Reinventing the Wheel: Late-Night Hosts on How They'd Change the Format

Late Night hosts split  - H 2016

Chelsea Handler says she doesn't want her new show debuting May 11 to be just another late-night show (“Monologue. First guest. Band. Da, da, da. I just can’t do it that way"). Other hosts had the same idea (sorta).

When Chelsea Handler reinvents the wheel she doesn’t want it to be just another wheel. The once and future late-night host, whose new program Chelsea debuts on Netflix on May 11, told The New York Times, “I don’t want people turning it on and seeing the same thing: Monologue. First guest. Band. Da, da, da. I just can’t do it that way.”

She isn’t the first late-night host to suggest changes to a show format that is almost as old as television itself. The Hollywood Reporter looked back at what other late-night hosts said in advance of their debut about how they might or might not change the format.

Here’s what they said:

Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, debuted January 26, 2003
Kimmel’s big innovation was to try the show live. "I think live will give it an intangible electricity," he said. "On Letterman and Leno, it always bothers me when they go outside the studio and it's daytime. That's one thing I won't have to deal with. And I think it's going to be a good thing for Los Angeles, if it goes well.”  (Live lasted live for 14 months. The experiment ended when guest Thomas Jane said, "That's a great f---ing band" and censors couldn't bleep it in time.)

Live would also be looser (and dirtier), he promised. "If I have one criticism of the other late-night shows it's that they're almost entirely scripted. Hopefully people will notice our show is looser." He added, ”I think the show will be dirtier than the others, certainly.” Another innovation? "We're going to set up a full bar and serve cocktails."

Conan O’Brien, The Tonight Show, debuted June 1, 2009 and Conan, debuted Nov. 11, 2010
O’Brien’s idea was to keep the show basically the same but also make it younger and hipper "My set needs to acknowledge this is a 60-year franchise. It needs to be beautiful and elegant. But he added, “Nothing funny comes out of reverence. I'll take care of this franchise. The key is to put aside the fear and say, 'Let's just make some people laugh.” (That didn’t turn out well as he was dropped just a few months after his first anniversary).

A year later when he debuted his new show on TBS, O’Brien promised more of the same, but with an edge: “It is the show that someone does after they’ve survived a serious car accident. There’s a little bit of — and I think in a good way — a “let’s just go for it” kind of feel. I’ve been doing one show or another for about 17 years, and then you have this razor’s edge nine months that I’ve had recently and you think about things a little differently. So, there’s more of a feeling of “Screw it, I’m not going to second-guess anything.”

Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show, debuted Feb. 17, 2014
Like O’Brien, Fallon promised to both honor The Tonight’s Show’s tradition and also make it hipper. “It’s still going to be the same show, he said, but it will “do more singing and dancing and games.” He added it would be a more mature version of his work on the Late Show: “If it was 2009 and I got “The Tonight Show” and you said, is it going to be anything different, I’d say, “Drastically. Yes.” I’m going to tell you right now, it’s not what it was in 2009 for me when we started, but I’ve grown. I’ve grown older. My monologues have gotten longer. I’m calmer and I have nice long interviews and it’s fun, there’s no rush for me to do stuff. I sing and I still do our bits and all that stuff, but that’s what our show has become. And I think it’ll grow when I’m on The Tonight Show.” (In practice that has meant more viral video moments). 

Seth Meyers, Late Night, debuted Feb. 24, 2014
More of the same. The idea of blowing it up," Meyers said, "sounds better than it actually is." For Meyers that meant more segments like he did on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update and the occasional character (before his debut, he told The New York Times he would be “surprised if over the course of the show Stefon never showed up.”)

James Corden, The Late Late Show, debuted March 23, 2015
Corden’s goal he said was “ a breath of fresh air” to the format. His innovation? Bringing the guests out together. “We decided fairly early on in the process that we would be a show that would bring all of our guests out together at the same time. We just thought, “Well, we’re on after a talk show, we have to do something that make it try and look and feel a little bit different.” It’s going to feel a bit more intimate. We’ve brought the audience closer. They’re sort of cinema seats with lamps. [Bandleader] Reggie [Watts] has got a really cool performance area with his band. In many ways it will just look and feel like another talk show.”

Stephen Colbert, The Late Show, Sept 8, 2015
The former host of Comedy Central’s meta-satire The Colbert Report promised more varied guests. "Anybody who's interesting and has something to say — that's what I'm interested in," Colbert told TV Guide. “But I love artists, whether they're actors or musicians. I want to have politicians of all stripes on the show. I like intellectuals, writers, people in sports. But if somebody is not famous and they've got something to say and they can present themselves on camera, I think that'd be the perfect guest to have." He also said he would draw on his improv roots. "I'm an improvisational actor. I mean, I love the interviews. I love desk pieces. But we did all that stuff on the old show and we'll continue to do it. It's just a matter of finding the time to do it, finding the right joke.” But he promised his show would be different from Fallon’s Tonight Show: “I don’t want to just create viral videos. I want to do things that people like.” And it would have one big change from his predecessor Dave Letterman — a change Dave suggested as Colbert recalled: “He [Dave] goes, ‘I would have liked to have tried the desk on the other side, So I went to work the next day and called my designer and said, ‘I have terrible news. We’re going to reverse the set’ — because I want to try that too.”

Trevor Noah, The Daily Show, Sept. 28, 2015
The South African comic admitted the show would look basically the same as it did under Jon Stewart. “We’re changing the sets a tiny bit,” he said, and “we’re still dealing with the same issues, it’s just a different angle we’re looking at things from — and it’s my angle, really. But he said changes in the news cycle would be reflected in his show. “The Daily Show was based on an emerging 24-hour news cycle, that’s everything it was,” Noah said when appearing before the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour. “That’s what inspired The Daily Show. Now you look at news and it’s changed. It’s no longer predicated around 24-hour news. There are so many different choices. Half of it is online now. Now you’ve got the Gawkers, the BuzzFeeds. The way people are drawing their news is soundbites and headlines and click-bait links has changed everything. The biggest challenge is going to be an exciting one, I’m sure, is how are we going to bring all of that together looking at it from a bigger lens as opposed to just going after one source — which was historically Fox News.”