In the nineties all of the hosts of Late Night shows, their sidekicks and their band leaders were (with the exception of Kevin Eubanks), well, white dudes. These institutions were forces in popular culture, dictating water cooler conversation throughout the week. It was a golden era where America was not so steeped in constant existential dread. We all just wanted a laugh after the evening news. As far as politics, the late night shows were a place for politicians to show their lighter sides whilst campaigning or promoting a book. The hosts were by design apolitical, as they had to appeal to broad swaths of the viewing public.
Things have changed.
Right at the beginning of Obama’s first term, there was a major shakeup in the late night lineup. Networks were likely feeling the impending cultural shift in the country. Jay Leno was set to retire, Conan O’Brien was to ceremoniously take take the mantel as the rightful heir to the throne that his hero Johnny Carson had occupied decades earlier at the Tonight Show. And Jimmy Fallon was slated to step in and take over Conan’s Late Night time slot. We know how that all played out.
With the changing of the guards, there was inevitably going to be a changing of the bands. Much to my delight, Jimmy Fallon had chosen Philadelphia’s own The Roots as his house band. As a Philadelphian myself, it was something that I took as a personal accomplishment, though I had absolutely nothing to do with the decision. Thusly introducing The Roots, and their afro’d polymath musical director and band leader, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, beaming them onto millions of televisions across Middle America. The Roots, who up until that point had, only been known in popular culture as the band from the first two seasons of Chappelle’s Show on Comedy Central, or within the industry (and to their diehard fans) as the “hardest working band in show-business”. Now they were the hardest working band in Late Night. The appointment of The Roots to the coveted spot would be a monumental signal across the late night landscape, and set a trend that is evident today in the complexion the music departments across the late night genre. The Roots would also go on to be the band for The Tonight Show along with Jimmy Fallon, but not after some well documented tumult.
Fallon leaned on The Roots immensely in the first years to establish an identity for the brand. So much so, that there were rumblings that during the early months of Jimmy’s Late Night, Lorne Michaels (the executive producer of all things late night on NBC) was so incensed that The Roots were much more appealing (and good at their jobs) and were casting too wide a shadow over Fallon, that he was looking to replace them. That would have been a bold move considering the theme of Fallon’s Late Night was a sped up version of a Roots original “Here I Come”. The fast, brash percussive number was no doubt The Roots using the platform to not only make their own statement, but to differentiate Jimmy’s Late Night from the Conan show, and to provide a stark contrast from the his new peers. Fallon, along with The Roots, were the bold new generation. Conan’s show was then, and in its current form on TBS, perennially youthful. But Conan was reared in the tradition of the classical late night era.
Letterman and Leno, of course, would go on to be legends. And Conan, though gaining cult status himself, was still on at 12:35. Some might say that his own legend gestated a little too long in Jay Leno’s shadow at NBC.
On Conan’s final Tonight Show, after just seven months in the slot, he encouraged us all to “work hard and be kind.” History, it would turn out, would be very kind to Conan. He and TEAM COCO were, after all, the ones that revolutionized the entire late night genre and set the model for itst success in steaming era. Paving the way for Jimmy Fallon, The Roots, and other sketch based, made-for-the-web shows. Even as his contemporaries were becoming artifacts of a very conservative old guard. Conan would prove that he was, as Nas said, “never on schedule, but always on time.”
The next addition to the late night family was Englishman James “Coroden” (sic) in 2014. But I don’t know who James Cordon is. However it did make news that Brooklyn alt-comic and classically trained musician Reggie Watts had been chosen as the band leader of the Late Late Show, following the last months of David Letterman’s Late Show. An older, cranky, seasoned Letterman, now opposite a younger, spritely Jimmy Fallon on NBC could not compete for new eyeballs. “Croden’s” (sic) choice, as house band (called Karen, lead by Watts) to me was slightly odd. Not only for obvious reasons, and definitely not for lack of Watts’s musical prowess, but because even then it was painfully obvious Late Late took a note from Fallon in choosing a wonky hipster house act with some street cred. Corden’s principal player and band leader — absolutely probably and coincidentally — also had a very large afro. In other words that are entirely my own: a pretty unremarkable white guy in an unappealing time slot brings his very interesting and talented black friend along to the party to make him cool by association. I knock no one though. Get that paycheck. “Codren’s” (sic) show’s most recognizable intellectual property is the host’s part time job as a singing Uber driver.
The third installment of this Late Night saga was ushered in by CBS in the form of signing on Stephen Colbert (not Stephen Colbert, the right wing pundit). Colbert was set to take over for David Letterman in 2015. I was as surprised as anyone, but as a huge fan of the faux pundit, I wanted to see what the real Colbert could do at 11:35. Fortunately (and some could argue unfortunately) Colbert was not coming into the position as a nobody — just as somebody else. He was already immensely famous and adored from his political satire show on Comedy Central. And maybe by divine intervention, Colbert’s Late Show premiered smack in the middle of an election year (yes, that election year). Which set the stage for his show, but how network Late Night television as a whole would function as a filter for our political discourse around the then President elect and his merry band of vagrants.
But we are talking about bands here, and aiding in the effort to reintroduce Colbert: as himself to network television and to the world, would be the musical stylings of Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human. A decision that would prove itself to be, let’s say, odd.
The public’s appetite for late night programming has transformed greatly since the old timers stepped aside. The producers, show runners and hosts clearly got wise, and began to offer up their shows in bite sized (hopefully viral) bits and monologues, primed for eternal a life and on YouTube. Personally, while celebrity panel brings me no joy (because it’s fake and pandering), keeping in step with the rest of the country, my apatite for political commentary is borderline insatiable, and late night has wisely positioned itself as a crucial part of that meal plan. The guests, if they aren’t political figures or Justin Timberlake, make it very obvious they would rather be anywhere else. Yet there they are, in the guest’s chair, selling a movie or doing a cooking demo while there’s a war going on outside.
The Late Show and NBC’s Late Night (now hosted by another SNL alum Seth Myers) play to their hosts’ strengths as former fake newsmen, and use their monologues and the lengthy segments at the top of their shows, for shamelessly left leaning, but expertly written and well researched “deep-dives” into whatever nonsense is going on that week.
While Jimmy Fallon and his Tonight Show have matured and settled into a rhythm and tone more closely resembling the one set by his predecessors, the musical accompaniment by The Roots have also become a little less radical. Maybe at the direction of Michaels after some controversy. But their presence is still an integral part of the show’s DNA, and offers the show a relevancy, music literacy and industry cache still unmatched by any band in the history of the television genre. Fallon’s show now relies less on the band members’ personalities for the comedy as the music is more than able to do the heavy lifting. Though The Roots are very funny and their musical gags are the stuff of legend.
Looking at the landscape of Late Night and the role music plays in each of the of the behemoth brands, one thing is clear: yes all of the shows are still hosted by straight white men, but someone somewhere has taken care to account for representation. It is apparent in the guests, musical acts, and most of all in the band leaders. And that is some sort of progress.
One of the more head-scratch inducing figures in Late Night to me isJon Batiste, the band leader and musical director for Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. Batiste is a Juilliard educated, former child prodigy from a lineage of prolific New Orleans musicians. Batiste is in good company among late night band leaders. And he is also black and has an afro. Bucking the tradition of late night bands, Batiste and his band Stay Human are a decidedly folksy, even artistic choice for a notoriously cosmopolitan brand. A very safe choice for a time slot long after kids had gone to bed. A peculiar direction on the surface, but if you know anything about Colbert: as himself, he is a self avowed devoted Catholic, proud South Carolinian, and comedy’s gentleman a la Steve Martin. Where The Colbert Report’s Colbert character was his opportunity to exercise his id through performance, the much more introspective, moralistic, and folksy Colbert — aka himself — is able to exercise his comedy chops un-ironically, within in his own skin. If you look at it through this lens, the choice of Jon Batiste and his band sorta makes sense.
Taking a survey of of the late night hosts in the modern era (since Letterman’s move to CBS to today) the band leader has been a de facto sidekick during the monologues. Strategically adding musical accompaniment to accentuate punchlines. Or — if they happen to be mic’d — the band leader will make their own jokes or provide a little relief to the host if a joke doesn’t land quite right (or at all). In the case of the legendary duos of Kevin Eubanks and Jay Leno (obligatory “he’s from Philly”), Paul Schaffer and David Letterman, and even Max Weinberg and Conan, were each eccentrics in their own right. Over the course of their respectively long runs each band leader became a integral characters in their televised lounge act. Famously, Max Weinberg (whilst also serving as the drummer of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band), who was a cartoonishly well kept, clean cut, a no nonsense professional (not to mention real life rock star) straight man to Conan and Andy Richter during their heyday on NBC, would very regularly join in on ever outrageous bits, and once switched places with the host.
In the case of Kevin Eubanks and Jay Leno, Eubanks always seemed like he was enjoying the show and Jay’s performance. The quintessential contemporary hepcat that didn’t wear suits. It always seemed as if it was just a formality that he had to be there and play bass. None the less, adding a musical sophistication to the show that remains legendary.
As for the classic duo of Paul Schaffer and David Letterman, where the modern era of late night hosts ushered in the class of tramps in expensive suits, Schaffer was positioned as the sophisticated stooge to Letterman’s carefully crafted holier-than-thou, erudite and waspy television persona. They key to Letterman’s charm was that he never hid the fact that it was an inconvenience for him to be hosting his own show, but his band leader would always call him out on it. Schaffer is also unique in that he wasn’t just circumstantially funny. He had natural comedic timing and he constantly made Letterman laugh. Not to mention the outfits.
Colbert clearly a very cerebral and well read comedian with above average intelligence, traits that aren’t always an advantage in late night. Equally, Batiste is certainly qualified for his role, but his comedy chops are something to be desired.
Toning down the smarts would seem antithetical to Colbert’s brand of comedy, as he has continued his critique on politics as the main driver for the show. Jimmy Fallon’s relationship to the same subject is still summed up by this clip, one where Fallon boyishly and naïvely tussles then candidate Trump’s hair (in plain sight of The Roots — it still irks me to this day). The other Jimmy, Jimmy Kimmel’s, appeal to politics on television only went as far as it related to his family.
While Colbert can still be wildly entertaining, his comedy suffers because I can tell that he his a man who actually cares what he’s talking about. Where he was able to directly confront issues on his comedy central show, he is forced to take more of a neutral position (as apposed to being a combative character) in order to elevate whatever the guest is selling. You can sense the deep conflict, muted outrage and existential torment he goes through every night during his panel discussions with guests who are often not as intellectually engaging or reads through the news at the top of the show.
I can only imagine that these awkward moments are acutely apparent to Jon Batiste who, out of some sense of duty, places ill-timed “Ha Ha’s!” and “Heeeeeeys” “and “Awww Nawww” and “Woooow” (if you’re, black you know that wow) in his Creole drawl throughout the monologue. At times it feels to amuse no one else but him. Batiste is not a sidekick in the classical sense of the word, nor should he have to be. But whenever Colbert looks off camera, it seems as if he’s looking for one. Maybe when he casually peers over at the bandstand to look at Batiste, he hopes to see if an off color joke was “okay”. Batiste, I imagine, just yaws with a Ray Charles like affectation, and feigns being tickled pink by Colbert’s rich white man musings for the amusement of the audience of tourists. When truthfully (I’m probably projecting) they are both hurting. Brought together by, according to Batiste, an off-chance encounter with Late Show’s producers at a cocktail party for the media elite in Aspen. Often, Batiste makes attempts at little quips under his breath (which are audible) or he punctuates a joke with a flutter of the ivories. Sometimes his attempts land for those that catch it, sometimes they just clutter up the audio and muffles the punch of the joke. Colbert never seems to be visibly amused — or notice.
On the rare occasion that Batiste and Colbert share an exchange, it is often cringey. Also, I hardly ever feel like Colbert genuinely acknowledges the band’s existence outside of the obligatory introductions during the transition between segments and at the top of the show. This clearly upsets me. I’m not sure why.
We are no doubt living in a time of heightened racial sensitivity, especially when it comes to how diversity is commodified in entertainment. But there’s something about the on screen relationship between Colbert and Batiste that sends my paternalistic Spidey senses is into overdrive. To be fair, I also felt the same way about Jimmy Fallon and The Roots in the early years, but I already covered my aforementioned biases. Colbert and Batiste have no inside jokes, and they have no palatable report. And as a viewer, the pairing seems to undermine both of their immense talents.
Full disclosure, I haven’t owned a television in almost six years, so there is also the very big chance that I am not their target demographic. I’ll keep watching, though. ♦