After 30-plus years, David Letterman departs as the landscape of late night dramatically shifts toward online content


You’ve seen the Emma Stone lip sync battle. You clicked on the clip of celebrities reading mean tweets. You may have even shared the video of Carly Rae Jepsen singing “Call Me Maybe” with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots playing pre-school instruments.

These clips, which usually combine celebrities, nostalgia and some sort of asinine behavior, are ruling late night television. Remember Stupid Pet Tricks? Consider these Stupid Celebrity Tricks.

Late night TV is preparing for another seismic shakeup this month, with David Letterman exiting his chair as host of “The Late Show With David Letterman.” He departs May 20 after 22 years at CBS (and 11 years at NBC before that), and judging by the current landscape, he’s getting out just in time.

Rival hosts Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, both of whom cite Letterman as a profound influence, have shifted the focus of late night TV to viral content, passed around on the Internet the next morning. News feeds are cluttered with links to this celebrity lip syncing or that celebrity getting a pie in the face, and rarely does a week go by without some clip from Fallon’s show — usually fetishizing some pop culture artifact from the 1990s — going mega-huge.

Letterman, either because of his age or a lack of interest, doesn’t play the viral game. Where Fallon splits his guests’ time between talking to them and playing games with them — the latter designed for Internet consumption — Letterman talks to his guests. He’s comparatively old-fashioned and slow-paced, like reading a book while everyone else scrolls through Twitter.

In terms of online metrics, he’s getting crushed. On Letterman’s YouTube page, his most-watched clip — a 10-minute remembrance of Robin Williams — has 4.4 million views, and only two other clips have eclipsed the 4-million mark. Fallon, meanwhile, has 50 clips with more than 10 million views, including the aforementioned Emma Stone lip sync video, which has been seen 52 million times. Kimmel, too, has dozens of clips with more than 10 million plays, including one vid with Justin Bieber from five years ago which has 57 million views.

Because ratings for late night TV are peanuts, with shows routinely grabbing between 2.5 and 3.5 million viewers, online presence has become an important measurement of popularity. And that Internet-friendly content has some feeling disenchanted with the form.

Andrés du Bouchet, a writer for Conan O’Brien, took to Twitter last month to blast the current state of late night comedy and the way it relies on celebrity shenanigans. “Comedy in 2015 needs a severe (expletive) shakeup,” he wrote. “No celebrities, no parodies, no pranks, no mash-ups or hashtag wars.” (For his part, he was smacked down by his boss, who later wrote on Twitter, “I wish one of my writers would focus on making my show funnier instead of tweeting stupid things about the state of late night comedy.”)

It’s no wonder the content is popular. We love seeing celebs — whose promotional obligations are the centerpiece of late-night TV — do just about anything. (You wouldn’t watch a video of your neighbor lip-syncing “Sweet Home Alabama,” but you’ll probably watch Reese Witherspoon do it.) Besides, it’s easily digestible and quickly disposable, which makes for perfect Internet fare.

But Bouchet made a strong point. Letterman’s world, especially during his early days at NBC, was an edgy one where freaks and weirdos felt welcome. Now the cool kids have taken over and late night TV is just another form of celebrity worship clogging our feeds. Letterman’s departure won’t mean much for what you see getting passed around online the next day. But it’s a blow to the simple art of conversation.

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