It's a shame that Craig Ferguson lost out on replacing David Letterman, and it's a shame that he quit his show because of it. Ferguson is one of the few mainstream American talk show hosts to personalise their act by championing authors he liked – authors who usually wouldn't get that sort of airtime. You could tune in to see Christina Ricci talk about her new film, and then find yourself listening to Ian Rankin or Salman Rushdie talk about their latest work. Craig, who made a meal of ripping up note cards pre-interview, was replaced by our own James Corden, who seems to be doing anything but playing outside of the rulebook.
Corden wouldn't dream of following his monologue with lengthy or unpremeditated chat. Daring to crack a media-trained guest with something offhand or unrehearsed would get him nowhere. Firstly, he'd have to build a rapport with the audience, being a newcomer to the form and all – and not to mention to the country itself. Only then could he afford to delve into Matthew Perry's history of pill-popping instead of making the guy predict quirky Google auto-fills. So far, Corden's most triumphant moments have been his videos-gone-viral, namely "Carpool Karaoke" with the likes of Mariah Carey or Justin Bieber.
Along with his deadpan wit, there's a good chance Letterman will be taking with him an older breed of viewer, the kind who religiously sat down to watch a talk show in full, not catch its highlights the next day online. While a middle-aged demographic might still champion the idea of dosing off to their talk show of choice, there will be younger viewers that'll see Jimmy Fallon on YouTube and flick onto his TV show simply to see what he can deliver over the course of a full broadcast. There's no loyalty to it.
Talk shows are in the midst of a viral movement, one that can be traced back to that famously annoying video of Sarah Silverman singing about fucking Matt Damon on Jimmy Kimmel in 2009. The clip from the show notched up nearly 10 million views (and that was before all the follow up videos) in the days when YouTube was just Chocolate Rain and miscellaneous cat videos – the days before corporations, labels and marketeers seized their share.
Kimmel (or his team) was the one who figured that if this was going to be online, it'd be better off under their control, presented in the way they desired. And so they created an account, which now boasts over 2 billion views. It wasn't genius or revolutionary, it was just very good marketing. However, they now had a greater audience expectation – now, every snippet they uploaded had to match or outdo everything people had previously seen.
All these hosts did was take the fact that people like to watch celebrities being silly, and ran with it. Whether these videos deliberately follow all three points generally found in viral content – 1) Being positive, dwelling on positive issues and ideas, 2) Evoking a strong emotional reaction (joy, fear, anger), and 3) Being practically useful – I don't know.
Jimmy Fallon's lip-sync battles, say, are definitely positive at face value. And considering their comment sections, they must evoke a great deal of joy. But number 3 is where I struggle. I struggle to understand who could find them practically useful except for other talk show hosts. If there's anything to applaud in all of it, it's Kimmel's – and now Corden's – success in overcoming the rule that viral videos cannot just be made to a formula.
Yes, it helps if you already have a massive following prior to putting content on the internet, but almost all of these videos reach eight-figure hits, compared to clips of actual conversation, which usually peak at a much smaller six-figure number, sometimes seven. For example, 54 million people watched Emma Stone miming to DJ Khaled, while only 1 million watched segments of her interview.
Do people still care about watching actors pontificate? In the 1960s and 70s, a Michael Parkinson or Dick Cavett appearance showed an actor or musician as their truest self: funny, grouchy, liberal, conservative, self-obsessed or self-critical. You'd get Marlon Brando – having just wrapped The Godfather – flying from Tahiti to New York to sit down for an hour, completely dismiss acting and the film industry, before enlightening the audience on the plight of Native Americans. Once upon a time, it was on talk shows that Katherine Hepburn rubbished the idea of an afterlife and John Wayne got cranky about a film that misrepresented his country's character.
It's not that we don't want to see celebrities spin the press junket on its head: for every Carpool Karaoke, there's Russell Brand on Newsnight, Richard Ayoade ridiculing publicity to Krishnan Guru-Murthy, or Stephen Fry chastising God on Irish TV. In terms of shows with actual substance, there's In Confidence, and there was Frost Over the World, but nothing that mixes the two styles and brings it before a live audience. Graham Norton does a good job of handling differing guests, but it's very benign – very sheltered. If anything leftfield did happen, you'd only hear about it in reports afterwards.
Parky himself, now a regular critic of what he calls "an event thing with everybody having a good time and being daft", has blamed the influx of "agreeable folly" on the commissioners. "I'm sure there are some young eager beavers out there, men and women, who would do a very classic talk show, an interview programme, but nobody seems very interested. I was very lucky that when I was there it was run by programme makers. They were either very good journalists or very good at show business. They weren't bureaucrats. Now it seems to me there are more bureaucrats than anything else. It shows in the broadcasting."
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Piers Morgan, you can tell, is trying to reinstate the heavily-researched old format that doesn't pussy-foot around questions that we want to hear and that the guest doesn't. And for all his many other negative features, he deserves credit for that. He also gives the same treatment to soap stars as he would A-listers. But I think Life Stories employs too much of a weird, three-act structure to make it seem genuine. It's the rise to fame and fortune, the problems in the wilderness years and then the eventual solace. It feels prescribed.
Maybe it's down to a dearth of good hosts. There's the complaint that the talk show gig is just something that presenters now feel necessitated to tick off their bucket list – not something they personally invest in, but merely another stage on which they can show off. It worked out averagely well for Charlotte Church and Kris Jenner, poorly for Ricky Gervais, Michael McIntyre, Joan Rivers, Adam Carolla, Lily Allen, John McEnroe and, most notoriously, Chevy Chase. Their talk shows, like countless others, fizzled out fast.
So will Corden's last? He seems to be adhering to the new rules: his producers know what immediately clicks with social media users. If Corden uses Arnold Schwarzenegger to act out his films in six minutes, then Arnie succeeds in poking fun at himself and Corden is supplied with easy material for his YouTube channel. It's shallow, but relatable. Most of us haven't starred in a blockbuster, but we've all sung karaoke. No one's on a pedestal and everybody's a winner, right?
Yet, if you think that gimmick, or – for that matter – Bieber, who's on some mad, doe-eyed campaign to make himself seem down to earth, recently spending an afternoon getting paid to sit in a car and sing his own songs is an authentic piece of idiosyncrasy or insight, you're a mug. Internet culture is lapping up someone using internet culture to mock internet culture itself. That's maybe the worst part of all this.
It's a matter of opinion as to whether you believe these things are useless. I might think they are, but evidently huge numbers of people disagree. It can't go on, though, this mass triviality. It'll burn itself out. It's like food: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savoury are the five flavours our tongues respond to. While sweetness is usually the most popular and appealing, if it comes down to a serious meal, most of us want something more interesting. I'd like to imagine that people's tastes will follow suit.
13:21 PM Wednesday 24th of June: An edit has been made to indicate that James Corden replaced Craig Ferguson, not David Letterman.
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