Viral Failure: How the Internet Killed Late-Night Comedy

Comedy Features

In the year 2000, YouTube was a collection of VHS tapes in our basement. Facebook was hanging out with my older brother and watching those tapes which, in our case, mostly held episodes of Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Twitter consisted of retelling monologue jokes at dinner. And in those halcyon days, my favorite “YouTube” video was the staring contest from Andy Richter’s then-final show with Conan.

The conceit of those old Late Night staring contests was that Conan and Andy would have to maintain eye contact while bizarre or shocking sketches played out behind them. Usually, the distractions were only visible to Andy and he always broke first. Not only was the final staring contest Andy’s first and only win, it was also, in my view, the show’s magnum opus: seven minutes of delightfully absurd, refreshingly unpolished, and completely silent sketch comedy.

Watching it again on the real YouTube, it’s still legendary. Conan and Andy work the crowd with their facial expressions alone. The sketches showcase the experimental energy of a Late Night writers’ room that was completely unafraid to try out weird ideas and make bad visual puns. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder than I did when a pirate with a squawking parrot on his shoulder walked out behind Conan, followed quickly by the inverse: a man in a parrot costume with a tiny pirate on his shoulder that squealed “Aye, matey! Aye, matey!” Huddled in our basement, my brother and I would rewind and replay the sketch over and over again, and the parrot part never stopped being funny.

At the risk of sounding like a grandma, there would be no room for a bit like that staring contest in today’s late-night landscape. It’s too high-concept to be summed up in an attention-grabbing headline, it contains a grand total of zero celebrities, and it’s not pegged to any particular piece of pop culture. Looking back on those Late Night staring contests now, they have more in common with the original Tonight Show’s “Crazy Shots” segments, in which host Steve Allen would provide piano accompaniment for a series of silly silent sketches, than they do with anything you’d see on TV today.

That’s remarkable, really: the thought that late-night comedy in 2000 might be more at home in the mid-twentieth century than it would be now, not even two decades later, in 2015. For a product of the late ‘80s like myself, it’s tempting to think that late-night hasn’t changed all that much in my lifetime—otherwise, I’d feel like I’m getting older. But something has fundamentally and rapidly altered the late-night landscape, and it’s not hard to identify a likely culprit: the Internet.

In the year 2015, YouTube is mostly comprised of Jimmy Fallon playing stupid party games with celebrities. My Facebook feed is full of articles linking to videos of late-night hosts “tackling” or “breaking down” the social issue du jour. Twitter is where I am constantly entreated to listen to every host’s take on X, Y or Z. Late-night comedy now comes prepackaged in segments built for a never-ending digital media cycle. It’s like a Kit Kat bar—bland but easily shareable. If it’s true that the medium is the message, then the Internet has transformed late-night comedy into a homogenous mass of videos whose universal underlying message is “click on me.”

That’s not to say that late-night talk shows aren’t watchable anymore. They are. The problem is that lately, that’s all they are. Stephen Colbert, once hailed as the next great late-night innovator, has settled comfortably into the format’s familiar patterns. Seth Meyers gave the monologue a sporting try before taking a seat and doing a nightly Weekend Update routine. And if you count Colbert and Meyers, who both devote an inordinate amount of time to the news, there are currently at least five comedy shows on the air in which men dissect current events with graphics while sitting behind a desk. Five. They’re amusing, even informative, but also depressingly fleeting—even more so than nightly programs should be.

Fifteen years from now, I’ll have no desire to dig up an old episode of Late-night with Seth Meyers and hear what he had to say about Planned Parenthood. Ryan Reynolds getting soaked with a squirt gun isn’t going to do anything for me when I’m in my 40s, nor will celebrities reading nasty things people said about them online.

I know that viewing habits have changed, that broadcast television is dying, and that online videos are quickly filling the void left by late-night’s failure to survive the Internet era intact. The death of late-night isn’t the death of comedy. I’m open to the possibility that, just as I didn’t understand the appeal of reality television fifteen years ago but am now a reluctant Bachelor addict, I need to give in to the ephemerality of today’s late-night shows. My nostalgia isn’t enough to justify the preservation of late-night’s golden age.

But I honestly suspect that this is more than just a generational gap or a shift in the economics of entertainment. It’s a genuine creative crisis. Do today’s late-nights hosts want to entertain for an evening or do they want to build something long-lasting in the process? Letterman did topical Top Ten lists, yes, but when he retired in May, we could also reflect on his legacy of remote segments, stupid human tricks, and irreverent comedy. He produced something memorable while simultaneously managing the nightly duties of riffing on current events. When Jimmy Fallon retires in some distant Jetsons future, NBC might as well replace him with a lip-syncing android that can read tweets and plays air hockey with movie stars.

As it stands, it’s concerning that some of the most timeless late-night comedy is happening on the lowest-rated of the traditional late-night talk shows: Conan. Unlike the other hosts, O’Brien still regularly does silly sketches and films elaborate remotes, even in places like Cuba and, most recently, Armenia. He’s still making stuff that’s built to last. In 2030, Taco Bell will still exist—I hope—and it will still be funny to watch a childish redheaded Irishman tour their headquarters and make a corned beef taco. And that parrot with a pirate on its shoulder? It’ll still get me every time.

The darkest irony in all of this is that the Internet is now the only way I’m able to relive the golden age of late-night comedy. Those VHS tapes in my childhood basement got thrown out a long time ago because someone out there rescued Andy’s last episode and posted it online. YouTube is how I remember that era, and how I connect with the eras I don’t remember. It’s how I fell in love with a younger Letterman and learned who Johnny Carson even was. It’s almost insulting for that material to only be accessible on a platform that’s largely responsible for its obsolescence.

Call it a joke, albeit a cruel one: The same technology that preserved late-night also killed it.

May Saunders is a professional dog walker living in Minneapolis and an occasional freelance writer. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her cat, who does not need to be walked. Follow her on Twitter.

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