As the Great Late-Night Realignment of 2014-15 continues, one thing is clear: The East Coast/West Coast beef lives on, if not in hip-hop, then on late-night television.
This week, CBS announced that, when Stephen Colbert takes over David Letterman's "Late Show" next year, he'll keep the show at Broadway's historic Ed Sullivan Theater. Actually, it wasn't just CBS who made the announcement; it was CBS, several New York state legislators, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. That's how big a deal it is that Colbert is not moving the "Late Show" to Los Angeles.
Not that there was much chance the show would move, though Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti made a game try at persuading CBS to move the show to what he called "the entertainment capital of the world" in a letter he wrote to the network in April, shortly after CBS announced Letterman's retirement... and two months after Jimmy Fallon moved NBC's "Tonight Show" back to New York after the legendary franchise had spent more than four decades in greater Los Angeles.
Colbert probably didn't need much persuading to stay in New York; he and his family live nearby in the Jersey suburbs, and he and his entire "Colbert Report" staff (some of whom will likely follow him from Comedy Central to CBS) already work in New York at a studio just blocks from the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Nonetheless, the New York state government sweetened the pot by offering CBS a $5 million grant to renovate the theater and up to $11 million more in tax credits. In return, CBS agreed to keep 200 year-round jobs in the state -- about 50 more than California lost when "Tonight" returned to New York.
(One job-holder who's relieved that the "Late Show" is staying put: Hello Deli owner Rupert Jee, whose frequent appearances on Letterman's show have made his sandwich shop around the corner from the theater into a tourist attraction. As a result, Jee says, he's starting to decide how to immortalize Colbert in a sandwich.)
Still, the geographic tug-of-war over the "Late Show" is about more than economic impact or local bragging rights. It's about edge, and right now, New York has it.
Not just the edge in numbers, though it does have that. Manhattan is home not just to "Late Show" and "Tonight" but also "Late Night With Seth Meyers," "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver," "The Colbert Report" (for now), and (next year, after "Colbert Report" ends), "The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore." Los Angeles has "Conan," "Jimmy Kimmel Live," "Chelsea Lately" (until August, though Chelsea Handler is likely to keep taping in L.A. when her show moves to Netflix), "Real Time With Bill Maher," and (until the end of the year) "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson."
But New York also has the edge in edge. It's a grossly oversimplified generalization, but the New York shows do seem to be more cerebral and have more bite. The L.A. shows are funny, too, but in a more absurd, less provocative way.
That's not a knock on either city; there's an argument to be made that late-night shows shouldn't be too edgy. After all, they're for people who are trying to fall asleep. And, as the ratings for Johnny Carson and Jay Leno proved over the decades, more people would rather be comforted gently on their way into that good night than made to think too much.
It's a matter of taste, perhaps, though there are many who think of Conan O'Brien as a cautionary tale. His show succeeded in New York for 17 years, but when he moved it out to Los Angeles in 2009, he watered it down, lost viewers, and was canceled within six months. He was able to present the same laid-back, Los Angeles-type show on TBS, a cable network with a much lower viewership threshold for success, but does anyone think "Conan" is as good as the old "Late Night with Conan O'Brien?"
Maybe Stephen Colbert will be a compromise figure in the battle between edge and comfort. He'll certainly be less edgy than he is now on "The Colbert Report" –- he'll have to , in order to get the mass audience CBS wants – but he'll still retain some edge – because what else did CBS hire him for, if not is known comic gifts?
Another sign that Colbert will be allowed to retain some edge: CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler said this week that the new "Late Late Show" may not be a talk show or a comedy show at all but may instead focus on politics. If Colbert's follow-up is brain food, à la "Nightline," then surely he'll be discouraged from making a "Late Show" that encourages viewers to put their brains to sleep for the night.
By the way, we still don't know when the transition will take place, though the New York Times' Bill Carter, who knows more about late-night TV than anyone alive, believes Dave will step down next May, with Colbert taking a few months to transform the studio and prepare his staff, then debuting the new "Late Show" in September 2015.
Meanwhile, Dave is winding his show down by displaying the kind of bluntness that old folks claim as a privilege of age once they know that they don't have to worry about anyone else's opinions anymore. Having done more than any comic to turn crankiness and irritation into an art form, he does whatever he pleases and lets his guests do the same. The other night, 26-time guest Ricky Gervais pleaded with Letterman not to retire, not because he's a national treasure to whom we're not ready to say goodbye, but because, as a retiree, he'll grow even more restive at having to listen to people without getting paid for it, and he'll become a nuisance to his family. On Wednesday night, Billy Crystal made a seemingly impromptu visit, interrupting the host's monologue, throwing some insults Dave's way, and plugging his own Emmy nomination (for his HBO special "700 Sundays") to whatever Emmy voters might have been watching, before leaving as quickly as he'd arrived.
No doubt we can expect a lot more of this sort of thing over the coming months –- stars dropping in to pay Dave a backhanded tribute. And why shouldn't they? Letterman was an innovator to whom all other current late-night hosts owe a debt of influence. But long after he stopped innovating and started acting like a bitter old man, his curmudgeon shtick became so familiar that even what little edge he still had became more of a comfort than a provocation. In a way, he's shown Colbert and all the rest how to be edgy and comforting at the same time. That innovation is his last gift, and it's the kind of edge that even those late-night viewers who prefer comfort will miss.