Racing Toward TV's Future, Late-Night Shows Shift To Anytime Social Media

May 17, 2016
Originally published on May 17, 2016 7:06 pm

The late-night TV talk show wars aren't what they used to be. Success in that realm used to be measured by who got the most viewers after the late local news. For decades, it was NBC's The Tonight Show, whether hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson or, for most of his run, Jay Leno.

But the current Tonight Show host, Jimmy Fallon, was one of the first to anticipate that you didn't need viewers watching you late at night — just watching anytime, on YouTube or social media. And viewers didn't have to watch the whole show. You just had to get buzz, and Fallon's way of doing has been with music.

He staged "Lip Sync Battles" with his guests, which eventually led to a spinoff series still running on Spike TV. He imitated rock stars singing very improbable cover versions of songs, like the late Jim Morrison singing a soulful rendition of the theme from "Reading Rainbow."

Most successfully of all, Fallon invited guests to sit down with him and his house band The Roots and, in a single take photographed by a single camera, use kindergarten musical instruments to do acoustic versions of their hit songs — as Robin Thicke did when he came by to sing a childishly charming version of "Blurred Lines."

There's a sense of joy in these performances. But if it's pure joy you want, nothing beats James Corden and his "Carpool Karaoke" segments on The Late Late Show on CBS.

With Fallon, all you get are infectious musical performances. When Corden drives singers around town in his high-tech-equipped car — photographing and recording them as they sing along with his car-stereo music selections — you get fantastic performances. But you also get genuine conversation, and some very, very human moments.

Corden's drive-along 15-minute trip with Adele is the most-viewed late-night TV clip in social media history — more than 102 million views and counting — and its appeal is totally understandable. The moment Adele gets in the passenger seat of his car, Corden compliments her on her hair, which starts a very casual conversation. Then, as he starts playing an Adele song on his car radio and she starts singing along, he slides in some pitch-perfect harmony — and she shoots a glance in his direction that basically says, "Who IS this guy?" Indeed.

You can't watch that clip and not smile. Just like you can't help choking up a bit watching him drive around with Stevie Wonder, and saying that his wife, a huge Wonder fan, won't even believe that they're together. So James gets out his cellphone, calls his wife and hands the phone to Wonder, who improvises a one-woman serenade so sweet, it makes James cry on the spot.

By taking his show on the road, Corden has preserved, and condensed, the very essence of the TV talk show. He's on to something big. Another impressive, even earlier pioneer in the same regard, has been Jerry Seinfeld, whose show on Sony's Crackle streaming site, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, starts its eighth season next month.

What talk show hosts Fallon and Corden and Jimmy Kimmel and the others are doing is finding discrete bits of their shows to present and disseminate on shared social media. What Seinfeld is doing is reducing the show to those pieces alone. It's still a talk show — a very smart and clever one — but boiled down to a very focused, absolute essence.

Last season, Seinfeld picked up Garry Shandling for a ride and it turned out to be one of the comedian's last interviews before his death. And coincidentally, some of their conversation was about death. It's a tender little show, and I'm certain Seinfeld feels fortunate to have captured it when he did. He and Garry are two old hands, both of them getting their big breaks doing a few minutes of standup comedy on Carson's Tonight Show.

Both Seinfeld and Shandling subsequently changed TV comedy more than any of their peers with their respective sitcoms. And could talk about it, all these years later, in ways that were both wise and funny.

I suspect that Seinfeld and Corden, by getting away from the studio and doing something so laser-focused and enjoyable, are changing the landscape again. Corden doesn't need The Late Late Show to keep doing carpool karaoke — and that segment, itself, could be a 21st century talk show all its own. Just like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Both these shows are in the fast lane, racing toward TV's future.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The latest incarnation of the late-night TV talk show wars is being fought on a variety of fronts, most notably on YouTube and social media. Our TV critic David Bianculli says this new talk show battlefield not only is changing the content of existing shows, it's starting to create some new exciting ones.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: That late-night TV talk show wars aren't what they used to be. Success in that realm used to be measured by who got the most viewers after the late local news. For decades it was "The Tonight Show." Whether it was Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson or for most of his run Jay Leno.

But the current host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," Jimmy Fallon, was one of the first to anticipate that you didn't need viewers watching you late at night, just watching any time on YouTube or social media. And viewers didn't have to watch the whole show. You just had to get buzz.

And Fallon's way of doing it has been with music. He staged lip-synch battles with his guests, which eventually led to a spinoff series still running on Spike TV. He imitated rock stars, singing very improbable cover versions of songs, like the late Jim Morrison singing a soulful rendition of the theme from "Reading Rainbow."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON")

JIMMY FALLON: (Imitating Jim Morrison, singing) Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high. Take a look, it's in a book, a reading Rainbow, a reading Rainbow, a reading Rainbow, a reading Rainbow, yeah.

BIANCULLI: And most successfully of all, he invited guests to sit down with him and his house band The Roots, and in a single take photographed by a single camera, used kindergarten musical instruments to do acoustic versions of their hit songs, as Robin Thicke did when he came by to sing a childishly charming version of "Blurred Lines."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON")

ROBIN THICKE AND JIMMY FALLON AND THE ROOTS: (Singing) If you can't hear what I'm trying to say, if you can't read from the same page, maybe I'm going deaf, maybe I'm going blind, maybe I'm out of my mind. OK, now he was...

BIANCULLI: There's a sense of joy in these performances. But if it's pure joy you want, nothing beats James Corden and his carpool karaoke segments on "The Late Late Show" on CBS.

With Fallon, all you get are infectious musical performances. When Corden drives singers around town in is high-tech equipped car, photographing and recording them as they sing along with his car stereo music selections, you get fantastic performances. But you also get genuine conversation and some very, human moments.

Corden's drive along 15-minute trip with Adele is the most viewed late-night TV clip in social media history - more than 102 million views and counting. And its appeal is totally understandable. The moment Adele gets into the passenger seat of his car, James Corden compliments her on her hair, which starts a very casual conversation.

Then as he starts playing an Adele song on his car radio and she starts singing along, he slides in some pitch-perfect harmony. And she shoots a glance in his direction that basically says, who is this guy? Indeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH JAMES CORDEN")

JAMES CORDEN: I mean, it is more manageable...

ADELE: Yeah...

CORDEN: ...Than the...

ADELE: It dries quickly also...

CORDEN: ...Than the hive...

ADELE: Yeah.

CORDEN: ...You know...

ADELE: On tour I'm just going to wear a wig. I'm going to use me hairline. And I can't work out if I should wear a wig wig or have a weave.

CORDEN: I mean, what I like is that you're coming to me for this advice.

(LAUGHTER)

ADELE AND JAMES CORDEN: (Singing) Hello, can you hear me? I'm in California dreaming about who we used to be. It's no secret that the both of us are running out of time.

ADELE: That was amazing.

ADELE AND JAMES CORDEN: (Singing) So hello from the outside...

BIANCULLI: You can't watch that clip and not smile. Just like you can't help choking up a bit watching him drive around with Stevie Wonder and saying that his wife, a huge Stevie Wonder fan, won't even believe that they're together. So James gets out his cellphone, calls his wife and hands the phone to Stevie Wonder, who improvises a one-woman serenade so sweet, it makes James cry on the spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH JAMES CORDEN")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) I just called to say James loves you. I just called to say how much he cares. I just called (playing harmonica) to say he loves you. And he promises to me that he'll let me be on his show for an hour.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: By taking his show on the road, James Corden has preserved and condensed the very essence of the TV talk show. He's onto something big.

Another impressive and even earlier pioneer in the same regard has been Jerry Seinfeld, whose show on Sony's Crackle streaming site, "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee," started its eighth season next month. What talk show hosts Fallon and Corden and Jimmy Kimmel and the others are doing is finding discrete bits of their shows to present and disseminate on shared social media. What Seinfeld is doing is reducing the show to those pieces alone. It's still a talk show, a very smart and clever one, but boiled down to a very focused absolute essence.

Last season, Jerry picked up Garry Shandling for a ride, and it turned out to be one of the comedian's last interviews before his death. And coincidentally, some of their conversation was about death.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMEDIANS IN CARS GETTING COFFEE")

JERRY SEINFELD: You know, David Brenner passed away last year. Do you ever think about, like, all that material?

GARRY SHANDLING: (Laughter) I'm sorry - so I'm at a stage in my life where I actually care about the person. Here's what I thought you were going to say - did you ever realize when David Brenner died and Robin, the actual impermanence of life? I never thought God, there goes a lot of material. That's hilarious that you think that way.

SEINFELD: Well, that was the hard part.

BIANCULLI: It's a tender little show, and I'm certain Seinfeld feels fortunate to have captured it when he did. He and Garry are two old hands, both of them getting their big breaks doing a few minutes of standup comedy on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."

Both Seinfeld and Shandling subsequently changed TV comedy more than any of their peers with their respective sitcoms and could talk about it all these years later in ways that were both wise and funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMEDIANS IN CARS GETTING COFFEE")

SHANDLING: You know, I was an electrical engineering major at the University of Arizona, and that taught me the discipline of working out formulas and having no other life because you had to work so hard to get that stuff right.

SEINFELD: But of course that was not as difficult as writing comedy.

SHANDLING: No because there's ultimately an answer.

(LAUGHTER)

SHANDLING: ...To an equation.

SEINFELD: There's an answer to a joke.

SHANDLING: Well, I don't think Einstein bounced it off a crowd.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: I suspect that Jerry Seinfeld and James Corden, by getting away from the studio and doing something so laser-focused and enjoyable, are changing the landscape again. James Corden doesn't need "The Late Late Show" to keep doing carpool karaoke. And that segment itself could be a 21st-century talk show all its own, just like "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee." Both these shows are in the fast lane, racing towards TV's future.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film history pastry at Rowan University in New Jersey.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH JAMES CORDEN")

CORDEN: Thank you so much for helping me get to work, man. It's just the traffic in this city, it's a nightmare.

WONDER: It's my pleasure, man.

CORDEN: Just to be able to go down the carpool lane, it makes such a difference. It really does.

(LAUGHTER)

WONDER: When you need a friend to drive along, you know, with you to work...

CORDEN: Yeah.

WONDER: ...Give me a holler.

CORDEN: Are you sure?

WONDER: Give me a holler.

CORDEN: Promise?

WONDER: Give me a holler. (Singing) For once in my life, I have someone who needs me, someone I needed so long.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Kenya Barris, the creator of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish," about an African-American man who grew up poor and now is an advertising executive living in a predominately white suburb with his wife, who's a doctor, and their four children. He thinks his privileged children don't really understand what it means to be black, and he doesn't always do a good job teaching them. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH JAMES CORDEN")

JAMES CORDEN AND STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) ...I'm not alone anymore. For once I can say this is mine, you can't take it. Long as I know I have love I can make it. For once in my life, I have someone who needs me. Someone who needs me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.