Letterman Revolutionized Late Night. Ellen’s the Perfect Replacement to Revolutionize It Again.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 3 2014 6:45 PM

Drinking and Dancing the Late Night Away

Why Ellen is the perfect replacement for Dave.

140403_CBOX_LettermanEllen
Out with Dave, in with Ellen.

Photos courtesy CBS, Telepictures/Warner Bros.

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.

Letterman swigging from even a fake bottle of liquor acknowledged the historical betwixt-and-betweenness of the 11:30 p.m. timeslot that neither Leno nor Conan could fully exploit. There are no jokes on Letterman. His monologues from the desk are networks of inference, nudge, and innuendo. Watch him even now: He’s barely articulate, but he is communicating. The anachronistic gesture of drinking from the desk—it’s 11:30, time for a drink, but Letterman, unlike us, is still at work!—showcases, above all, the chaotic potential of television at that time of night. There is no “after hours” on network television. There is no time when it’s-just-you-and-me. But there is, as Letterman knows, the possibility of faking it.

Jimmy Fallon, placed at 11:30, has made the radical decision not to change at all. When Letterman began, there were no DVRs, there was no Hulu and no YouTube. Success existed within the time that one’s show was broadcast. Letterman pressured that space, but always existed within it. Fallon acts as if timeslots don’t matter because, for all intents and purposes, they don’t. Fallon has the money and the name of The Tonight Show, but he runs it just like he ran his old show. And his bread and butter­—viral video—has remained the same. Fallon is the beginning of a new generation of 11:30 hosts for whom the idea of a timeslot is an anachronism.

There are a lot of reasons Ellen would make a phenomenal replacement for Letterman, and that list could easily begin and end with the fact that she would be the only openly gay person and the only woman in a landscape of straight men. But that’s obvious. What isn’t immediately obvious is that Ellen belongs to this interstitial timeslot. She belongs to—maybe even pioneered—this new generation of hosts who don’t care what time it is. It’s in the sharp sense of anachronism that Letterman and Ellen share in their drinking, but, more than that, it’s manifest every time Ellen dances with the lights on. Dancing, we must all agree, does not belong during the day. Dancing, when things are going well, straddles the line between prime time and late fringe. Dancing during the day brings what is normally hidden to the light. 

Ellen begins every episode of her show with a carnivalesque dance party. When the show premiered, this seemed an awkward ritual. The audience stood and clapped as they were told, and Ellen, determination in her eyes, would sashay through the crowd, fishing. But, as Ellen grew into her show, as the audience learned the shorthand, the dancing became the focal point. The audience now waits impatiently through Ellen’s nightclub-lite monologue, the butts in the seats prepare to spring into action at the least thump of an 808, the room already taut with anticipation by the time the DJ drops the beat. She swivels her oxford-shirted arms at an easy middle distance between waist and shoulders, she engages in short dance-offs with women in the audience, gleefully hip-checking the limits of representable female desire. The soul train of dips, dance-offs, and faux desire that unfolds structures the rest of the program—guests dance to the interview area, Ellen frequently invites professional dancers to perform—and another midafternoon is consecrated. The dance party calls Ellen’s audience into being.  Watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show, we are all a glowing, revolutionary, dancing demographic.

The now long-concluded battle over The Tonight Show was not a battle over a timeslot.  It was battle over time itself. A lot of press was devoted, during Conan’s grim season, to whether or not Conan could translate to 11:30, whether Leno’s audience would follow Conan. And Jimmy Fallon’s opening monologue in the premiere of this latest incarnation centered around the false idea that Jimmy needed to introduce himself to a new audience. The longer a host is sedimented in a timeslot, the more it can begin to seem that the show has a stable and eternal viewership. If the Tonight Show wars and their ultimate victor revealed anything to us, they revealed the wrongness of this myth.  If the host swigs from the bottle, the viewers will take a nip. If they tell you it’s late, it’s late. If they tell you it’s early, it’s early. There’s no such thing as Tonight, there’s no such thing as Late. But, most importantly, if the host dances, you will dance.

Phillip Maciak is a professor at Louisiana State University, and he writes the "Dear Television" column at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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