The Monologue

30 Sep

The late-night talk show circuit, despite the encroachment of other media (like podcasts), is still where the top level of the comedy world can get its best exposure. So, as a student of the game I try to keep up on them, my favorite one being Conan. However, I’ve started to get this weird vibe watching these shows, though, like I’m looking at something alien and unfamiliar, and this detached feeling has only increased with time. I think it’s because of one of the built-in sections of the common talk-show format: the opening monologue.

My judgment is biased because I hang around New York alt comics. I don’t know how the road rooms works or how some of the touring comics in the bigger clubs work, but to me, the late night monologue is this weird time capsule where the last remnants of 50’s stand-up comedy exist in suspended animation. It’s the only place where that specific style of comedy is still acceptable. It’s hard for me to accept someone like Letterman or Leno as a supposed vanguard of modern comedy when they stand there in a suit and tie making one-line quips about the day’s news and jabs at politicians that always stay tastefully harmless. It just makes me think of Bob Hope or Jack Benny or some other fugitive from the Borscht Belt who’s doing the five cleanest minutes of his tummler routine.

It’s such a stark contrast to what has happened to the rest of stand-up comedy over the last decades. I rarely see any comedian who DOES dress up on stage, unless it’s done with a self-aware attempt to build a character, like Paul F. Tompkins, and the content of many comedians now tends to aim for the personal as well as the topical, and often the aggressively satirical. The only comedians I’ve seen recently do monologue-type jokes are the ones who actually WRITE monologue jokes for these shows! Yet the delivery and style of late night hosts continues to feel like George Carlin and Bill Hicks never happened.

The force-field that keeps that part of the show stuck in its time warp is probably just the necessity of the fact that they are nightly shows, and it’s just easier to write jokes from the paper than to write probing, satirical or personal stuff every single day. If you throw more punches, they won’t be as strong. That’s just a fact.

Or is it? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do their shows four nights a week, and all of their jokes are topical, doing what would ostensibly just be a stretched out version of what the late-night monologue attempts to do, yet they manage to do it without a sense of banality or intentional blunting of any potential cutting wit. Marc Maron does his podcast twice a week, and every episode begins with a new monologue, completely original and not a recycled part of his stage act, that may not be laugh-a-minute punchlines, but it is humorous and always deeply personal.

Of course, Maron’s on the internet and Stewart and Colbert are on cable. The big late-night talk shows (Leno, Letterman, Fallon, and Ferguson) are on network television. They have to deal with censorship, a Standards and Practices department, and also the fact that their jokes have to be funny to Joe Six-pack in Nebraska and not just Angel Castillo in New York.

Fine. But taking that into consideration, that’s why it’s even weirder that Conan, now on TBS, a cable station that boasts giving him so much more creative freedom, feels the need to parrot the network format, down to a monologue that, increasingly, feels like it could be done by any of his counterparts on the networks.

Watching last night’s episode, it seems that Conan has begun to chafe himself on the idea of the monologue and how it should be done. Several jokes failed, and he began to spend more time commenting on the jokes than telling them. Fans of Conan know his real creative talent lies in sketches and character pieces, and he knows that, too,  so his boredom with still having to do set-up punchline for 10 minutes a night after more than a decade on television is palpable. So why does he do it? It’s his show. He has his name on it. Why not open the show with a sketch or a character bit or other segment instead of doing what’s essentially holding the audience’s hand and saying “I have to slowly introduce you all to the idea that this is a comedy show, so here are some straight-up jokey-jokes so you don’t get shocked!”?

It’s also especially evident when they have an actual comedian as a guest to do panel discussion following the monologue. There was an episode of Leno that Louis C.K. appeared on a few months back. Leno, of course, was doing the show with his typical attitude of smug, proud mediocrity when C.K. came on and was just his usual genuine, honest self, and it provoked so much more of a genuine reaction than Jay could have with his “Hey, so Osama Bin Laden’s been killed, turned out it was O.J.!” material. It was like seeing a baby posed next to a corpse.

Am I suggesting the abolition of the late-night opening monologue? That would be an incredibly selfish and narcissistic thing to suggest.

So the answer is yes.

No, actually, I don’t really know. It just seems odd that it’s viewed as part of some immutable sacred structure of the late-night talk show, and is always done with the same kind of attitude and feel that it’s been done with since the days of Steve Allen and Jack Paar. The real answer will probably lie, as it has with most media questions, with the internet. Marc Maron actually filmed a TV pilot based on his podcast, so maybe we might see more talk-shows on TV done in his style soon enough, or more of the comedy world’s attention focused around podcasts and less on Leno and Letterman, and then maybe we can finally sweep away the final remnants of Post-80’s-Comedy-Boom tame hack that we accept as rote comedy law.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: