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‘The Story of Late Night’: CNN smartly recaps seven decades of TV after dark

Docuseries beautifully captures the provocative stars of the wee hours, from Johnny Carson to David Letterman to Conan O’Brien to Amber Ruffin.

Johnny Carson speaks on “The Tonight Show” during his first episode as host in 1962.
NBC

Back in the antenna-on-the-rooftop days, when I was 12 and 13 and 14, prime-time television wasn’t very cool. Sure, you had a few hipster-relevant efforts such as “Room 222” and “Good Times” and the breakthrough powerhouse “All in the Family,” but there was also a whole lot of “The Brady Bunch” and “Lotsa Luck” and “Ironside” and “Tony Orlando & Dawn” and “Gunsmoke” and “Here’s Lucy.” Laugh tracks and corn abounded. I had no use for much of that stuff.

Late night? That was another story. Late night television was as cool as the one room in your house that had a window air conditioner. When you watched Johnny Carson with his checkered suits and his sideburns and his racy innuendo on the “Tonight Show” and even various pretender/contenders such as Dick Cavett and Joey Bishop, you felt like the kid that had sneaked out of bed and was on the stairway while the parents were having a “Mad Men”-esque cocktail party in the den, with cigarettes and highballs and slightly risqué conversation.

The CNN original docuseries “The Story of Late Night,” premiering Sunday, beautifully captures the essence of post-late news TV, from its nascent years at the midway point of the 20th century through present day. As the series underscores time and again, from the beginning, late-night TV has always been more provocative, more controversial and looser than daytime and primetime TV. It’s a reflection of human nature: sunny and relatively hopeful in the morning, winding down in the evening, open to something a little darker in the deep of night.

As you’d expect, this is a clip-heavy show, and we’ve seen some of these grainy old bits countless times, e.g., Steve Allen doing his man-on-the-street routine in the 1950s or the Ed Ames tomahawk throw gone awry on “The Tonight Show.” But that’s just the beginning. This is an exhaustive and illuminating linear history of late-night TV, going all the way back to the largely forgotten Faye Emerson, who hosted late-night discussion and comedy programs in the late 1940s and early 1950s, thus becoming the very first talk show host. We also see archival interview footage of Johnny Carson and David Letterman, and present-day interviews from a bounty of current and recent talk show hosts, including Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Whoopi Goldberg, Amber Ruffin, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers, each of whom offers unique perspective on the experience of cranking out monologues, interviews and comedy bits night after night after night.

After night.

Equally fascinating are the recollections of comedy legends such as Ray Romano and George Lopez, who recount the equal parts exhilarating and terrifying experience of making their “Tonight Show” debuts and seeing their lives change forever in a span of 10 minutes. (As someone who has been a guest on “The Tonight Show” and with Conan, Kimmel and others, I can attest to the surreal, out-of-body experience of stepping out from behind a curtain onto a stage so brightly lit you can’t see the studio audience and trying to be funny and smart and entertaining in an eight-minute segment that flies by. And the risks for me were considerably lower than they are for stand-up, given I usually had a wonderful safety net in Roger Ebert with me, and I was just talking about movies or current events, not standing all alone and trying to make millions of unseen viewers laugh.)

Before Jay Leno was given David Letterman’s dream job as Johnny Carson’s successor on “The Tonight Show,” the two comedians were friends, and Leno appeared often on Letterman’s “Late Night.”
NBC

“The Story of Late Night” does a brilliant job of detailing how Johnny Carson navigated the tricky waters of turning out a mainstream, apolitical entertainment program in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s without coming across as achingly out of touch — or trying too hard to keep up with the times. In a masterful stroke, Carson went on vacation for a week in 1968 and turned the mic over to Harry Belafonte, who welcomed guests such as Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Lena Horne, Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. (Peacock is airing “The Sit-In,” a 90-minute look back on that historic week in television. )

Later episodes provide thorough looks at the transitional years when Carson was gradually riding off into the sunset while his protégé David Letterman was reinventing the genre and doing a kind of anti-talk-show talk show, and the brutal and in retrospect rather silly “late night wars” between Leno and Letterman after Carson’s retirement. The final two chapters will chronicle the 2000s, with the likes of Chelsea Handler and Jon Stewart making indelible marks, and recent years in which Seth Meyers, Desus + Mero, James Corden and Amber Ruffin have further reshaped the genre. These days late-night TV is as much about getting viral views the next morning as making a splash in the dead of night — but it’s still the place to be for regular doses of sharp-edged humor. “The Story of Late Night” does a marvelous job of cataloguing the amazing history of the American late-night talk show.