David Letterman, the original late-night anarchist, is retiring. In 2015 he will abdicate CBS’s Late Show, the show that once served as his consolation prize but has since turned into a running critique of its rival, The Tonight Show. Who should replace him? Should someone replace him? Some have argued that the 11:30 late-night slot is an anachronism; Jimmy Fallon’s new Tonight Show, in many ways, proves it is one. That’s why the person who should fill it is the daytime queen of anachronism, Ellen DeGeneres.
Ellen, over the course of her increasingly successful run as a daytime talk show host, occasionally appears drunk on air. Not in the way that got Charlie Sheen fired from Two and a Half Men, and not in the way that the housewives of [geographical location] keep themselves visibly pickled. Ellen, instead, occasionally stage-drinks. One of my favorite episodes of The Ellen DeGeneres Show features P. Diddy as its primary interview. There is a playful give-and-take about Diddy’s parenting philosophy—his children deserve only the best!—before the conversation turns to Diddy’s popular Cîroc vodka, and the party begins. After displaying several elegantly packaged bottles on her coffee table, Ellen twists off the top of a bottle and takes a swig. The audience is uproarious with laughter. She wipes her mouth and takes another that lasts three, maybe four beats. “Would you rather drink grapes or potatoes?” Diddy asks after revealing that his vodka, unlike other vodkas, is not made from disgusting, Thanksgiving-dinnerly potatoes. “I’ll drink anything,” our host slurrily exclaims. Ellen? Drinking? At 3 in the afternoon? But it’s not just a one-off, it’s a window into a television genealogy and a link between Ellen’s show and her distant relatives at 11:30. It’s also one of a complex of reasons why Ellen DeGeneres belongs in David Letterman’s chair.
Letterman used to stage-drink. He’d make an uncomfortable comment or behold a pretty guest, and he’d pull a bottle of what appeared to be whiskey from beneath his desk, taking first a small shot, then a longer drag, lasting three, maybe four beats. It was an anti-joke, a satire of showbiz hedonism, a punch line directed, more often than not, at the guest in the chair next to him. It was, in its obvious ramshackle fakeness, an archetype of the whimsical avant-garde conceptuality Letterman is so rightfully credited with bringing to late-night television.
It was also a full embrace of the odd temporal situation of the late-night talk show format. The Tonight Show and Late Show occupy a precarious position, long serving as a bridge between the prime-time and late-fringe blocs of television airspace. Prime time is sitcoms, 10 o’clock dramas, Wheel of Fortune. Late fringe, extending until early morning, is Popeil Pocket Fisherman infomercials, premium-cable porn, heavy metal music videos, and the ghost of the young David Letterman.
From the 11:30 spot, Jay Leno spoke directly and earnestly to prime time. His jokes were nightly news, his guests were all charming legginess and laughably gay gay people. His bawdiness was harmless; his harmlessness was often icky. Conan, rest his weary soul, made the opposite mistake when placed in the same 11:30 spot. He spoke to late night. Back when he existed after midnight, his zaniness consisted of vomiting puppets, masturbating forest creatures, and an alienating physicality. In his brief stint on The Tonight Show, Conan brought along the same jokes but evacuated their content: empty silliness, an awkwardly tall man flailing his arms as if drowning. The show dared you to watch it, if you could figure out how.