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Racing Toward TV's Future, Late-Night Shows Shift To Anytime Social Media

<em>The Tonight Show</em>'s Jimmy Fallon and house band The Roots sing with Adele during the show's Music Room segment.
Douglas Gorenstein/NBC
The Tonight Show's Jimmy Fallon and house band The Roots sing with Adele during the show's Music Room segment.

The late-night TV talk show wars aren't what they used to be. Success in that realm used to be measured by who got the most viewers after the late local news. For decades, it was NBC's The Tonight Show,whether hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson or, for most of his run, Jay Leno.

But the current Tonight Showhost, Jimmy Fallon, was one of the first to anticipate that you didn't need viewers watching you late at night — just watching anytime, on YouTube or social media. And viewers didn't have to watch the whole show. You just had to get buzz, and Fallon's way of doing has been with music.

He staged "Lip Sync Battles" with his guests, which eventually led to a spinoff series still running on Spike TV. He imitated rock stars singing very improbable cover versions of songs, like the late Jim Morrison singing a soulful rendition of the theme from "Reading Rainbow."

Most successfully of all, Fallon invited guests to sit down with him and his house band The Roots and, in a single take photographed by a single camera, use kindergarten musical instruments to do acoustic versions of their hit songs — as Robin Thicke did when he came by to sing a childishly charming version of "Blurred Lines."

There's a sense of joy in these performances. But if it's pure joy you want, nothing beats James Corden and his "Carpool Karaoke" segments on The Late Late Showon CBS.

With Fallon, all you get are infectious musical performances. When Corden drives singers around town in his high-tech-equipped car — photographing and recording them as they sing along with his car-stereo music selections — you get fantastic performances. But you also get genuine conversation, and some very, very human moments.

Corden's drive-along 15-minute trip with Adele is the most-viewed late-night TV clip in social media history — more than 102 million views and counting — and its appeal is totally understandable. The moment Adele gets in the passenger seat of his car, Corden compliments her on her hair, which starts a very casual conversation. Then, as he starts playing an Adele song on his car radio and she starts singing along, he slides in some pitch-perfect harmony — and she shoots a glance in his direction that basically says, "Who IS this guy?" Indeed.

You can't watch that clip and not smile. Just like you can't help choking up a bit watching him drive around with Stevie Wonder, and saying that his wife, a huge Wonder fan, won't even believe that they're together. So James gets out his cellphone, calls his wife and hands the phone to Wonder, who improvises a one-woman serenade so sweet, it makes James cry on the spot.

By taking his show on the road, Corden has preserved, and condensed, the very essence of the TV talk show. He's on to something big. Another impressive, even earlier pioneer in the same regard, has been Jerry Seinfeld, whose show on Sony's Crackle streaming site, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, starts its eighth season next month.

What talk show hosts Fallon and Corden and Jimmy Kimmel and the others are doing is finding discrete bits of their shows to present and disseminate on shared social media. What Seinfeld is doing is reducing the show to those pieces alone. It's still a talk show — a very smart and clever one — but boiled down to a very focused, absolute essence.

Last season, Seinfeld picked up Garry Shandling for a ride and it turned out to be one of the comedian's last interviews before his death. And coincidentally, some of their conversation was about death. It's a tender little show, and I'm certain Seinfeld feels fortunate to have captured it when he did. He and Garry are two old hands, both of them getting their big breaks doing a few minutes of standup comedy on Carson's Tonight Show.

Both Seinfeld and Shandling subsequently changed TV comedy more than any of their peers with their respective sitcoms. And could talk about it, all these years later, in ways that were both wise and funny.

I suspect that Seinfeld and Corden, by getting away from the studio and doing something so laser-focused and enjoyable, are changing the landscape again. Corden doesn't need The Late Late Show to keep doing carpool karaoke — and that segment, itself, could be a 21st century talk show all its own. Just like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Both these shows are in the fast lane, racing toward TV's future.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.