I remember getting to watch The Johnny Carson show when I was a kid, mostly during the summer only because it was on way past our bed time during the school year. While my most vivid memories are of my dad laughing at what he found funny (dad had a very funny laugh as well), the show ran long enough for me to remember Carson's personality and of course, many of the acts and guest that appeared.
Letterman surfaced with his show just as I was about to graduate high school and it became a staple with me, and at the time, with the college crowd across the nation.
as the years went on, talk shows just started popping up everywhere; the cable TV explosion created many new outlets for this format and talk, whether it be late night or otherwise, just multiplied its presence exponentially.
For me, over the last decade, there has been no one to be more consistently entertaining than Jimmy Kimmel. Yes, Letterman is the current "legend" but over the past number of years, I find that show has become formulaic, predictable and a bit old. It's not that I hate it or anything, it's just not got the same "it" factor as Kimmel.
Leno has moments that are funny but he plays to the "safe" crowd and over the long haul, it's just not entertaining. I will watch reluctantly when there's a guest I really want to see but otherwise, I have no use for that show.
Conan was another big hit with the college crowd when he first surfaced in the early 1990's. I happen to like Conan but his is not the type of show that is going to attract a broad audience (in my opinion of course). I think Conan has a very specific appeal but also possesses the ability to keep a percentage of his viewers even when they find themselves growing out of the demographic of specific appeal (again, college-ish).
I could write lots of pages pulling out people like Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall, the debacles of Chevy Chase and Pat Sajak, Carson Daly and many others who've occupied this space but I'm not writing a book on the subject, just offering a short article on the topic from my own point of view.
I will close with a mention of SNL alum Jimmy Fallon. When Fallon's current show first aired, I wasn't sure it would last but fortunately, both I and the larger audience were patient in letting it find its voice and I think it's quite entertaining. on the horizon, Fallon has been tapped to take over the Tonight show when Leno retires (hopefully) in 2014. Clearly, NBC is expressing a commitment in that they are moving production back to NY city (where that show has it's roots) for the first time in more than four decades. the big question is will Fallon be able to adapt his current show essentially "Fallonizing" the tonight show or will he be forced to fade the colors from his comic stylings and create a more vanilla product to be able to maintain the vanilla crown that has kept the current Tonight Show boat afloat for the last two decades?
I guess only time will tell.