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The State of The Suit and Tie on Late Night

When one thinks of late night talk shows, a knee jerk response might bring to mind images of a fake city backdrop, a classy, but not overwrought stage, the silhouette of an audience with giant TV cameras on the periphery, assorted decorative plant life accents, a nice wooden desk, tasteful, but subdued couches, a tight house band, and, of course, the titular host in a very sharp looking suit as the star that the rest of the show orbits around.

Personally, I think of the host first when it comes to late night before all that other business described above. Yet, I’ve come to realize the image of a late night host isn’t really complete without a smartly picked suit and tie (anything goes for daytime talk shows as far as I know). Well, it used to be anyway.

Time moving forward dictates taste evolving, demanding change. If you think of late night as it’s own niche within comedy, there’s a progression you can see specifically in late night hosts throughout the decades and what they wore as connected to the whole dynamic of the late night talk show.

If you look at the lineage of hosts on The Tonight Show, “the old guard” of late night talk shows if you will, all the hosts have worn the uniform of a suit and tie. Steve Allen, the very first host of The Tonight Show, sometimes wore a three piece suit and a pocket square, which is almost the only thing separating him from his predecessors appearance wise. Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon all routinely wear dark and/or neutral/subdued color single breasted, two button suits with the only noticeable differences coming in the choice of classic, wide patterned tie (the type that many of us only wear to only the most formal of occasions) and length of lapel on their suit jacket. Carson might go so far as to not match his the color of his pants and jacket.

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These slightest of changes reflect that idea that, largely, outside of the persona of the host, the format of The Tonight Show has largely stayed the same. There’s a monologue on current events, a house band that plays the host over, “deskpiece” bits, celebrity interviews, and musical performances. From Steve Allen to Jay Leno, the formula hasn’t really changed with the host being the only catalyst that may or may not have drawn a different audience.

You’ll notice, that the other very traditional late night talk show, The Late Show with David Letterman, is not much different in this regard. Dave dons his almost signature double breasted suit (it’s such a staple that Steve Martin recently made fun of it while being interviewed by Letterman). Letterman does a monologue, his signature Top Ten, does celebrity interviews, and has bands and comedians. It’s another classic example of the late night talk show.

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Sure, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Craig Ferguson, Arsenio Hall who are currently doing something a little different (or a lot, in some cases) from the late night formula all still wear the traditional late night suits as repeatedly described above, but, in many ways, the suit is one of the last things that are connecting them to late night talk show format. Kimmel likes big time pranks, Fallon plays games like charades with guests, Craig Ferguson often goes off book and does a monologue that’s more conceptual than topical, and Arsenio aims to be a talk show host that crosses color lines. If you want to throw Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in there because they share the same time slot, they wear a suit, basically, to keep up the illusion of late night and then mess with the format almost everywhere else.

So now, in 2013, this long held standard is starting to crack in its veneer. With the Internet single handedly redefining entertainment across the board, networks have been trying to figure out how to translate late night programming for the younger demographic, millennials, etc.. As a result over the last year, so many talk shows have been tried out from pilot stage all the way to getting picked up with some being cancelled. At one time or another, Diablo Cody was aiming to have a talk show and Will Ferrell was developing a talk show so late that they would do it like an “early morning” show amidst a whole pack of late night projects.

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Of that bunch, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, Nikki and Sara Live, and The Pete Holmes Show made it to air. Even something decidedly not anything like a talk show from Nerdist’s very own Chris Hardwick in @midnight has entered the arena. As all four shows are expanding/redefining the concept of late night comedy programming, they showcase something that is a whole other planet from a navy blue blazer, matching pleated pants, and a paisley tie. W. Kamau Bell has worn everything from a blazer with zippers to a graphic t-shirt under a button up paired with jeans. Pete Holmes will make sure to dress down some way with sneakers, colorful pants, or no tie, or even a field jacket (his boss Conan O’Brien has even commented on him not wearing a suit to differentiate himself). Of course, Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer chose to wear fantastic, colorful outfits that feature wonderfully patterned dresses, skirts, tops, to even a glamorous pair of shorts. That’s right, shorts. They’re pretty snazzy and worn over leggings, but that’s still on a whole other planet from a suit and tie. Let’s also not forget that Chelsea Handler also is trailblazing in this respect with her own talk show Chelsea Lately sporting leather pants, jeans, and more.

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It’s subtle much of the time, but Hardwick is in line with this trend with a really skinny tie and often leaves the top button of his shirt unbuttoned, what used to be a faux pas in men’s fashion.

Pairing with their collective dressing down, all those shows just mentioned eschew the late night talk show model by not having a house band or not having a desk, not doing a monologue, not being a talk show at all and instead a competitive riff-off on the weirdest things on the Internet. Sure, Totally Biased and Nikki and Sara got canceled, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that late night will still be stuck in a man’s suit. Yes, Seth Meyers will take over Late Night from Jimmy Fallon and will be in a very simple, but effective suit. Comedy will also still get more specified and niche because of the Internet and will allow for all sorts of differing types of late night shows.

I mean, would you really expect Chris Gethard to really wear a suit on his recently ordered Comedy Central pilot of The Chris Gethard Show? As the pilot order has proved, Gethard has made wearing a t-shirts, etc. as a host work for him.

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So, for now, the suit and tie aren’t relegated to some television museum, but the late night arena is expanding for more than something you can buy from Brooks Brothers. With that being said, it’s kind of ironic that they funniest suits are worn by people who don’t deal in comedy at all. Namely, sports commentators Craig Sager and Don Cherry are the kings of wearing what you thought no one would ever wear.

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7 comments

  • I tried really really hard to see the point of this post but alas, I failed.

    Mentioning @midnight was contrived at best, a shameless plug at worst. It’s a friggin game show and Chris is wearing a suit all the time (except maybe the Halloween episode) for Christ sake. You might as well have mentioned Jeselnik’s show because it was in that time slot on tuesdays.

    This shouldn’t have been written, at least not from the “suit” angle. Write about the changes in Late Night in general, fine, but you are really looking like you’re desperately trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole here.

    Might as well have used Ferguson’s tattoos as the hook, which would’ve been just as worse I think.

    You should’ve written about the format. Monologue or not. Skits or not. The skits on Pete’s show and the lack of them on Ferguson’s. Goeff Peterson. Sidekicks in general. Remotes etc. etc.

    But suit and ties? No. A big fat no. Sorry.

  • But before the Daily Show with Jon Stewart there was the Jon Stewart Show where Jon would wear jeans and a jacket in more of a living room set up. I loved that show…..

  • Before moving to CBS, Letterman wore a double breasted jacket, tie, khakis and wrestling shoes often with tube socks. But i think overall the fashion choices of each host are more dependent on the host’s tastes and network convention than any other overarching trends. It’s highly doubtful you’ll ever see a tonight show host in anything but a suit and tie, since its ‘old guard’. But surely, depending on the network and target audience, you’ll see variations. Crossing my fingers that MSNBC wisens up and replaces Baldwin with Julie Klausner, since a woman host would be a welcome change in late night.

    The Jon Stewart Show was the future of late night, until it was axed. sorely missed.

  • Craig Ferguson has had a hate/hate relationship with the tie, for a while not wearing one, but now obviously hating it, even taking it off before the end of the show/during show.

    Ties suck.