Watching The Larry Sanders Show for the first time years after it aired was revelatory for a couple of reasons. That show is so goddamn good that it would resonate with a teenage comedy nerd just for holding up so well, but it’s also a bizarre little time capsule of what ‘90s show business was like in a way that’s hard to ignore. You could watch Larry Sanders from space in 2099 and still recognize ego as ego, but when Tom Snyder or Joan Rivers swing by to plug their new talk show to Larry’s audience, even the most pop culture savvy TV fan would be forgiven for thinking “I have no idea what this is referencing.” So, by way of memorializing the fallen heroes of the Late Night Wars, here are some late night talk shows we have completely forgotten about, sorry.
There was a small boom in the early 2010s of talk shows being given to interesting people that were cancelled before their time. The Pete Holmes Show certainly qualifies, as does Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. But neither of those shows is the kind of perfect example of talk show hubris that Brand X was. Known primarily by Archer fans fast-forwarding through commercials, Brand X was initially just twenty-two minutes of Russell Brand slinking his way through riffs on the news in a kind of open ended monologue. Though eventually Brand integrated other segments, found a more appropriate sidekick in the form of former Sex Pistol Steve Jones and somehow got the show expanded to an hour, it was not enough for FX, who canned it almost immediately after its final episode.
A lot of shows tried to capitalize on the sudden popularity and even more sudden cancellation of The Arsenio Hall Show, but none more transparently than Vibe. Created by Quincy Jones as a spin-off of his magazine of the same name, Vibe tried to re-capture Arsenio’s most iconic episode by having Bill Clinton as the guest for the pilot. Facing immediate competition from the similarly short-lived Keenan Ivory Wayans Show while dealing with the media’s insistence on comparing any two shows with black hosts, Vibe upped its game by replacing host Chris Spencer with the more charismatic Sinbad, but only managed to air twenty-eight episodes before being cancelled with little fanfare in 1998.
The pre-Carson years of The Tonight Show are often unfairly lumped together, despite Steve Allen and Jack Paar’s individual and respected tenures as hosts, each giving birth to elements of the late night show that define the form even today. What we don’t remember at all is the brief, brief, briefest of moments in 1957 when, after Allen and Ernie Kovacs left The Tonight Show, NBC tried to reboot the whole thing as a late night spin on Today with an infinitely clumsier title, which managed to burn through three bands and two hosts in less than a year (one of them with the nickname “Jazzbo”). Obviously, everyone hated it, and with enough affiliates dropping the show altogether, NBC brought on Jack Paar to bring back the old format and save the day, which he did.
We certainly haven’t forgotten the kerfuffle this show caused, but we do forget how pointless and dumb this whole thing was in the first place. For any avid Paste readers ages six and under, Jay Leno retired from his terrible incarnation of The Tonight Show, passed it on to Conan O’Brien, and then basically started up his old show again as an hour-long product placement parade at 10 PM so NBC could save money on expensive scripted dramas. The fallout from the decision to move Leno back to 11:35 and bump The Tonight Show to 12:05 after NBC’s money-saving tactic backfired was wide-spread and well documented, and completely overshadowed the qualities of the new Leno show itself, which were few and far between.
Whether you prefer Jon Stewart’s Daily Show or Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, I promise that you aren’t even thinking to consider Craig Kilborn’s Daily Show. Lasting less than two years before Stewart took over and guided the project in a more politically-minded direction, Kilborn’s tenure at The Daily Show was an ill-conceived attempt to ape Politically Incorrect’s shitty attitude. The whole thing was so mean-spirited, marred specifically by Kilborn’s sexist treatment of the female staff and co-creator Lizz Winstead, that Stephen Colbert later said the experience made you want to “take your soul off, put it on a wire hanger, and leave it in a closet” before going and doing a piece for Kilborn. Well, the lionized Stewart years have effectively wiped Kilborn’s show from our collective cultural memory. Kilborn would go on to play a similar role on The Late Late Show, greasing the wheels for someone else to come in and make something more memorable.
No, not that one. I’m talking about Fox’s various attempts in its early years to get in on the late night market with immediate diminishing returns. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was actually the first show to air on Fox, a move that made sense, considering Rivers’s success as the permanent guest host of Carson’s Tonight Show and NBC’s snub of Rivers as a possible replacement. Carson’s perceived betrayal by Rivers when he heard she was going to Fox was so intense that he never spoke to her again—it was some real King Lear shit. Rivers was replaced by Buck Henry in 1987 (her husband and co-producer Edgar Rosenberg tragically committed suicide a few months later), who was replaced by Arsenio (his first time hosting), who was replaced by Ross Shafer before Fox gave up. The whole thing was a disaster, but Rivers at least made the comeback she deserved in daytime.
Fox’s initial attempt to replace Joan Rivers with Howard Stern as the host of The Late Show sparked the first of Stern’s misadventures in the world of TV. Fox produced five separate one hour pilots for The Howard Stern Show without picking any of them up. Stern did get the next best thing, a show from Secaucus, New Jersey’s WWOR that ran for two short seasons. Stern’s next shots came in the form of E!’s half-hour Dick Cavett-style one-on-one show called The Howard Stern Interview, and then CBS’s bizarrely titled The Howard Stern Radio Show, which they intended to go head to head with SNL but instead lost two-thirds of its affiliates in less than three years. Even his most successful venture—the 2000-plus episode Howard Stern—is just a filmed version of the radio show, and the follow-ups Howard TV and Howard 360 (still in production without a launch date) just go to show that Stern works best for those in traffic.
Even the name of Alan Thicke’s pre-Growing Pains talk show makes me uncomfortable—it’s the kind of pun Alan Partridge would favor. Clearly audiences felt so too, for this ambitious attempt by MGM to unseat Carson immediately fell flat, with every attempt to secure higher ratings blowing up in the Thicke’s face. Even after the show shifted to mirror Thicke’s popular Canadian daytime show, Thicke of the Night was cancelled, its only notable achievement having been to introduce us to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Thicke, who passed away last year, would later morbidly note that “the show was ahead of its time… it should have been on in 2084, when all of us are dead.”
Perhaps the only person who walked a stranger road to late night than Chris Gethard was Jake Sasseville, who hosted an initial version of his show The Edge from a public access station in Maine when he was sixteen, before airing the show on local Fox affiliates and then eventually securing a national run on ABC in 2008. Sasseville was only twenty-four when he hopped over to his new show Late Night Republic, which, like The Edge secured unorthodox airtime by making syndication deals with individual stations and funds itself by having Sasseville hawk Pringles Xtreme on the show. Not the most punk rock execution of what was initially a fairly punk rock idea.
After Saturday Night Live, but well before his inexplicable conversion to right-wing talk radio partisanship, the former Weekend Update host had his own short-lived syndicated late night show in 1992. Miller’s post-doctorate references and too-hip-for-this-shit attitude hadn’t worn out their welcome yet, and made for an interesting alternative to the typical late night atmosphere at a time when Johnny Carson was still on the air. The writing staff also included future comedy heavyweights Judd Apatow, Bob Odenkirk, Norm MacDonald and more, making this the rare short-lived talk show that might actually be worth revisiting today.—Garrett Martin
Everybody’s most tolerated game show host quit the daytime version of Wheel of Fortune to launch his own ill-fated CBS talk show in 1989. Initially an interminable 90-minute marathon, the show reminded everybody why comedians normally get these jobs—the blandly amiable Sajak had no business overseeing this mess, lacking both the quick wit and intellectual rigor to make his interviews anything other than celebrity puff pieces. A cut back to 60 minutes didn’t help with the ratings, and neither did an attempt at Geraldo-style controversy with a politically tense guest host appearance by Rush Limbaugh in early 1990. 15 months after it debuted, guest host Paul Rodriguez presided over the last episode of The Pat Sajak Show in April 1990.—Garrett Martin
This might be better remembered today than any other show on this list, if only because it remains one of the biggest disasters in network TV history. Fox spent millions on a supposedly network-defining late night talk show host that was cancelled after barely a month. Chevy Chase, whose backstage rep as one of the most unlikable men in show business was not yet public knowledge, could barely hide his discomfort with the live audience or his contempt for his celebrity guests. Despite how visibly miserable Chase was on air, there’s not even any grim trainwreck satisfaction from watching this thing today: all 25 episodes are simply unbearable from start to finish.—Garrett Martin
Magic Johnson’s 1998 syndicated show lasted three weeks longer than Chevy Chase’s. The basketball legend might’ve excelled in the paint, but he wilted under those hot TV studio lights. He was almost like Jimmy Fallon but without any confidence—his interviews were basically just back-and-forth volleys of compliments, but with a host who was nervous and out of his element the entire time. It debuted in June and was so disastrous that it didn’t even make it out of the summer.—Garrett Martin
The Jon Stewart plotline on The Larry Sanders Show was basically true to life—Stewart spent most of the ‘90s as an obvious talent that producers bounced around different shows while they (and he) tried to figure out what to do with his skillset. He co-hosted Short Attention Span Theater, he hosted You Wrote It, You Watch It with the collegiate members of The State, and he even eventually hosted a weird British panel show with the extremely British panel show name Where’s Elvis This Week?. His first true talk show was actually an immediate hit for MTV, setting itself apart with actually cool musical guests and an appetite for wanton destruction. It all went downhill through no fault of Stewart’s—when Viacom acquired MTV in addition to Paramount, Paramount cancelled The Arsenio Hall Show and MTV used Arsenio’s studio to launch a new version of Stewart’s show, which inherited Arsenio’s lousy timeslots in syndication and died an ignominious death. Despite the corporate mishandling that effectively killed off two great talk shows at once, the story ends happily for Stewart, who would one day go on to direct Rosewater.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.