Feelings on Late-Night TV

When you google “Late night TV is” into the search bar, the top 2 auto-complete suggestions are “Late Night TV is dead” or “Late Night TV is dying.” Quite popular opinions circulating right now.

We need a new era of transformation in American late-night television (both SNL & talk-shows). Talk-shows especially should no longer be fixated on political monologues mocking Trump or inviting famous celebs for canned interviews because that’s just a horrible representation of America itself as a country with our diversity of interests and backgrounds. Why can’t we shine more light into real topics and people who are struggling to get more deserved attention? Why can’t we talk more about concerns of minority communities? Why can’t we talk more about international news or bring more international celebs? Why can’t we share deeper conversations on philosophy and religion?

Repetitive formats get old and predictable, and bore the audience. If these shows are designed to create laughter, then they have veered away from perhaps the most important element of laughter of them all — creating surprise. Unexpectedness. Unpredictability. If there’s anything I’ve learned from doing stand-up comedy for years is that a limited range of material is boring for the audience. Viewers crave novelty, stimulation, surprises. Different voices, different conversations, different moods. Heck, the viewers themselves are changing. The only thing NOT changing is the late night tv shows.

Having said all that nasty stuff about late-night TV, I have tremendous respect for all these hosts. My favorites are Conan and Trevor Noah.

There is something to say about SNL. According to what I’ve learned, when Lorne Michaels first launched SNL, it really was sensational, something that people had never seen before with amazing skit parodies of current events and pop culture references. SNL itself was considered satiric, groundbreaking and surprising at the time. Which is important to note. Now that audience tastes have evolved, the show formats must evolve with them. In a way, comedy is a moving target that leaves the obsolete behind. You must have your fingers on the pulse of audience psyche and know how to create “difference” from the mainstream so that it breaks the usual pattern. When SNL first came out, it WAS the new pattern, the new kid on the block. Now that SNL is the old dinosaur, there will be NEW patterns and NEW kids on the block that can take down the incumbent. There has to be. It’s a natural pattern throughout history. Even Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart were the new fresh kids on the block when they first started satirizing Republicans. Now, the scale is tipping to the other side.

As a millennial and a racial minority, I badly want to see somebody break that mold in late-night. Many of us are familiar with the traditional formula that has made late night TV successful for decades with stars like Carson, Letterman, Leno and Conan. But that formula itself is being challenged as archaic by a growing portion of the younger demographics in today’s world where people continue to veer away from traditional network TV to YouTube, Instagram and streaming for content. The game that late-night TV should play is to use its massive production scale, strong brand name, existing fanbase and talent pool to push for more original innovation and think outside of the box.

“Desus & Mero” on Showtime is a great example paving the way for the future. The hosts trade jokes with each other in a studio that feels like watching two friends talk about the latest topics. They casually exude authenticity and “real-ness” that today’s viewers are dying to see. It’s also refreshingly different. The references they make and the lingo they use are also spot-on with younger minority demographics, and their Bronx regional specificity gives them a strong niche. It’s a new platform for an under-represented demographic with comedic talent that the people like. People get something they’ve never had before, see things they’ve never seen before.

Another example of disruptive comedy is “The Eric Andre Show” on Adult Swim. That show is genius. He has literally made a career out of satirizing the traditional talk-show format, and the viewers love him dearly. Eric Andre showcases a new possibility that should not be ignored because he dared to change the talk-show game itself and succeeded. These guys came out not to swim in the same ocean as the other late-night shows, but to create their own blue oceans where nobody has gone before. There’s absolutely no competition there because people have never thought of it yet. And there is the prize. I wouldn’t be surprised if Eric Andre and Hannibal Buress spent agonizing amount of hours strategizing and planning absurdity to make “The Eric Andre Show” a success. It just looks funny, fun and crazy from the outside but it takes amazing dedication, courage and divergent intelligence from the right-brain to pull something off like that.

Eric Andre sleeping during his show. His job involves not working at his job.

“A Little Late with Lilly Singh” is a peculiar example (of innovation that has not been executed correctly) that’s been mind-boggling to me. I’ve been a fan of Lilly’s Superwoman days on YouTube because she’s so great at character sketches, impersonations and writing her own relevant and funny content for camera. And then NBC puts her into the same cookie-cutter late-night talk show format that EVERYONE should be avoiding. Monologue jokes. Exaggerated audience reactions. Celeb interviews. It’s like taking Michael Jordan out of the NBA and putting him into Croquet. Go play Croquet, Michael Jordan. Well, why? He was doing so talented in the NBA!

Lilly needs to write more sketches. She needs to be real for us again. She needs to have real conversations with Indian-Americans and Indian-Canadians. I saw a brief segment on her show that showcased her writers, which gave me a little bit of an insight into what might be going on over there. The group of writers looked a bit like intimidated young kids who were well-intentioned but lacked the imagination to shake up the status-quo. They were making jokes about white men, sexual innuendos, socks and etc. That’s not Lilly. What the hell? Was Lilly ever known for bashing white people on YouTube? No, I watched her because of her amazing Indian parents impressions.

But I think to succeed in today’s comedy, you must be more than just a stand-up. More than just another late-night host. More than just another funny guy who can do improv. More than just another guy who can do a tight set on stage. You must be strongly connected with the people of the real world and provide surprise and new perspective. That’s inherently UN-fakeable. The system is authentic.

In a way, there’s opportunity. As long as mainstream TV is unwilling to adapt, it leaves room for small players to act as “startups” and disrupt everything. Like David vs. Goliath.

Self-Doubt Stops Your Progress

In a cold winter day in 2011, I attended my first open mic at Broadway Comedy Club. An older gentleman came up to me after and said “hey, if I got half the applause you got today at MY first mic, I would have been ecstatic!”

A friend whom I met at that mic (Lawrence D) is still in the standup comedy community today and thriving. 99% of other people from that mic? Probably moved on with their lives.

That first night was my ray of hope. That night really started everything. Now 9 years later, I think about that 23 year-old kid going up on stage with a piece of paper, with a sense of pride. My jokes were horrible, and it was mostly attitude stuff (as most 20-something kids do) but once I got hooked, I couldn’t stop.

Over the past 9 years, I’ve stopped many times along the way, too many times. I’ve been moving at a snail’s pace, and my progress to be honest, sometimes, is laughable. I really attribute it to self-doubt. And once you let negative momentum creep in, it becomes that much harder to muster up the courage and inspiration to get back on stage, it’s weird. But once you are on that positive momentum going out to mics and getting up on stage, you get high from it whether you kill on stage or not. As long as you get one laugh and your ideas out there, it’s a win, and you feel good and alive. It’s that feeling of growth. My brain gets happy from it, doing it, being in it. And craves it afterwards.

I just get pissed off about how many times I’ve stopped in the past. Job issues. Job loss. Relationship breakup. Depression. Rent. All kinds of life stuff got in the way of me going out every night, while other comedy peers were doing just that: dedicating themselves to the journey and the craft no matter how lowly their position and status was.

If I had unwavering confidence in my own abilities, I wouldn’t be going back and forth between “should I be doing it?” vs “should I not be doing it?” Those who make it far in the business, and those who have made it since 2011, are those with a steel mind that doesn’t get easily shaken by doubt or even seeds of doubt from others. That firm belief in their own abilities: “I won’t let anybody talk me out of this. I won’t let anybody else stop me because they don’t know what I know. They haven’t seen what I can do. But I believe in myself and going to see this through.” Those kids have made it now into LA, Late Night, Jimmy Fallon, Colbert, Conan, major leagues, Hollywood.

I don’t want to be on the bench anymore. For most of my life, I’ve mostly been observing others who are more accomplished and doing better than I am and wishing “what if?” Option A, Option B, Option C … One day I was pursuing the creative freedom side and other day somebody (most often people closest to me like my mom) was talking me into settling down and playing it safe. More time I waste in that fence straddle back and forth, worse I get at standup comedy.

It doesn’t matter anymore. I am not getting any younger. Soon, people will call me that old guy who’s been hanging around comedy way too long. I gotta risk it.

That realization that I’m getting old is definitely lighting a fire under my butt, which was much needed. Otherwise, life will go on as usual and nothing will happen. I will probably turn into an old man filled with regret, talking about the glory days all the time, not having achieved anything creative in particular while envying the guys and girls whom I used to hit open mics with in the past and now thriving and still chasing their dreams.

One advice for all aspiring comics and artists out there, don’t let doubt creep into your head. Once you let it take hold, it becomes harder and harder. First a seed of doubt. Then it grows bigger into a force that stops you from taking action. And once you are blocked, you stop taking action toward positive progress and growth, and then you are at the losing end of the law of momentum: “Things in motion stay in motion, and things at rest stay at rest.” And you can’t afford to be blocked. You can’t afford to rest. Your brain needs to be ON at 100% if you want to kill it on stage, as you know. You need to be at that 100% for days, weeks, months and years until that right opportunity strikes.

Nobody said following your dream and passion is easy. It’s probably the hardest thing. You risk your whole life on it. Many do give up. Many don’t get it.

But what would you rather do? What is God telling you to do?

I choose the path of self-belief. I cannot afford to let other people make me doubt myself anymore. Any worse than I already have, I will have completely lost my opportunities to do anything with my life before I’m too old and tired.

If you keep wavering because person A is telling you A and you follow that, and then person B is telling you B so you get back to that, you won’t accomplish jack shit with your life. That’s not the life I want to live. I decide to choose a path, and believe in it wholeheartedly and no more second-guessing that objective until the miracle comes. If you want all the glory and rewards that comes from that path, you can’t fucking do it as a “hobby” and expect to rise above thousands and thousands of others who are chasing the same thing. That’s not good enough for me. You might as not well do it if you are going to half-ass something.

You put in the daily pain, the superhuman effort it takes to achieve that over days and days and days. You build up the wall one brick at a time. One brick at a time, one joke at a time, one mic a time every day as best as it can be laid. Once you have that wall, you become unstoppable. And boom, you strike an opportunity.

No matter what people say, or naysayers or over-worried parents who want you to play safe, you have to block it out. It’s your life. And nobody can stop you, as long as you believe in yourself 100%. Because at the end of the day, people who love you the most and care about you will be very happy when you achieve your biggest dream. And they will be just as sad if you end up doing nothing with your life and sit home as a man full of regrets. They just can’t imagine you being something bigger than you because they are not you, and lack vision and imagination. Say “This is who I’m meant to be.” And put up a big “Fuck you” to everything else, and everybody else who refuses to let you. You prove all those other motherfuckers wrong. That’s the real prize. And once you do that, nobody can take that away from you.

I believe in God. He will lead me the right way, and not lead me astray. He won’t lead you astray either.