Late Night Bands and Their Affect on Late Night

Chad White, TeamCoco, Bedtime: 10PM

If the past two years is any indication, the landscape for late night talk shows is changing. Last year, Stephen Colbert decided to end his run as the character of Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report which led to him taking up the Late Show mantle that was left by David Letterman. Craig Ferguson also left his Late Late Show with James Corden replacing his twilight spot. Jon Stewart, too, stepped down from The Daily Show leaving his seat for Trevor Noah. On top of that, Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show took the coveted post Daily Show spot Colbert Report once held. Jimmy Fallon took over the Tonight Show as Seth Meyers stepped up to run Late Night. These shows are hosted by some of the funniest names in the industry but, as they try to differentiate from one another, they all have one thing in common: house bands.

Music is a big part of late night television with bands playing introduction music, bumps to commercials, songs for made up games, and playing the guest on stage. Many bands can cover songs for guests as they walk on stage which makes for interesting choices and mixes. Bands have to have personality, an area where the band leader shines. Conan’s Basic Cable Band is led by Jimmy Vivino, a multitalented guitarist who took over for Max Weinberg. Similarly, Jimmy Kimmel Live! features Kimmel’s childhood friend Cleto leading Cleto and the Cletones. What Conan and Kimmel don’t have, however, is music stars more akin to Letterman’s Paul Shaffer. Star power may not have been the goal when it came to choosing band leaders but the Tonight Show, Late Night, and the Late Late Show have some big names when it comes to music. Are those names possibly too big to commit to a decade long career in late night band playing?

When Jimmy Fallon began his tenure at Late Night, he brought along one of the music industry’s most prolific bands in The Roots. Led by Questlove, The Roots have entertained both the live audience and the viewers at home with their head bobbing tunes. These guys are musically talented. Period. It’s amazing what they can do especially when they come together to play a riff off of something Jimmy said. Is Steve Higgins doing a funny voice while Jimmy improvises a bit? The Roots have the right musical accompaniment for such a situation. What’s more is the band is able to play different genres as seen in the game “Freestyling with the Roots.” On top of that, Black Thought can spit out rhymes with whatever the band plays.

Questlove and Black Thought have taken their talented group to become one of the most respected bands in music let alone late night. One thing I don’t get though is how this group has time to do anything else. Other bands tour and play secret concerts but The Roots maintain a strict TV schedule of five shows a week. They’ve had upwards of over a dozen members since the group’s conception all the while releasing eleven studio albums, three collaborative albums and two Eps. How they manage time is beyond me.

Fred Armisen’s 8G Band on Late Night also baffles me. Their indie rock tones are run by none other than the comically and musically talented Armisen. Given the hastily created nature of the band along with Armisen’s improvisational nature, it’s amazing these people play so well with one another. Of course practice can be attributed to it but I’ll continue to pretend each note is made up on the spot with the group following the leader. They have various other musicians sit in for a night, sometimes a week-- from Saint Vincent to Brad Paisley to Maya Rudolph – to defining results. This band is good, possibly because of the tight quarters and small amount of members.

The 8G Band comes off as a great punk band you discover on Spotify and end up buying their albums (which is how I came into Sleater Kinney). The only issue is when Armisen leaves to film Portlandia or do some other entertainment based job. He’s gone for weeks at a time leaving the 8G Band sans a leader (and name), Meyers with no sidekick, and the music just a tad less interesting. Armisen comes off too busy to be doing this as a job. Can he juggle this and Portlandia while still maintaining his wit? He’s been doing it so far but I’m afraid he’s stretching himself thin.

James Corden made headlines all over the alternative comedy scene when it was announced Reggie Watts would be leading his band. Watts was the band leader on Comedy Bang! Bang! the television show making enough time to even do the theme song for the podcast every week. He’s always been a guy who, essentially, did what he felt was funny and right. From TED talks to standup, Watts is able to play with the best musicians out there. What’s more is that he improvises most if not all of his music. The band on the Late Late Show, Karen, is his perfect baby. It’s the Swiss army knife of bands as they play samples of hard rock, jazz fusion and everything in between.

Like The Roots, Karen is diverse and, like The 8G Band, they’re a ragtag (read: hipster) group. But Watts is too weird for a mainstream audience to enjoy. Those who do know him, love him profusely but others can be put off by his performance. It’s here that viewers have to be more open minded. Very much like Armisen, Watts is able to do improv – a skill that works well for a sidekick. He traded in long shooting days on Comedy Bang! Bang! (add to that driving across town to sing for thirty seconds) to do an extremely late night show that probably only stoners will enjoy live while the rest of the world judges the YouTube clips.

The late night band arena is fast changing. The music may not be the heart and soul but it is a big aspect that ties the show together. They give a live show appeal to what could end up being a bland talk show. The 8G Band and Karen are wonderful additions to the late night talk show band lineup that was once ruled by The Roots.