In one of the signal moments of the greatest talk show in my lifetime, “Late Night With David Letterman,” on NBC, Cher called the host a big jerk.
She used harsher language, but that was the idea. What’s often forgotten in that 1986 exchange is how quickly Letterman defused the tension. “You know,” he said, without a smidgen of defensiveness, “I think a lot of people feel that way about me.”
What host of a nightly talk show would make such a concession now?
Stephen Colbert might, in character. Maybe Chelsea Handler. Letterman, who recently signed a deal to continue as a host through 2015 on CBS, has become less caustic. In a nostalgic mood, he could muster it. But in an era when the most celebrated TV dramas ask viewers to identify with often repellent anti-heroes, the new stars of late night are ingratiating sweeties. We probably shouldn’t even call the coming battle between Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, who is taking over “The Tonight Show” in February, a late-night war. How about a pillow fight?
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New friendly faces
Consider the newest players. Arsenio Hall, who is technically more retro than new, butters up guests and gently tells the audience of his syndicated show to relax. The casually self-deprecating W. Kamau Bell, who started producing “Totally Biased” nightly on FXX last month, outsources the harshest comedy to his writers, who make quite funny cameos. When Sarah Silverman, whom Bell had called racist years ago, came on as a guest, he gave her a shirt that read “Mostly Not Racist” and told her that if he did a roast of anyone, he might cry.
This month, two exceedingly friendly faces will start appearing on your television screens at midnight: Pete Holmes, whose half-hour TBS show has its premiere after “Conan” on Oct. 28, and Chris Hardwick, whose comedy show, “midnight,” produced by Funny or Die, started Monday, following “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central. Holmes, a canny stand-up who runs the podcast “You Made It Weird,” has said he wants his show to be a “silly safe space.” And Hardwick, a comic whose show includes comedians in a competition for funniest take on a topical subject, is so upbeat, amiable and inclusive that he can sometimes sound like a self-help guru.
Talk shows have always been about personality as well as comedy. And these stars are the kind of approachable-seeming stars who are far more likely to be silly than abrasive, sunny than acerbic. No one tests the limits of endearing charm more than Fallon, now in the last few months as host of “Late Night” before moving to “The Tonight Show.”
Whereas his “Tonight” predecessor Johnny Carson kept a cool, elegant distance, and Jay Leno delivers a joke-dense monologue with the professionalism of an old-school entertainer, Fallon has a much warmer, offhand presence. Leaning on the superb “Late Night” band The Roots, he seems like the host of a party as much as of a show. He is not a gifted joke teller, but his willingness to sing, dance, riff or use social media suggests a performer looking to get laughs but happy to settle for smiles.
Enough meanness elsewhere
Part of the reason late-night comedy has become kinder and gentler may be that, in our current culture, there is a steady supply of meanness. Cruelty, you might say, has been outsourced to the Internet, not to mention Comedy Central roasts and weekly shows like “The Jeselnik Offensive” (Comedy Central).
It may also be that the slyly sardonic Letterman of the 1980s was an anomaly. Indeed, his style was trickier and harder to accomplish than it appeared. He didn’t aim to be the bad guy. Nor was he. He invited you to join him as a fellow outsider, together tossing spitballs at phony show business targets.
The clever trick of his rejoinder to Cher is that, by emphasizing how others saw him as rude, he became more human, vulnerable and even likable. If you doubt it, consider that just last month Cher went on his show on the day her first studio album in more than a decade was released and made quick, fond mention of her quarter-century-old insult.
“That was a whole different time in our love life,” she told him.