The Evolution of Late Night

Question: How has the Late Show kept up with a culture in which former taboos are now commonplace?

Bill Scheft: So, I’ve been at the Letterman Show since 1991, that’s 18 years. I would say, during that time, the comedic sensibility of the show has changed half a dozen times because Dave has gotten older, but the average age of the average writer had stayed the same, so they bring in their sensibilities on what they think is funny, and they try and interject it in the show.

So the show’s comedic sensibility changes, and it’s all valid. We don’t write anything and think, “Oh I need to write this joke to appeal to the crucial male, 18 to 34 demographic.” We don’t think like that, at least I don’t. I just think, “What’s the funniest take that I can do?”

Sometimes I think that things have passed me because I’m older and the people watching are younger, but funny is funny is funny. If you show somebody a Marx Brothers Movie who’s never seen one, I think that they’ll think it’s funny. I don’t think they’re going to ask, “Why isn’t Groucho naked? I want to see Groucho’s deal!”

Question: How has late night comedy changed in general?

Bill Scheft: Late Night has really changed in the last three decades. First of all, there’s more variety and more competition. Before 1982, there was Johnny Carson and people that he knocked off. All of Late Night was Carson, and it was a monologue, some sort of bawdy, broad comedy aimed at people over 30—white men over 30.

Then, Dave came along in 1982 and NBC gave Dave Letterman one directive: whatever you do, we want it not to be the Tonight Show. We want a 3 joke monologue, not a 25 joke monologue.

Given that go ahead, it was very free flowing, it was irony-based, and it was, as the old producer Bob Morton used to say, “Late Night with Dave Letterman celebrated failure.” It was not sleek, it was very anarchistic.

Then, you have Dave moving to CBS at 11:30 and you have this situation with Jay, where you had one show that was host driven and concept driven—which is Dave—and another show—which is Jay—who was just essentially just a comic who got his own show: a monologue and guest, a little more traditional.

And then you had the 12:30 shows with Conan. David started this with going after the younger audiences—people always say, “I started watching Dave in college.” So there was a real market out there, and like I mentioned before, Late Night became this very lucrative industry for the networks, very cheap to produce.

Of course, once people start making money, it’s going to tend to get watered down and it’s not going to be as fearless because there are a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on your success. It’s not just kids crawling around anymore.

Then, what happened in the late 90s is that cable emerged as a late night force, with the Daily Show Steve Colbert, and it was much more topical. Not that the Letterman Show didn’t always take care of what was in the news, and so did Jay—but it became more topical and more issue-oriented, and I think we’ve certainly gone in that direction at The Late Show. So that’s the evolution of that.

Now, I think that if I was to predict—and believe me I’m always wrong so put your money elsewhere—I think we’re going to reach a critical mass with the topicality thing because I think it’s going to get a little too partisan and late night shows are going to be put in a situation that they shouldn’t be put in, unbeknownst to them. I think it’s probably going to go back to being a little sillier and less celebrity driven and easier to take unless “foe” serious. You look at the guy like Craig Ferguson and watch what he is doing. Nobody is doing what he is doing, and I think he will emerge. He is silly, it’s all him. The guests don’t really have to say anything. He is going to take care of it. I think that’s where we’re going.

Question: What do you make of comedy’s newfound political influence?

I don’t think that Johnny ever dreamed that he would influence an election. He never talked about Watergate when Watergate was going on. He talked about it after the fact, but now Tina Fey had as much to do with the last election as Dave did, with the situation with McCain, as the Daily Show also does.

That’s where we are with these shows—and none of these shows set out to influence elections, but that’s what happens. They’re right in the popular culture.

I never bought all those studies and surveys about people getting their news from late night television, and I still don’t, but I don’t think that people turn to late night television to see what the point of view is on the news. I think they know going in. I don’t think we’re in the education business.

Here’s the deal with society, how about that? For Big Think, here’s the deal with society. People fall in love with the idea of things rather than the reality of things, and that holds true for late night. It’s so much more provocative and sexy to say that people are watching our show and getting their news from Dave Letterman, and let me tell you—as somebody who writes monologue jokes and somebody who knows Dave—I’m telling you we find that very funny.


Bill Scheft doubts the political influence of Late Night comedy.

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