The landscape of late-night television talk shows is an ever-shifting one, and seems to have been in a near-constant state of flux since the legendary Johnny Carson retired in 1992. But even before then, the list of failed talk shows over the decades reads like a Who’s That of entertainment, but that certainly doesn’t stop people from trying to become the next Carson, David Letterman, or Jay Leno.
One such host returns to the late-night airwaves next week when Arsenio Hall returns with a new version of The Arsenio Hall Show. The original edition aired from 1989 to 1994, and by most standards can be considered a success. Whether or not Hall, now 57, can replicate that success remains to be seen but it seems a fairly safe bet that he’ll fare better than the poor schlubs on this list.
Here, then, is a list of the top 10 late-night TV talk show bombs.
#10. ALF’s Hit Talk Show (2004)
I almost didn’t include this show on the list, mainly because I’m still not convinced the entire thing wasn’t a big goof to begin with. But assuming that TV Land was serious, I have to note that by all appearances this was a real talk show. All seven episodes of it, that is. They even pulled poor Ed McMahon out of mothballs to be ALF’s sidekick. And when I say poor I mean it. I’m fairly certain McMahon took this gig because he had run out of money.
But really, I needed to mention ALF’s Hit Talk Show because I know Jeff Giles is going to read this and I want him to know I’m thinking about him.
#9. The Stephanie Miller Show (1995)
There must have been something in the air in the 1990s that led to successful radio talk show hosts getting a crack at translating to TV. So it was with Stephanie Miller, best known these days as one of the most popular Liberal radio hosts in all the land. After a few years behind the mic of a popular, L.A.-based syndicated show, Miller was given a syndicated TV show by Buena Vista Television. It debuted in the fall of 1995, lasted 13 weeks, and averaged about a 1.4 rating in the interim. (Hint: That’s not good.)
#8. The Dennis Miller Show (1992)
Remember once upon a time, when Dennis Miller was one of the hottest comics on the scene and seemed to be our nation’s best chance for breaking away from the tedium of hackneyed “observational” comics? Yeah, me neither.
But back in 1992, before his disastrous stint on Monday Night Football and before he became the Ted Nugent of comedy, Dennis Miller waded into the waters of weekly syndicated talk shows. It was by no means a bad program — there were some great musical guests in particular — but neither was it popular. After just five weeks, The Dennis Miller Show became as obscure as one of Miller’s rapid-fire historical references.
#7. The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show (1997 – 1998)
No, this is not another name for In Living Color. Rather, it’s the Alpha Wayans’ attempt to find late-night success three years after that show had ended. While shepherding a sketch comedy seems to be a strength for Keenen Ivory Wayans, hosting his own show is not.
Still, I’d rather watch this than White Chicks.
#6. Thicke of the Night (1983 – 1984)
Just for the awful pun in this show’s name, it deserved to die an embarrassing death. Nevertheless, in 1983 the Canadian-born Thicke got the chance to compete with Johnny Carson after a fairly successful three-year run on the daytime talk circuit in the Great White North. Several attempts at retooling were for naught, and Thicke was given his pinke slipe the next summer.
But weep not for him. Not even 18 months after Thicke of the Night faded to black, its host appeared in a little-known ’80s sitcom called Growing Pains.
#5. The Magic Hour (1988)
When the highest-profile guest your talk show can book is a man — Howard Stern in this case — who has spent weeks relentlessly attacking your show as awful… well, that should be a sign. Another sign is when your own sidekick — comedian Craig Shoemaker in this case — gets fired for calling your program “an absolute nightmare.” And so it was that The Magic Show was canned after eight weeks, or just about the average length of an NBA playoff game.
How this show managed to snag Sheila E. as as bandleader is beyond me.
#4. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers (1986 – 1987)
The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was the first venture into late night for the fledgling Fox network, who chose her on the strength of her role as guest host of The Tonight Show. I can’t say I blame Rivers for jumping at the chance to sit behind a desk full-time, but the fact that she didn’t even tell Johnny about it first was a bad move — he never spoke to her again, even up until his death in 2005.
Even before Rivers’ show launched in October 1986, it was beset by troubles — affiliate griping and battles with network executives chief among them. Rivers was dumped in April 1987, while the show continued with a variety of hosts until itself getting the axe in October 1988.
#3. The Pat Sajak Show (1989 – 1990)
There must have been something CBS suits saw in Pat Sajak in his time hosting Wheel of Fortune that led them to believe he could be a credible late-night talk show host. I can’t imagine what the hell that could’ve been, but what do I know?
Maybe more than I think. The Pat Sajak Show debuted in January 1989, and by October CBS had already reduced it from 90 to 60 minutes. Turns out that was still 60 too many, as the network announced the show’s cancellation in April 1990. No word on whether or not Sajak was allowed to put the remainder of his hosting contract into a Service Merchandise gift certificate.
#2. McEnroe (2004)
All you need to know about the short-lived McEnroe — the CNBC show hosted by tennis legend John McEnroe — is that it twice achieved the dubious distinction of earning a 0.0 Nielsen rating. That doesn’t mean no one was watching it, but the difference is so negligible that even McEnroe himself wouldn’t argue that call.
#1. The Chevy Chase Show (1993)
Despite signs that SNL alum Chevy Chase was clearly losing his mojo by the early ’90s — Nothing But Trouble anyone? — Fox saw fit to spend millions of dollars to launch The Chevy Chase Show in Steptember 1993. Just five weeks and 25 episodes later, Chase’s program became the gold standard for high profile late-night bombs.
Dishonorable Mentions: The Wanda Sykes Show, Into the Night Starring Rick Dees, The Martin Short Show, Nightlife (David Brenner), The Dick Cavett Show (1986), Overtime… With Pat O’Brien, and so many more.