Artie Grein on the State of Late Night
By Ian Hickenlooper | May 12, 2015 | Photos by Brinson & Banks
Mr. Grein is the host of The Tonight Show Starring Artie Grein on NBC. The questions and answers below have been edited and condensed.
At a time when there's so much change taking place in late night, you've been the one leading the charge against many of its traditional elements. Has that been a conscious choice?
I understand the question, I do, but at the same time I can't help wondering what's so untraditional about the structure of the Tonight Show right now? What's so outrageously different? I don't feel like I'm leading a charge. This is entertainment television. I keep up with the things people are saying, and sometimes I feel really confused by the anger and the criticism. It's not that serious. I'm not a war general, no one's making me fight for my right to play Charades after 11:30PM on a weeknight. My show is still, at the core of it, structured almost exactly like it's always been. There's a monologue, there's interviews, we close out with a musical guest. In between, there are new and exciting things, stuff we really enjoy doing outside the interviewer's bubble. I enjoy it, my guests enjoy it, the audience enjoys it. At the end of the day, that's all I care about. The Tonight Show has never been anything other than a vessel with which to help people escape from their lives. If you stay up to watch every night, if you call yourself a devoted fan, thank you. If you want to turn it on and fall asleep to me, that's an honor I can't put into words. If you don't even own a television, if you only keep up with me through YouTube and viral videos, that's okay too. We've been on top since we debuted. What we're doing is working.
Are YouTube views as good as money in the bank?
Monopoly money. When I see a clip has however many million views, I feel really excited, I feel like we did something right. To NBC, it's more of a - well, I'm not sure how to describe it, they've never called me in for a meeting on the State of YouTube, you know? To them, it's more of a gauge to see what the audience likes, and sometimes if something has a great deal of views then someone will come whisper in my ear about maybe doing more of that thing. So I don't want to say they're indifferent to it, but it's less exciting for them. Networks exist to make money, and YouTube doesn't do that for them. That's the bottom line.
What do you make of other late night writers who have suggested there's too much reliance on viral videos and celebrity sketches?
I know who you're referencing. I don't want to talk about that.
Does it upset you to not have that all encompassing respect from your peers?
He's not my peer! The guy you're talking about is not my peer. I'm not saying his name because I don't know his name. I'm serious, I don't. I wish him the best, I wish him happiness. I don't like people who are constantly attacking things. I feel like we've bred this society of bitterness, where it's cool to be a jerk, and that's gross. It's not even a symptom of late night writers, it's the world we're in right now, where it's awesome and fun to insult somebody or make them feel badly to build yourself up. People like that, people who are sitting around going, "this is awful and disgusting and ugh" not even just about my show but about anything, do you think they're happy with themselves? Like, are they happy as human beings? I don't think so. I think if you have that much cruelty inside you, if you have that much contempt, then your heart is clouded over with it. That's why I don't see the need to address that guy specifically at all. His boss already said what needed to be said. Work on your own show. Stay in your lane.
Do you find it to be an exaggeration when there's hand-wringing about whether the comedic elements you employ are somehow antithetical to what late night shows are supposed to do?
My main focus is joy. I hold Johnny Carson's work as dear as anyone, I practically prayed at David Letterman's altar when I was younger, if you want to talk about a real fan of late night television then in a lot of ways, you're literally talking about me. I was a fan before I was anything else. I think the genre is expanding and ever changing and that's what it should be doing. Stagnation isn't fun for anybody. I know the changes we've made aren't for everyone, I acknowledge that completely, but luckily there are different shows airing at the exact same time as mine, doing variations on the same theme. I hope the people who are genuinely in love with late night television can find someone they love amongst us. I think maybe what the naysayers need to acknowledge is that the Tonight Show isn't exactly what it used to be. On a good night, I have around four million viewers. Johnny Carson used to have eleven million. You can't say the times are a-changing. They've changed! We're there. We're at a point where people want something that isn't going to take up quite so much of their time. When you tune into my show, you get something new after every commercial break. I'm hustling, and the structure I've found works for me, and it works for my writers, and it works for our audience.
When I signed on for the Tonight Show and Late Night before it, there was no contract written in blood about the formatting. They knew the background I was coming from. I'm a Saturday Night Live guy, I'm an impressionist, I'm not the person you sign on if you want somebody who's going to sit quietly behind a desk and go, "Mhhhmmm..." Do I think there needs to be any hand-wringing? No! I don't think it matters! Like on the scale of things that matter, whether or not a sketch like "Ew!" is destroying comedy, that is a zero. That is the least important thing on the planet. Possibly even the least important thing in the galaxy, I don't know what kind of problems our alien kindreds are having.
Are you feeling optimistic about the future of the genre?
Stephen Colbert debuts in September, I'm feeling pretty pessimistic about my ratings this fall. No, I'm kidding. If he doesn't inspire optimism in people, I don't know what will.