Late night television has always occupied a unique space in the cultural landscape. Part comedy, part news, part interview show, there’s a distinct sensibility to late night, even if the breadth of shows makes the format impossible to completely pin down. The illuminating new six-part documentary The Story of Late Night—airing Sunday nights at 9pm ET on CNN—not only uncovers the origins of many of the familiar late night tropes, but illuminates the larger role the genre has played in shaping our collective comedic, and civic, attitudes.
The first episode, which premiered last Sunday, provides incredible lucidity into how the format was established (the “why” is quite simple: it was “invented to fill up time to sell advertising,” says Hasan Minhaj, one of the many current and late night hosts and writers interviewed for the show). As the original host of The Tonight Show, Steve Allen established the “basic grammar” of late night, as his son Bill says. Now-familiar bits included interviews with ordinary people in the audience, physical comedy and stunts, and, more generally, an ironic juxtaposition between appearance and sensibility, a quality that would also serve hosts like David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.
When Jack Parr took over The Tonight Show in 1957, he introduced another novel element to late night. “Steve Allen was an entertainer,” says David Bianculli, author of The Platinum Age of Television. “Jack Parr was a person.” Parr’s emphasis on his personal life along with his interest in current events added a new “talk show” dimension to the genre. And when he walked off the show on-air, it was one of the earliest examples of late night hosts becoming part of the larger news narrative.
The show also takes time to spotlight the contributions of early pioneers that have been overlooked by history. According to Television and Popular Culture professor Robert Thompson, the very first late night talk show was hosted an actress “best-known for her plunging neckline,” The Faye Emerson Show premiered in 1949 on CBS and featured a mix of interviews, music, and comedy. While Thompson says it was still “embryonic,” the show was “experimenting with the building blocks that merged together into what we think of as a late night talk show.”
Although far too few women have been given the opportunity to follow in Emerson’s footsteps as late night hosts, the show takes care to spotlight the important off-camera contributions that women have made to the format. Following a screening of the premiere, Bill Carter—an executive producer on the series and author of The Late Shift—moderated a panel with three such women, former Letterman head writer Merrill Markoe; Amber Ruffin, host of The Amber Ruffin Show; and The Daily Show co-creator Madeleine Smithberg. Their discussion, embedded below, touched on everything from “Found Humor” to representation, to funny anecdotes about working on some of the most iconic comedy shows of all-time.
The Story of Late Night will flatter the nostalgia of older viewers while providing genuine insights into the genre for younger ones. In other words, it’s both entertaining and surprisingly illuminating, much like the format it explores.
Watch new episodes of The Story of Late Night Sundays on CNN and catch up on the show anytime with CNN on demand.