My favorite late-night monologue of all-time came from the brilliant minds of Comedy Bang Bang, in the Cobie Smulders episode. Scott Aukerman and crew decided to move toward a more traditional late-night format, and that included the stand-up monologue to start the show. Aukerman, in all his awkward glory, strode out on stage to great applause, contorted his body in a series of pointless dance moves, a la Conan O’Brien, and delivered jokes like these:
“Did you hear about this? Here’s something! Lindsay Lohan is in the news again! Apparently she’s in trouble with the law! I don’t know, she’s been punished more severely than the seat of Kim Kardashian’s 501s!”
(For the record, it’s killing me that there’s no video of this. Aukerman’s moves are really something to behold.)
The entire episode was a send-up of the stale late-night format (his first question to Smulders, after agonizing about the pressure to say something meaningful: “How do you balance work and family?”), but the monologue was my favorite bit of satire precisely because it’s the worst, most annoying part of an actual late-night episode. And he skewered it perfectly.
That’s the point: It needs skewering. Even better, it needs to be gone. I’m sure, like many comedic tropes, the stand-up monologue it was revolutionary and effective when it was invented. That’s great, but tradition doesn’t justify its continued existence. Think of every late night host you enjoy(ed), and name the thing you like most about them. Here’s my list:
Conan: The sketches, the interview style.
Letterman: The undercurrent of hilarious cynicism, top ten lists.
Kimmel: The pranks, combined with an obvious misanthropy.
I’m not a Fallon fan, but if you asked his supporters, they’d probably tell you his positivity and the participatory sketches are the main selling point. As for Leno, well…nobody likes Leno. But for the few 89-year-olds who miss him, it was probably a sense of safety and decorum that attracted them, and not the monologue.
The list above is just my perspective, but the point is that I’ve never heard anyone talk about monologues as the highlight of any late-night show. At this point, it’s the late-night equivalent of a laugh track—it’s awkward, a little patronizing, and painfully unfunny.
I understand I’m saying this as a pretty bones-deep comedy fan, and that there may be viewers out there in the world who love tuning in to hear their nightly dose of Lohan/Kardashian jokes. And maybe those people justify the ongoing existence of the opening stand-up monologue.
But here’s a thoughtful counterpoint: Screw them. Bad comedy should be discouraged at every turn, and the monologue is almost always bad comedy.
Which brings us to Seth Meyers. He got his job at Late Night because of his skill as the Weekend Update co-host on SNL. He’s consistently struggled with the stand-up portion of his show since he began in February 2014, so last night, he went back to what he does best: Making smart jokes from behind a desk (complete with graphics in the upper-left corner). Watch:
Actually funny, right?
Meyers gave no indication as to whether this was a permanent change or just a trial-and-error process, but I hope it’s the start of a revolution. The format has been holding late night hosts back for years, and if there’s any comedic justice in the world, the stand-up monologue will go the way of the laugh track—deader than dead on any show worth watching.
UPDATE: Read more about Seth Meyers’ decision to scrap the traditional late-night monologue in this New York Times interview.