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Late-Night Comedy, All Day Long

How Fallon, Kimmel, and other shows are adapting to the viral age

Jamie McCarthy/Getty

As soon as Michelle Obama agreed to appear on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” the writers began brainstorming madly. The president’s slow-jam of the news in April had been a huge success—one of the show’s very first YouTube videos to go viral—and the creative team knew they had another potential hit on their hands with Michelle. After the first kernel of the idea for “The Evolution of Mom Dancing” arose in a pitch meeting, each writer was instructed to come armed with two potential “mom dances.” They all gathered in the writers’ room to perform their “raise the roofs” and their “happy snappers.” A choreographer formalized the best moves in a video that got sent to the first lady. And by the time Mrs. Obama arrived on set to shoot the segment, she had every dance step impeccably nailed. She’d been practicing in the White House, she said: perfecting her sprinkler, her shopping cart, her legendary Dougie. The filming took one take.

The finished product is a gemlike bit of internet-ready comedy: strange, concise, self-contained. The first lady’s moves are characteristically suave and authoritative; Fallon’s jerky nerd-dancing makes a perfect foil. In less than two weeks, the video—posted online before the show aired to stir up interest for the actual broadcast—has racked up more than 13 million YouTube hits. “These days the secret about late-night shows,” Fallon producer Gavin Purcell told me, “is that unless there’s a special or something the numbers [of viewers] don’t shift crazy amounts from day to day. But online, people have a second or third or fourth chance to engage with the show.” So today the process of making a late-night show involves more than booking trendy celebrity guests and crafting reliably funny sketches. There’s a new calculation: How do you make comedy that won't just play well on the air, but also has a second life on the web? 

The late-night format has essentially been set in amber since Johnny Carson first cemented its place in the cultural canon in the 1960s. Its basic infrastructure, at least, has hardly changed: the band, the monologue, the studio audience, the desk. And in some ways the format has always been modular, easily chopped up into freestanding bits. When Ed Ames taught Johnny Carson to throw a tomahawk on “The Tonight Show” in 1956, he accidentally hurled the tomahawk squarely at the crotch of the man-shaped target. The sheepish faces of Ames and Carson and the eruption of astonished laughter from the studio audience all felt delightfully impromptu. It is not hard to imagine what a blockbuster the clip would have been on YouTube. But compared to the crackling pace and breakneck joke output of today’s late-night shows, Carson’s style was sedate. His monologues, along with his celebrity interviews, tended to be leisurely and long.

David Letterman’s experimentation with the late-night format in the ’80s revolutionized the genre. His shows featured weird snippets of comedy detached from any kind of narrative. He dressed himself in velcro and leapt onto a velcro wall. He wore a suit made of alka seltzer and dove into an aquarium. On some shows the camera would slowly rotate until it was upside down. He was shaping himself as the anti-Carson, tweaking the formula for a postmodernist age.

But today hosts like Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have pumped Letterman’s legacy full of new voltage. Whereas Letterman’s stunts were experimental sorties into new creative territory, today’s late-night web segments feel fully engineered. Watching these late-night shows, “You can almost pick the edit points,” TV historian Robert Thompson told me. “You can almost say, ‘ok, starting here, this is where the viral video will be tomorrow.’” Many of the shows increasingly feature YouTube-able moments built into the celebrity interview itself. John Wooden, executive producer for Team Coco, Conan O’Brien’s digital operations, told me that the team tries to be “proactive in trying to think about what elements of content will be the best digital hook”—whether it’s Ricky Gervais and Conan taking a bubble bath Twitpic or Conan trying on Deepak Chopra’s glasses, both posted online as videos clipped from the linear broadcast. There are days at rehearsal, Wooden said, when Conan will sit back, smiling, and say, “That’s got web written all over it.”

Fallon and Kimmel’s shows have been particularly adept at cranking out video sketches designed to thrive outside of the broadcast format: Fallon’s slick, gimlet-eyed “Downton Abbey” parody “Downton Sixbey”; last year’s Halloween candy challenge from Kimmel, a genius mash-up of YouTube clips in which parents filmed their crestfallen children being told that all of their Halloween candy had been eaten. On one recent “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” guest Jennifer Aniston took a sledgehammer to Kimmel’s desk before the interview began.1 Then she gave Kimmel a haircut. Another night, Kimmel put Jessica Alba in a glass-encased kissing booth outside the studio. Each stunt was packaged online as a separate clip. Jill Leiderman, executive producer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live,”explained that the producers are always looking for ways to “add texture to the panel segment.” “If given the choice between a straight-talk segment between a celebrity and the host, or a segment where we get the celebrity to participate in something more active,” she said, they generally try to choose the latter.

Needless to say, making videos that flourish online is an imprecise science. “You can’t sit around chasing after lightning in a bottle,” Leiderman said. But “Jimmy Kimmel Live” employs four staffers whose job is exclusively to scour the net and television broadcasts for clips to use on the show or as a springboard for Kimmel’s writers. A montage of Los Angeles news anchors overreacting to the cold temperatures exploded on the web almost immediately. “I think all of us who make these late night shows are a little bit mad scientisty these days,” said Michael Naidus, a producer for “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson.” Since shorter clips tend to work better on the web, the producers often try to design a program that can be carved up into under-three-minute fragments. In the old days, Naidus said, they might have produced a six-minute parody of “Murder, She Wrote.” But now they’ll opt for a 30– or 60–second video of Ferguson wearing a space suit and pretending to be Michael Caine. The biggest change in the late night format in the viral age is that, between on-air and online, the creative process can feel a bit schizophrenic: “We are trying,” Naidus said, “to serve two audiences at once.” 2

This also means two separate sets of competitors for viewers. Another platform for celebrity self-promotion has emerged in the website Funny or Die, which cranks out star-studded videos that regularly get thousands of hits. “It’s almost not enough just to be funny now that there are so many funny shows,” said Mike Farah, president of production for Funny or Die. Timeliness and relevance have become paramount. When the Manti Te’o scandal broke, the site had a video parody up within thirty hours. “I think late night hosts now straddle this line between respecting their heroes from yesteryear but also knowing that they are in a different age with a different audience,” he said.

And so it can sometimes feel like—in the push to adapt an old format to a new landscape—late night shows are chasing after the internet, scrambling to bottle the fleeting magic of online trends. Actress Allison Williams reenacted her Funny or Die performance as Kate Middleton on a recent “Jimmy Kimmel Live” segment. When online metrics revealed that many “Conan” viewers tended to be big video gamers, the creative team cooked up a franchise called “Clueless Gamer” in which O’Brien plays and reviews video games. One Kimmel skit that does consistently well online features celebrities reading offensive tweets about themselves from strangers, their faces gravely registering mock injury. It’s a perfect collision of found and scripted comedy, the sheer miscellaneousness of the internet mined for maximum comic effect.

They might all be dabbling in the same pool of tricks, but the hosts’ web segments have distinctly different styles. Fallon’s lifeblood is pop culture ephemera, his best bits often playing off internet memes: One of his most popular web videos so far has been a version of “Call Me Maybe” with Carly Rae Jepsen and The Roots, which nods to the YouTube format by having Fallon lurch forward to switch off the camera at the end of the song. Kimmel is a master curator, applying his prankish frat boy tastes to culling segments from the web; he has launched several YouTube stars into the viral pantheon by plucking them from obscurity and featuring them on his show. Ferguson tends toward the absurdist; Conan’s is tech-ier and more manic, as in his recent crowd-sourced episode comprised entirely of viewer-submitted clips.

And Letterman, the elder statesman of late night, is as goofy as ever. But his shtick feels increasingly tired, his antics on auto-pilot. “Letterman’s show in the 1980s was perfectly suited for a technology that wasn’t going to emerge until about 2006,” Thompson, the TV historian, said. “But now you’ve got all these other guys who are adapting faster.” The closest ancestor to Fallon and Kimmel sometimes seems less Letterman than Lonely Island: shiny bits of odd, visceral, sleekly-produced content that easily stand on their own.

Then there is Jay Leno, that last Carson-era stronghold, with his own particular drab neutrality and anemic jokes. He has long led the late-night ratings, but Kimmel is starting to nip at his heels. The "Tonight Show" YouTube page has fewer than 10 million views to Fallon’s 89 million and Kimmel’s whopping 492 million. Just look at this clip of Michelle Obama’s appearance on Leno last summer, in which the first lady sat demurely in her yellow dress and the host clasped his hands on his desk. “What’s the number one thing you’re most proud of in the first term?” he asked her. “There’s so much—but truly, health reform,” she said, with a sober nod. Small wonder that it hasn't even cracked 9,000 hits. 

Follow Laura Bennett on Twitter @lbennett.

  1. “We had Bob Barker come on and smash Craig’s desk five years ago!” Michael Naidus, a producer for Craig Ferguson, told me. But few people saw it because “the internet was not what it is now.”

  2. Another refrain I heard from late-night producers was the enduring importance of the studio audience, even in the age of virtual crowdsourcing. “If I turn around and there’s a hundred people smiling,” Naidus said, “you’ve got something. That’s my little focus group. And the internet reinforced that immediately.” Without the studio audience, Leiderman told me, it would feel like “doing comedy into an abyss.” And the participatory nature of the format makes it seem like “a rich vein to ask the viewing public at large to participate in our comedy, to participate in our antics” via YouTube and Twitter.