When it’s not Friday a.k.a. Delving into the Insomniacs Abyss
For NBC the territory of 12:35 to 1:05 AM is somewhat unchallenged territory. Of course as previously mentioned this was once the home to Friday Night Videos on Fridays, but on Monday through Thursday nights NBC has always tried to have something holding the spot. Since 2002 this spot has been held by Last Call with Carson Daly, a low key show featuring short interviews, and music segments. Years before Last Call though between 1988 and 1994 the spot was held by longtime NBC sports announcer Bob Costas and simply called Later.
For me Later holds some special memories as well. Back beyond the whole Jay Leno, David Letterman thing in 1991 I remember staying up late on summer nights to watch Carson, Letterman, and Costas in succession on NBC. For me one of the best memories I have of this show was when Costas interviewed Mel Brooks over four nights before the release of Life Stinks. Obviously I knew the whole thing was probably taped over the course of two hours in the middle of a weekday somewhere, but it was interesting to watch and keep myself awake late over the course four nights for and I learned a lot about Brooks and his comedy.
Later, unlike the two shows that preceded it, was extremely laid back. No loud bands, skits, or ongoing gags, but rather Costas one on one with his interviewee of the evening. It was the right kind of show for that late hour or half-hour I should say. Of course being Bob Costas there was a huge variety of professional athletes and other sports figures that would be on his program, but besides that it was worth the watch especially if you needed an air of calm before falling asleep.
Costas would only host Later until 1994, before turning the show over to former Talk Soup host and now major actor Greg Kinnear. Kinnear had the show for only two years before his acting career kicked into overdrive, and by 1996 Later was on to a new format. Between 1996 and 2000 Later had a “host of the week” format in which a celebrity host took the show for a week at a time. In 2001 a former VH1 VJ Cynthia Garret, took on the roll of full time host for about a year before moving on herself. Ultimately “Later” died after that, joining it's Friday night counterpart Friday Night Videos in an unceremonious end within months of each other. But from its ashes Last Call would be born taking on all 5 nights of the week.
Whether you choose to call it Later or Last Call the show is like a bookend to what The Tonight Show starts 2 ½ hours earlier. Beyond that lies the middle of the night, a time at which most of us who live and work in the day usually prefer to be asleep. Venturing beyond NBC at that time of night one may find repeats of the 10 O’clock news, or may be inundated with infomercials selling every type of useless thing imaginable.
1993’s Hybrid Nights
Truth be told I believe Letterman always had a better show than Leno, and by 93’ Leno was beginning to lose his edge younger viewers. For me it was a pretty easy choice to watch Letterman over Leno once the two went head to head. But nights like Friday's or on school vacations I would go from CBS back to NBC after Letterman ended to watch Conan O’Brien.
O’Brien was a somewhat unknown when he took over the Late Night spot after Letterman's departure to CBS. But despite not being a household name, O’Brien was by that time an experienced comedy writer for both SNL, and The Simpsons and brought that experience with him to his late night spot. Among other things O’Brien was also somewhat awkward in appearance as well being tall, ginger haired, and with a square facial structure. As an ongoing gag he was often one of the first to comment on his own appearance, and like Leno with his chin, O’Brien’s appearance quickly became and still is one of his signature trademarks. Despite his appearance and relatively unknown status at the time, O’Brien delivered a show that was equal to, and up until it's end, exceeded what Letterman had given us in that spot before.
Together with his long time sidekick Andy Richter, O’Brien would bring us such on running comedic skits as Pimpbot 5000, Bad Fruit Theater, Triumph the insult comic dog, and In the Year 2000 just to name a few. The show was fun and fast paced, and despite it's late hour was always able to deliver a few good laughs. On Friday nights moving from Letterman's hi-jinks, to O’Briens was always a good and light hearted start to any weekend.
In 1999 CBS made the decision to move away from the somewhat slow paced Tom Snyder who followed Letterman with a low key talk show and replace him with former Daily Show host Craig Kilborn. The new show called The Late Late Show was meant to challenge O’Briens reign over the late night slot. However, Kilborn just seemed to lack the charisma to carry the task off, and often appeared more jerky than funny. In 2004 Kilborn would elect to not renew his contract for the show, to move on to other projects.
CBS wasn't about to give up though and instead bought in Scottish stand up comedian Craig Ferguson. Ferguson was able to finally deliver the type of show CBS was looking for to challenge NBC and O’Brien. Ferguson was quick witted, zany, and above all charismatic and likable. Under Ferguson The Late Late Show was often more comedy & skit based than pure talk show. As if these factors weren't enough to help CBS, O'Brien's show was slowing down and falling into a bit of a rut making Ferguson's Late Late Show an attractive alternative, especially if it meant not changing channels after Letterman ended.