touch him. He had the biggest audiences, the biggest impact. He made his show a national event every night. He stands alone at the top.

Breaking comics: Carson was the place for standups from Roseanne Barr to Jerry Seinfeld to break their careers. He effectively anointed Letterman. The series interviews Paul Reiser, Ray Romano and Byron Allen (now the owner of The Weather Channel), as well as George Lopez, about their “Tonight Show” debuts. Lopez said his hands seized up before he got on stage, he was so paralyzed with fear. “I’ve been incarcerated,” Lopez said. “I don’t think anything was as frightening as walking through that curtain on ‘The Tonight Show.’”

Politicization of late-night: Carter said Donald Trump’s presidency emboldened modern talk-show hosts to be more sharply opinionated, notably Kimmel. “To many of them,” Carter said, “it was too important for the country. So they let it all fly. The comedy was coming from the craziness and menace of it all. It’s funny that people say it was the White House Correspondents’ Dinner where Seth Meyers picked on Trump that was supposedly the impetus for his presidency.”

The diversification of late-night in recent years: “It’s finally opening up. There were plenty of funny women over the years that could have hosted a show, but when Joan Rivers failed in the 1990s, people were convinced you couldn’t have a woman. Arsenio Hall worked for a while but then went away. There was this mindset that people of color and women would split the audience too much. Now, the TV audience is so fragmented you can have a ‘Desus & Mero’ on Showtime.” The pandemic pushed back the CNN series and enabled Carter to speak to more people including Amber Ruffin: “When I first interviewed her as a writer for Seth Meyers on my podcast, I was impressed. She was funny and charming. In the back of my head, I thought she could host her own show. I didn’t suggest it, but soon enough, NBC got the same idea. She now has a show on Peacock.”

Bonus podcast: Carter wanted to explore different elements of late-night that weren’t so chronological, so he developed a podcast “Behind the Desk: The Story of Late Night.” “We used some of the snippets from the TV series, but most of the podcast are original interviews,” he said.


“The Story of Late Night,” debuting at 9 p.m. Sunday, May 2 on CNN

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