I’ve been away for a while. I’ve just finished my Great Craig Ferguson YouTube Binge, which immediately followed my Great David Letterman YouTube Binge, both of which ran alongside my Great Conan O’Brien YouTube Binge. It’s been a few years. Thousands of hours, thousands of episodes, dozens of jokes. (Ba-dum bum!)
There have been many late night hosts. Some have been great, some good. None have been bad, but some have been mediocre, which is much worse. A terrible performer has character. A bland one doesn’t. Awful is exponentially preferable to dull. But those are the big three for me: Dave, Conan, and Craig.
Dave was deeply formative for me. I can easily relive the night I first saw his show. It was June of 1995. My school had an end-of-the-year pool party at the rec center. I was a fat boy in thick glasses with long, greasy hair down to the middle of my back who couldn’t swim. Add in my anxiety and the endless awkwardness that is puberty and that night was abysmal. I went home depressed and exhausted, ready to climb into a hole and pull the dirt over me.
Then I turned on the television and saw this gap-toothed weirdo sending the guys from the gift shop down the street on a trip around the country for no reason. They were clearly not performers, just two dudes. This was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Some of Steve Martin’s bits on old Saturday Night Lives that I’d caught might have shared the deconstruction of what a show ought to be, but that’s it. This was exciting. It wasn’t a scripted sketch. It should be a disaster, but it wasn’t.
Well, actually, it was. Which is how it succeeded.
Mujibur and Sirajul weren’t performers. Or travel experts. Or any kind of specialist. They ran a shop in the neighborhood, so Letterman put them on the show. Why not? If it worked, great! If it didn’t work, even better. That’s how his show went.
Dave didn’t just deconstruct television; he dismantled it. The Top Ten Lists had purposefully bad jokes added in to the mix of good ones. Remote pieces featured Rupert from the Hello Deli giving platters of meat as prizes to random people on the street for getting questions wrong. Psychics came on and failed in their predictions. A chimp ran around with a Monkey-Cam on its back. Calvert DeForest, god bless him, was not a good actor, and his segments as himself or as Larry “Bud” Melman were never polished or professional. Whether he was unable to get through “The Night Before Christmas” because the props people gave him a book in German, saying his lines over Dave’s because the rhythm was interrupted, or doing a lousy job copying Jack LaLanne’s exercises, it always fell apart, and we always loved it and loved Calvert for trying. He wasn’t a good actor, but he made up for it in heart.
In the end, that’s what Dave’s show was. Everyone we saw (barring Paul and the band) was an unpolished Jack or Jane. One of the writers, someone from the crew, someone off the street, a local businessman. Or maybe a cameo from someone like Paul Newman (but more likely, Tony Randall). It was as if it were you or I doing it. We rooted for them, as we hoped they would root for us if we were on stage instead of at our desk or cash register or utility van. The other shows looked like Vegas. Dave’s looked like him: a goofball from Indianapolis.
I think Dave really wanted to be able to pull off the Johnny Carson Tonight Show. His NBC show never looked comfortable. I don’t think he settled into his own skin until he moved to CBS. Maybe he finally accepted that he wasn’t Johnny, that he was his own person. Maybe it was the flattery and approval of a rival network backing up a dumptruck full of money. Who knows? But I think he grew as a host every year, right up to the end (though he always says he stayed too long).
Conan came next, and while he was visibly nervous at first, he and his writers made it their mission from day one to be their own entity, trying to stay out of anyone’s shadow. They grew up on Dave and distilled his approach (which he says came from Steve Allen) into an aggressively odd show.
They thought up the worst characters imaginable, like the FedEx Pope, Preparation-H Raymond, and Andy’s crazed little sister with a crush on Conan. They had concepts that were absurd even for late night, like Conan’s desk driving around because he held a steering wheel, trying to compete with radio stations’ Rocktober with Spocktober and French President Jacques Chiractober, and a crazed madman whose sole purpose is to interrupt Conan to finish his sentences. Then they made those recurring segments, because why would anyone put that on television? It was (and still is) brilliant.
While Dave made a joke of a segment’s poor execution, Conan made a joke of a segment’s dumb concept. It had no chance of being quality entertainment. It was doomed to be stupid, which made it spectacular.
Dave and Conan differ in many ways, but one shared quality, and the one that provided the foundation for their success, is that when something fell apart, it became comedy gold. It’s also the best part of Carson if you go back and watch — not the sketches or smooth interviews, but the failures that Carson reacts to. With Carson, we delighted in the surprise that Mr. Comedy screwed up. With Dave and Conan, we delighted that this somehow got on a network. As Dave liked to say, “This is the only thing on CBS right now.”
Dave also became America’s comedy conscience after 9/11. He started going beyond taking potshots at the politicians of the week and standing up for what’s right. He would wave it aside as the impotent rambling of an old man, but he had a large platform and used it to say something real.
Conan does this too, with his Conan Without Borders specials, where he goes to other countries and mostly listens. He makes sure he’s the butt of every joke, the clueless white guy from America. The locals show their knowledge, ability, and culture. There’s also a lot of kindness and laughter because who doesn’t love a goofy guy? But the spotlight is on the country’s people. We see that they’re not so strange, even if our politicians don’t get along with theirs. We see ourselves in them, which makes it much more difficult to feel hatred. It’s Mr. Rogers disguised as The Three Stooges.
And then there’s Craig.
Dave dropped the pretense of show biz polish. Conan set things up to fall apart. Craig abandoned any planning whatsoever.
He consistently veered away from the monologue. He tore up the blue cards before his interviews so he wouldn’t have any notes to consult. He had no sidekick until he joked about a skeleton robot army, which prompted Grant Imahara (RIP) from Mythbusters to build him a gay robot skeleton sidekick with a metallic mohawk. He didn’t even have a band. None of the trappings of a talk show. All he had was his wits. And sometimes hand puppets.
With no safety net, Craig had honest conversations. Sure, they were usually very silly, but they came by it honestly. He made fun of hosts who looked at cards and asked, “So, I hear you got a new house!” He would suddenly switch into Television Host Mode just long enough to ask about a guest’s new movie and then lean back and return to whatever they were talking about, whether it was sex toys or existentialism.
Sometimes guests were initially uncomfortable with the plan being ripped up and thrown away in front of them. But they soon came around. A genial chat with a clever wit (who likes a good double entendre) is enough to help just about anyone relax, and relaxing opens the mind to playful and/or insightful conversation, which is all anyone wants from interviews. No one tunes in to find out what day and time someone’s sitcom is on, even if that’s the stated purpose of interviews.
You can’t point to many segments with Craig, because they were barely segments. They were Craig answering emails (or more often not answering them), Craig giving advice as Aquaman for some reason, celebrity guests trying to win a Big Cash Prize, and ringing a doorbell so the pantomime horse Secretariat would come dancing through the studio. It ran on id. Fun for the sake of fun. Interviews constantly ran long and he mocked the idea of having sponsors as he threw to commercial breaks. Even on nights when it followed a format, it remained unpredictable.
Craig was also very open about the drug addiction and alcoholism in his past. He‘d say he went for a drink in 1979 and checked into rehab in 1992 and in between is fuzzy. Dave got more and more candid about his alcoholism, too. He quit drinking shortly into his run on Late Night. Those demonstrations that one can not just get by without partaking, but thrive, were an inspiration to many, myself included.
Conan has also gotten more open recently, but for him it’s about his mental health. He and Andy Richter both have talked about their struggles with anxiety and/or depression, therapy, and medication. Any time a public figure is open about mental health, it takes a little bit more of the stigma away from something that was until very recently met with deep shame. I think therapy is for everyone and we should all go every six months for a checkup, just like the doctor and dentist. And just like them, if there’s something concerning, come back for more work. It’s a good message for us all, and then there’s funny jokes on top.
So those are the three hosts that matter the most to me. None of them are perfect. Dave had affairs with employees, Craig did an Indian accent sometimes, and Conan…well, okay, Conan might be perfect. But those are the three that make me want to keep going and do better. They show that we ought to stop trying to follow the templates of success and make a new thing that we’d like to see in the world.
Life is short and there’s no report card at the end. When you die, you don’t get bonus points for having a nicer house or a higher credit score. No one is remembered for being great at following trends. What matters is trying to make things better; making people happier; kindness and compassion; plotting one’s own course. If you don’t like how something is, make something new. Why not?
Whenever I rewatch the finales of Dave and Craig’s shows, I’m overwhelmed with glee seeing my favorite thing done by the best. It’s a reminder that though most of what we see on the news or in the job listings or on the internet is drab and gray, there is a lot of life out there that’s messy and wild and silly and honest and stupid and brilliant and fun, and it’s all there because someone like you or I wondered what it would be like to make it.
There are a million comedians doing new things right now. Some will find success. Most will quit. Many will stick around while working a day job to pay the bills. Dave kicked in doors so we could see what was possible, and Conan and Craig knocked down the surrounding walls so we’d never accidentally close them again. There are many, many others without spotlights on them who did a lot of heavy lifting, but those are the three we all saw in our homes, reminding us that there’s more to life than timesheets and homework.
Right now, I’m making two funny podcasts with my friend and slowly writing two books while working a day job. I’m also on antidepressants and sober. I’m drawing again for the first time in years.
I’m looking at my work and trying to make it how I want it to be, not what I think will attract an audience. No one wants another mediocre guy trying to be liked. I’m tearing up my cards, leaning back in my chair, and laughing my butt off.