Was it really as simple as getting rid of Jay Leno?
For the longest time, late-night television was a battlefield. Beginning with Johnny Carson’s retirement in 1992—which set up the Leno/Letterman divide that would define the landscape for two decades—and best epitomized by the disastrous 2009 Tonight Show handover and subsequent takeback from Conan O’Brien, late-night has always been a bloody zero-sum conflict that inflated every minor change to the equation into a major tectonic shift.
NBC so bungled the Leno/O’Brien transition that when rumors began to emerge in early 2013 that the last-place network was planning to push top-rated Leno out for good and hand the keys to the Tonight Show to the younger, cooler Jimmy Fallon, another fiasco seemed inevitable. While the whispers grew, Leno fanned the flames on his show, making jokes about being knifed in the back by NBC execs. No one thought he would go quietly, and his critics, late-night rivals, and the other networks waited gleefully for another wave of schadenfreude.
Recall how his rivals had mercilessly and cruelly sniped at him when he kicked O’Brien to the curb following the failed experiment of O’Brien at 11:30 and Leno at 10. Recall how Jimmy Kimmel brandished his contempt, lampooning Leno for an entire episode of his own ABC show and then “sucker-punching” him to his face (via video) when he was inexplicably invited on the Tonight Show for a make-nice. Recall the delight that Letterman took night after night, razzing the guy who’d won the job he’d wanted more than any other in the world. Recall how Fox and other network players stood waiting with the tempting offer of building a top-rated show around Leno that would immediately stick it to NBC.
The trainwreck never happened. In a charmed transition, NBC emerged not only unscathed but ascendent, with Fallon setting the tone for a new round of late-night musical chairs notable only for its lack of chaos and acrimony. Even in hindsight, it seems slightly miraculous that Fallon would immediately transform the creaky 60-year-old Tonight Show into a dynamic juggernaut. Leno was a proven ratings winner, but creatively, he and David Letterman sometimes seemed like the final caretakers of a TV tradition that had finally run out of gas in the modern age of the Internet and DVR viewing.
Leno officially said goodbye on Feb. 6, with an emotional farewell that was treated in a very obligatory manner by an unsentimental media, which was still wrestling with Leno’s legacy after 22 years. (Conan O’Brien got in one final dig.) Fallon hit the ground running, attracting a more youthful—and advertiser friendly—audience with star-studded videos that became instant viral hits. Some industry observers had anticipated that the Tonight Show would take an initial hit in the ratings, allowing Letterman to reclaim the late-night crown, but Fallon surprised everyone by taking NBC to new heights.
Fallon’s immediate strength may have had something to do with Letterman’s decision in April to plan his own exit strategy after 21 years at CBS. Trailing the new guy, he announced his plans to retire in 2015, setting off an initial flurry of speculation that at least evoked the frenzy that followed Carson’s abdication. After all, NBC at least had a succession plan in place, with Fallon simply getting bumped up to the varsity from Late Night. CBS had their own 12:30 guy in Craig Ferguson, but few considered him the obvious guy-in-waiting. Kimmel acknowledged that he’d at least answer the phone if the call came to replace his idol. Leno, of all people, was mentioned as the perfect replacement, especially for CBS’ reliable, gray-haired viewers. Conan, alive and kicking at TBS, seemed like a karmic candidate to replace the man he once followed at the Late Show. And Jon Stewart, in the midst of renegotiating with Comedy Central, was positioned to take his high-powered act to network. This had all the makings of a classic late-night cluster-eff.
In an EW readers poll asking readers who should replace Letterman, conducted the day after he announced his plans to retire, Stephen Colbert finished a distant 10th, behind Neil Patrick Harris and Amy Poehler. But just one week after Letterman’s announcement, CBS announced that Colbert—who plays a buffoonish conservative character on The Colbert Report—would shed that popular guise and “play” himself as the new host of the Late Show. Some lamented the addition of yet another white male to the late-night club. Others sniffed that CBS had dissed Craig Ferguson, who subsequently announced plans to leave the network. But the chorus of protest never grew beyond a few voices; CBS had snuffed out any controversy before the contest to replace Letterman could get too much oxygen.
The swift and (so-far) successful transitions at NBC and CBS allowed for the other late-night dominoes to fall in a similar pain-free manner. Seth Meyers followed Fallon’s path from Saturday Night Live to Late Night. CBS tagged relatively unknown James Corden to replace the exiting Ferguson, and Comedy Central turned to Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore to fill the void at 11:30. Chelsea Handler, who was mentioned as a possibility for both CBS and Comedy Central, took her show to Netflix.
Colbert and Ferguson will sign off this month, and Letterman recently announced that his final show will be in May 2015. The landscape has already changed significantly, but the young guns have breathed new life into the old late-night model. Fallon, O’Brien, and Jimmy Kimmel’s ratings are all up this season compared to last year. Stewart and Colbert are actually down, but throw in the addition of John Oliver’s new HBO show, Last Week Tonight, which became a Monday-morning must-see on YouTube, and late-night television suddenly seems to be alive and relevant again.
But what might be the most important change in late night is a perception that all the major players seem to view each other as colleagues rather than blood rivals. It’s an unabashed mutual-admiration society. Stewart and Colbert have a Daily Show history, of course. But the entire gang not only seems to look forward to what the other will do next—they actually seem to enjoy one another’s company. Remember in 2008, when O’Brien, Stewart, and Colbert squared off in a take-no-prisoners battle royale? Remember in 2012, when Fallon and Colbert playfully tackled Stewart at the Emmys? Remember how new guy Oliver got Stewart, Fallon, Meyers, Colbert—and everyone’s idol, Letterman—to catch a salmon fired out of cannon?
For so long, late-night television felt like a bitter feud, if not an outright war. Fair or not, Leno may have been the lightning rod, often uniting his underdog rivals but also bringing out a meanness that many found distasteful. But with the old soldiers gone or leaving, an unprecedented spirit of camaraderie has changed the game. What could’ve been an entertainment earthquake with multiple aftershocks barely registered on the scale, setting the stage for a new golden age of peace and prosperity in late-night television. All is well.