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David Steinberg knows a thing or two about late-night TV.
The legendary comedian and Second City alum appeared on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson 140 times — second only to Bob Hope. He also guest-hosted on numerous occasions, becoming the youngest person ever to do so.
With all the recent changes in late-night, Steinberg — who now executive produces and hosts Inside Comedy, a documentary series that just completed its third season on Showtime and has featured comedians from Carl Reiner to Julia Louis-Dreyfus — recently sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to give his take on the new late-night landscape, his advice how all the hosts can stand out fro all the competition and what it will take to get a female host on one of the broadcast networks.
You obviously have a long history with late-night TV. What’s your take on the late-night landscape now?
The comparison between when I was doing the [Tonight Show] to start and now, it is unbelievable. When I started, there were three networks, no more than that. When I would do the Johnny Carson show and walk down the street the next day, it seemed like every third or fourth [I ran into] saw me [on the show], good or bad. Well, now that terrain has changed so much. Forgetting how many talk show hosts there are — just how many outlets there are, you can’t watch them all. And there are only so many guests to go around. Eventually, [if you’re a host, you] have to keep reinventing what it is that you’re doing, and I think you can see that in Jimmy Fallon, who comes at it musically and loves to talk to old stars, young stars, whomever. You see it in Jimmy Kimmel, who uses the Internet, in a way that no one else has, very creatively. You can see them finding the new ways in which to engage an audience. And then, you know, [David] Letterman is going away and Stephen Colbert is taking over. In my opinion, not that anyone ever asked me, but it’s a great idea. He’s an amazing improviser — I’m a little prejudiced because he comes from Second City, and that’s the best training you can have. He will be amazing. But the competition is at a very high level — everybody is good. Seth Meyers is very good. Conan [O’Brien] is also a very good host. Arsenio Hall knows how to do it [well]. They are all very skillful.
Which late-night shows do you watch?
First of all, I TiVo everything. I take a look at everybody; I have friends on all the shows. I always take a look at Letterman; what I love about Letterman is that you know when he’s pissed at something. All of the others, if they are angry, they try to hide their anger or cover it up. I just find it so delightful to see someone not afraid to show their anger. I will miss that. I always look at Letterman, Fallon. I watch everybody for a little bit, but I don’t ever go watch a whole show unless there’s a guest on that I want to see.
What do you make of Letterman’s decision to retire?
He’ll be missed, but he couldn’t have picked a better person [to replace him], which is incredible. I wonder what his own reasons are for retiring. It’s not an easy job to host a show. When I guest-hosted The Tonight Show, my body would ache afterward because there is so much pressure. You have to be so “on” all the time. It’s a version of a live show, any way you look at it. … From Letterman’s point of view, he’s retiring at the right time; I don’t think the audience got tired of him. But for him, I’m sure he had just done enough.
He also outlasted his longtime rival, Jay Leno.
And now they’re both retiring close to each other.
It’s almost like a changing of the guard, with younger hosts taking over that 11:35 p.m. slot on all three networks.
That will be interesting. Because you have to play to a younger audience in some ways, but I think that’s a natural evolution. We can all see it changing with the music, the comedians who come on, how they find their guests. But it is a sea change bigger than has ever occurred, just because of how much there is. It will be the survival of the fittest. Numbers will make a difference, any way they can gauge it.
It would seem that Fallon, Kimmel and Colbert all have the same fans and mentality. How do they stand out from their competitors?
You can’t handicap it from that point of view, but someone will get more creative. You can already see Kimmel’s creativity coming out in what he does, and Fallon too. Colbert will be the same way; he will come at it differently. It makes you more creative when the competition is so high. It’s a good thing. … But there is a lot of pressure on the talent coordinator to book people, because no one wants to be second, and there are only so many stars to go around. If you’re talking about Brad Pitt, he can go on every show five times, and everyone will still watch. There are not many Brad Pitts — there’s George Clooney, Tina Fey. There are not that many that are going to be going from show to show to show. The trick is how to interesting you can make your sure [no matter what guests are on].
Do you think that’s the most important part — and not the guests?
Guests are everywhere. If someone is great with a guest and someone is not too great with a guest, you won’t want to watch the star again. If you’ve seen the good, you won’t watch on the bad show; if you seen on the bad, you won’t necessary go to the good show. You have to create other ways in which to do the show. … The hosts themselves are the stars of the show. They have to be the draw. They have to find ways to do different. Matt Damon, Sarah Silverman and that Internet video [that Kimmel aired] was very innovative. The executive producer of that was very brilliant. Those kinds of things.
Craig Ferguson also is exiting his own. Who do you think would be a good replacement?
I’m wondering who they’re considering. Craig was a surprisingly interesting host himself — there is certainly an outrageousness to him that in interesting. And the Scottish part of him is interesting.
Many people have argued it’s time for a female host in late-night TV on one of the Big Three networks. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s time for that. Ellen DeGeneres would do as well in late-night as does in the afternoon. It’s just finding the [next] Ellen DeGeneres.
Who else do you think would be good? You mentioned Sarah Silverman already. What about her?
Sarah Silverman would be interesting in anything. She’s bold and out there and really interesting. It won’t be restrictive to men; that barrio has broken. It’s just a matter of time. Sarah Silverman in late-night would be a great move for CBS.
It will be interesting to see what happens.
It’s not going to be measured by who is good or bad; it’s a little bit of circumstances and how many other [components] you can make to make people tune in. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s fun to watch.
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