How the ‘Late Night Wars’ Parallel the WGA and SAG-AFTRA Strikes

The current WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes are born of the same corporate foolishness that spawned the ubiquitous ‘wars’ that helped destroy late-night TV.

Joshua M. Patton

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David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien in front of a picture of Johnny Carson and his The Tonight Show logo.

In the age of the Streaming Wars, the Late Night Wars seem almost quaint. So much drama about which middle-aged white guy got to host which variety talk show after the local news. Yet, when broadcast television was still the biggest game in town, The Tonight Show was one of the most profitable franchises to ever hit the medium. It was so powerful, hosting a second show with the exact same format immediately after it became a TV kingmaker. The Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are both on strike. It’s such a rare thing, it last happened before Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show. There is little the two situations have in common, practically. But both conflicts reveal those who profit most from creative labor inevitably destroy it because they don’t understand it. And when they do, they blame the failure on “creatives.”

The so-called Late Night Wars came about because of just how successful Johnny Carson was as the host of his show. Folks who are only aware of Carson through cultural osmosis may think he created The Tonight Show. He did not. Comedian Steve Allen created it, along with a trio of others. Allen was the first to host, lasting three years. Jack Paar changed the show’s format and overall vibe considerably, holding the chair for five years. Carson followed. He spent the next three decades as the undisputed king of late-night television. He was an important cultural fixture who could “give” someone a successful Hollywood career overnight.

Eventually, David Letterman created Late Night, the one-hour follow-up to Carson. The formats were similar: monologue, comedy piece, interviews, and a musical guest. However, where Carson was the guy “your parents” liked, Letterman was the guy kids would stay up late to watch. He challenged the idea of what the late-night talk show could be. People tuned in to Carson to see what the guests would say. People tuned into Letterman to see what he would say to the guests. This two-hour block was so popular…

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Joshua M. Patton

Entertainment, culture, politics, essays & lots of Star Wars. Bylines: Comic Years, CBR. Like my work? Buy me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/O5O0GR