Episodes: Friday mailbag (March 10)


Time for another mailbag! You folks need to send me some more questions. I almost had to beg my wife to send one in (and, actually, maybe I'll answer hers, because it was really interesting).

Maxwell asks:

Wasn't Late Night with Jimmy Fallon awesome? That was a genuinely fun, entertaining show. It was even kind of cool. That is definitely not the Tonight Show. I have never been able to articulate exactly what changed in the programming, besides the focusing in on celebrity gaming which to me can't be the only reason, so what about the Tonight Show turned Fallon from cool to lame?

This is a tricky one to answer, because on the surface, not much has changed between the two shows. Tonight Show is just a bigger, more elaborate version of Late Night. I suspect some of the divide lies in that -- Late Night was always more unassuming, and Tonight Show, driven by its storied past and its need to be the top show in late night, makes everything that happens on it feel bigger and more elaborate.

Now, I was never an especial fan of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. I certainly thought it was a fun program, but I always preferred the controlled lunacy of Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (which I still miss every day). Yet it's hard to say Fallon's Late Night was a bad program. Its "celebrities having fun" vibe seemed like it would slot perfectly into the Tonight Show berth, but it also felt like Fallon tried to blow it up too much on the move to the earlier timeslot.

And here's the other thing: I don't actually know that that 11:35 timeslot is all that compatible with what Fallon did. Certainly it was for a time, and he still leads in the 18-49-year-old viewers. But the best late-night hosts were really great at adjusting with the times and building shows that could respond to multiple scenarios that happened in the news. Carson, Letterman, Stewart -- all three were expert at presenting a show that was predictably unpredictable, where whatever was taking precedent that day would subtly guide the show. (Colbert is doing this right now, love it or hate it.)

The reason the late-night talk show format is so hard to change is simply because of how these shows function in most people's lives: it's something they watch as they go to sleep. And "a few jokes about the news, followed by a comedy bit, followed by interviews, followed by music or stand-up" is pretty much the perfect kind of show to fall asleep to. The best late-night hosts find ways to bob and weave through that basic template. They feel like they have points of view on whatever's happening. Even Jay Leno, much as I hated him, seemed like he had a point of view on his show and the country that watched it.

I'm not sure Fallon has that, and I think it's burying him a little bit in the early days of the Trump administration. (It also doesn't help that his audience, being the most mainstream, is also the likeliest to have large numbers of Trump supporters in it, who won't go with him on jokes making fun of the president. Colbert's audience is pretty liberal-skewing.) That leaves Fallon feeling a little like a king without a kingdom, wandering his own set, looking for something that will stick. But because he's not skilled at working within the rhythms of his show to respond to the news or whatever, he constantly seems a little like he's running to catch a bus.

That's all well and good in the last two years of a presidential administration, when people are tired of jokes about the current political order and waiting for a new one to take shape. (And remember that Fallon's Tonight Show debuted in 2014.) But it's a lot harder to fake that in the early days of a presidential administration, when all people want are jokes about the new political order. Leno understood these currents intuitively. Fallon just... doesn't.

And, incidentally, this is also why I scoff at the thought that James Corden might someday replace Colbert. Corden is perfect for 12:35, when the audience is mostly hardcore night owls who want to laugh at weird shit. He would be buried at 11:35.

James asks:

I'm a fan of the British sitcom Peep Show, which (despite some attempts) has never been successfully turned into an American sitcom. There's another attempt under way right now, I hear, but I seriously doubt it will work: the show seems untranslatable to me. But then I might have said that about the British version of the Office, which was really successful in its American adaptation. Is there some pattern that explains why some American adaptations of British shows work and others don't -- something about certain themes or settings, styles of humor, etc.? Or is it really all down to the quality of the producer/director/cast combination that ends up adapting it -- that any show could cross the Atlantic if the right people worked on it?

Peep Show is a fun series. You should seek it out. (I think it's all on Hulu?)

So there are a bunch of things going on in this question, but the core one seems to be: Why do some American remakes of British sitcoms become All in the Family or The Office, and why do some become the US Coupling (throws salt over shoulder)? And I'm afraid the answer is just: "Execution and rethinking the core material for a new country's audience."

Like I don't think an American Peep Show would be that difficult at all! At the core, that show is about becoming an adult, when you're already an adult, which is a comedic theme in basically every country. But the devil is always in the details. It takes a Greg Daniels to see what's universal about The Office -- the employee/boss relationship -- and what needs to be updated for a new country -- Americans tend to be a little more chipper about their horrible office jobs, because we're terrible. Similarly, Norman Lear zeroed in on what was universal about Till Death Do Us Part -- people argue to the death over things in families -- and wisely updated almost everything else with very specific American cultural references.

So I would say that most foreign remakes that succeed are usually willing to throw out everything but the core premise and the character relationships. This means that the shows that translate usually have some particularly novel relationship or premise element really close to their centers. The boss/employee relationship on The Office, for instance, is unlike anything else on TV to that point. TV is all about elasticity, and something like Peep Show has already proved that there are several seasons' worth of story there. So that might be half the battle.

But, for instance, I think something like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia could quite easily be shipped overseas, and perhaps the most successful American sitcoms to be remade in other countries are Who's the Boss (which was a huge hit in Germany of all places) and Everybody Loves Raymond (which has popped up all over the world). Both of those shows are universal, with very specific and new ideas core to their premise, and enough elasticity to run a long time. Comedy is tough. It sometimes benefits from getting what video games would call a "localization."

Paul asks:

Do you think user generated online content sites (YouTube, Reddit, Twitch) will have any profound effects on the television industry in the coming years?

I feel like I just answered this last week, so I'll answer it the same way I did then, which is to say, "Yes, substantially" and also, "Not really."

What we are living through right now is, I would argue, a reversion to what has been the dominant mode of human cultural consumption for our species: niche-driven entertainment. Thousands of years ago, your niche was your village, and while certain stories survived that world to become ones we still hear today, for the most part, you were stuck with what the entertainers in you village were into.

Once you get to the 20th century, though, essentially every entertainment form became mass entertainment. (Even in the 1800s, most popular music was sold via sheet music, for instance. Everybody was singing the same songs, but also performing them differently.) And that worked for a while -- and was a big part of America's rise to cultural superpower -- but by the end of that century, things are starting to splinter, which catches us up to now, where this splintering is happening at a rapid pace.

I would argue that this, to some degree, is a big part of the famous "bubble" from the 2016 election. It's not hard to completely ignore, say, NCIS, because there are so many other options. But NCIS is still a wildly popular show. There are a handful of TV shows, a handful of movies, and a handful of pop singles that genuinely become mass-cultural phenomena every year. But that list shrinks a little bit more with every single year that passes.

So the question above is often phrased as "will YouTube (for instance) take the place of TV?" The answer is going to be yes for a lot of people, and TV will feel that on its bottom line. But it's also going to be "no," for a lot of people, and TV will be just fine. As the niches splinter ever further, we're going to learn just how few people can sustain a major media enterprise. (My guess is: more than Hollywood would like, but fewer than you would probably expect -- I would be willing to bet that, say, a few thousand people who paid yearly subscription fees could keep a modest TV comedy going.)

But my other big argument is that this fracturing of the media landscape has an inevitable end point, and then we're slowly going to move back toward a bundled world, like the one we had in the '90s. The mass culture will remain splintered, but we'll have more points of access for it, if that makes sense.

So: Yes and no.

That's all for this week!

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.