The monologue isn’t the true measure of late-night comedy greatness. Any TV-friendly comic with a team of writers behind him can pull off some topical humor on the half hour. I prefer Conan’s wry delivery interspersed with meta-commentary on the format myself but I’m just as content to watch Letterman, Meyers or Fallon put their own spin on the news.
The interview comes a bit closer to approximating the true worth of the host. Fallon’s endless fawning over his guests is a far cry from Letterman’s cool, conversational approach and it shows: Letterman has continued to produce memorable interviews throughout his career while the best Fallon has managed in six years is squirming at Nicole Kidman’s story about trying to date him.
No, what separates the truly great hosts from the good ones is the remote segment.
The remote is a test that determines whether or not the host can ad-lib outside the studio, apart from the loosely-scripted celebrity stories and goofy skits that fill up the bulk of their programs. In a sense, it’s the comedic equivalent of stranding someone on a desert island and seeing if they can build a hut and forage for food or if they flounder without pre-determined plans and ready-made ingredients.
But the remote is dying and that bodes ill for the new generation of late-night comedy.
The remote has all but disappeared from the major network shows. In a little over a year on Late Night, Seth Meyers has left the studio once, to drink at an Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day. In scripted bits—like his Sorkin sketch about a Sorkin sketch—Meyers’ SNL pedigree shines through but his foray into remote work feels stilted, even after he downs a Leprechaun in the Vineyard (a shot of Jameson in a glass of Chardonnay). A drunk Seth Meyers, it turns out, is only slightly less uptight than a sober Seth Meyers. Like many late-night hosts, he idolizes Letterman but he’s much less comfortable than his comedy hero out in the world.
Jimmy Fallon has been a bit more adventurous in his tenure on The Tonight Show but he might as well not even bother coming out from behind the desk. A remote where he and Steve Higgins go indoor skydiving on a cruise ship turns into a one-note visual joke about the tightness of their jumpsuits—unless you count them humping each other on the floor. When he took The Tonight Show to Orlando, he rode a Universal Orlando Resort roller coaster with Kevin Hart but Hart does most of the heavy lifting within an already flimsy and obviously promotional premise.
Much was made of The Tonight Show’s return to New York when Fallon first took over but it could be filmed in Boise for all we know. Even Leno went out on the street with a microphone, Fallon just sends his writers instead.
Letterman understandably doesn’t get out much as he approaches retirement but he has certainly put in his time as the undisputed king of the remote segment. He has worked the drive-thru window at both McDonald’s and Taco Bell. At the former, when someone orders “two number threes,” he shoots back “I’m just gonna give you a number six” without missing a beat. When General Electric bought NBC, he tried to deliver a fruit basket to his new corporate bosses who treat him with hostility and refuse to even shake his hand. Sometimes, he would even take a camera crew and roam door-to-door scouring want ads, hanging out with Richard Simmons in New Jersey, or riding a snowmobile. Only Conan has ever come close to living up to Letterman’s Late Night energy.
The other late-night Jimmy doesn’t capitalize on his Man Show sketch comedy experience as much as he could but he at least shows off some improvisational chops in the real world. The recurring barbershop bits are powered less by Kimmel himself and more by the clientele but it’s nice to see the host interacting with people instead of celebs and cue cards. But Kimmel has also done some great remote work. When he shot out of Austin last month, he and Matthew McConaughey made some zany commercials for a local video store. And last year, he briefly became an Uber driver and ended up taking his first passenger—a dental ceramist from Gabon—on a shopping trip for tacky Hollywood souvenirs that he could take back to Africa.
“One day when you’re building a house—if he does a good job—you’ll pull this out and really blow his mind,” Kimmel says, drolly, of a “Best Contractor” mock-Oscar trophy.
You’d hardly expect ABC—a relative newcomer to the current talk show scene—to be doing a better job of living up to the late-night legacy than NBC.
But the death of the remote is more than just the loss of a time-honored tradition. It’s a vital component of the late-night comedy economy and its absence will be palpably felt.
The remote is an improvisational breath of fresh air that gives the host a chance to flex the comedy muscles that presumably landed him the cushy job in the first place. It forces him to actually try. For a few minutes in the middle of a rehearsed program, the audience get to see the host exert himself in attempt to create laughter, almost ex nihilo, while doing something as simple as, say, ordering fast food. It’s like watching an audition tape of someone who knows he will never have to audition again in his life—the very humility of it is endearing, even apart from the groundedness of the comedy.
Remotes also provide a vital sense of place for shows that can feel confined to their studios apart from some splashes of local flavor in the opening credits. When Fallon briefly did his show from Los Angeles in February, he could have at least gone to an iconic locale like Randy’s Donuts. Instead, he jumped through an inflatable mock-up of the famous sign in his studio. Fallon’s team ought to be ashamed that Conan did more remotes in Los Angeles in his first two weeks as host of The Tonight Show than he has ever done: Conan gave a tour on the Universal tram, he went shopping on Rodeo Road (not Rodeo Drive), and he went canoeing with Andy in a flood control channel.
When Conan films his show in a new locale, too, he dives headfirst into the community with a gusto you might not expect from someone who was recently kicked out of the most privileged position in comedy. In Dallas, for example, he became a deputy and a Mary Kay consultant. In Atlanta, he joined a Southern Baptist choir, attended charm school, and reenacted a Civil War battle. He’s done dozens and dozens of remotes across his time at Late Night and TBS. When he’s not filming them in the U.S., he’s filming them abroad in Ireland, Germany, Amsterdam, Canada, and most recently for his Cuba special.
And while he’s a capable all-around host, there’s nothing quite like Conan’s quips in a good remote. In his recent outing to a Korean spa with Walking Dead actor Steven Yeun, he feigns terror at the sight of the body scrub room.
“Is this where they do dolphin autopsies?” he asks.
It’s a whip-smart line that would never occur to Fallon and that Meyers might only be capable of writing down. It’s also late-night absurdity at its finest.
But what was once a staple of the late-night comedy scene might soon go extinct in a disquieting new era of perfectly-crafted viral bits, social media integration, and miniature celebrity game shows. The late-night talk show is becoming a hollow vehicle for delivering clips to YouTube and generating buzz on Twitter. So even if this new crop of hosts could pull off decent remotes, the segments would have too much personality to survive in this bland new ecosystem where what passes for comedy is drenching celebrity after celebrity after celebrity after celebrity after celebrity with a squirt gun.
Maybe one day, Fallon can have a water war with a celebrity in Central Park. Until then, it might be time to bid a tearful farewell to the remote—or to just keep watching Conan instead.
Samantha Allen is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast as well as a Daily Beast contributor. Follow her on Twitter.