When it comes to gaming, everything from console reveals to exclusive first looks at big titles have been showcased on late night television.
There are some shows that do more than just the occasional interview with a game designer. Conan O’Brien has his popular “Clueless Gamer” series, which has evolved from being a small web series that he put together with his web producer Aaron Bleyaert to a regular segment on his nightly show.
Jimmy Fallon, still the most watched late night host on television, has dedicated ample screen time to the medium, thanks to his genuine affection for games. He’s presented a couple of major gaming reveals over the years, most recently debuting the first live gameplay footage of the Nintendo Switch console.
There’s an appetite from fans for gaming-related content, and it extends beyond tight-knit, online communities. Gaming is one of the largest industries under the entertainment umbrella, bringing in $91.5 billion in 2015, according to a Newzoo report. The medium’s huge, so it makes sense to use late night television to reach those who might not be reading enthusiast sites or spending their days watching YouTube.
Despite that, unfortunately, it’s clear from watching late night hosts like O’Brien and Fallon that video games still aren’t something to be taken seriously. Fallon’s excitement feels forced and awkward, whereas O’Brien’s humor is often derived from disdain for and ignorance some beloved titles. It feels like gaming has caught up to mainstream — and has for a while — but those who work within the entertainment industry don’t always know see it that way. Games rarely receive the same level of serious discussion that television and film projects do on these kinds of TV programs.
With gaming on the path to late night television — and early morning TV — ubiquity, the question is what needs to change so coverage feels authentic instead of fake and snarky. Polygon’s senior reporter Allegra Frank and entertainment reporter Julia Alexander sit down to talk about it.
Julia: Allegra, I’ll be honest with you: I’m a huge late night fan. I feel like I’m pretty emotionally invested in most of the late night hosts, and although I definitely prefer some over others, I can see the good and bad in each.
For example, I’m a really big Conan fan. I remember following the Jay Leno-Conan debacle back in 2010 and deciding there and then that he would be my go-to. His brand of comedy, which tends to be dry and snarky, worked for me. I should also say that there are segments of Clueless Gamer that I genuinely enjoy. His Mortal Kombat X video with pro football players Marshawn Lynch and Rob Gronkowski remains one of my favorite segments, but unfortunately, Conan puts his stereotypical gamer jokes ahead of everything else.
Two of the videos that stick out to me in particular are the Tomb Raider and Skyrim segments. Conan spent the majority of his time commenting on the attractiveness of the female characters, making jokes that didn’t land and essentially letting his ignorance about the subject (hence Clueless Gamer) come second to how many jokes about Lara Croft’s butt he could shoot off in five minutes. It feels juvenile and I think that’s my main issue. Everything about the segments screams of juvenile tendencies, which is something the gaming industry has fought to escape. What do you think about Conan’s Clueless Gamer segments and the way games are portrayed in general?
Allegra: I definitely was Team Coco during the whole Tonight Show drama, and I’ve always appreciated Conan, even if I ended up never watching much of his TBS show. I actually missed the boat on Clueless Gamer until fairly recently, but I’ve since seen a ton of segments, from Mario Kart to Gears of War 4 to Final Fantasy 15.
I think that Conan is very upfront about the concept of the show: He knows nothing about games. But it’s not just that Conan comes into games with a minimum of understanding. To me, those segments get irritating fast because of Conan’s willful ignorance, his resistance to being anything beyond clueless. Obviously, that’s a major part of the bit, but it actually seems like he’s more incredulous and unable to suspend disbelief than straight dumb or whatever he’s meant to be.
Conan’s always been super, super loud, but watching videos like the Final Fantasy 15 one took it to another level. And I actually liked that segment! He spends his time yelling about the inanities of the game — which, like, to be fair, it’s a kind of confusing JRPG — and mocking it as inherently bizarre, because it’s a wacky fantasy game and how could you people like this?
The irony is that I generally am able to take Conan’s rants with a grain of salt, because he’s not a reviewer, and his opinions on games come from a comic, performative place. Do you think that other people watching Clueless Gamer take Conan’s rants seriously, though, Julia? And do you?
Julia: I didn’t — at first. But the more we write about Clueless Gamer at Polygon, the more I realize that there are some people who do put stock into what Conan says. To his credit, Conan never claims that he reviews games or is any way serious about them, but there is a small sect of people that I’ve talked to who do take his enjoyment of a game seriously.
I don’t even think that aspect is what bothers me. It’s the easy-to-poke-fun-at attitude coupled with a fake interest that unnerves me. In many ways, it’s the inauthentic nature of it all. I’m not expecting Conan to be a big fan of games — and he by no means claims to be — but there is a little bit of interest that Conan clearly has for the medium. If he wasn’t interested, even in the slightest, he wouldn’t continue it.
Although, to some extent, I do prefer that over Jimmy Fallon’s shtick. Like everyone at Polygon, I spent Wednesday morning watching Fallon fawn over Nintendo of America’s president Reggie Fils-Aime as the Switch was brought out for the late night host to play. Fallon, on any given night, is a tad bit unbearable, but nothing about that clip felt authentic. It felt like Fallon was being overly enthusiastic to cover up the fact that he either didn’t care about what he was talking about or didn’t know anything about it. In either case, being able to just make loud noises and excited gasps would make Nintendo happy, get the audience riled up and essentially make good television.
That’s the crux of the issue. It’s not that good television is being sacrificed to produce quality gaming segments on the late night shows — which have always been designed around a monologue, guest interviews and musical performance — but it feels like the idea of what gaming is takes a hit to make good television. There are Clueless Gamer episodes which are entertaining, but for the most part, what Fallon and Conan do feels more insulting than anything else. Do you ever get that impression? What did you think of Fallon’s handling of the Switch segment?
Allegra: I felt the same way that you did about Fallon playing the Switch, even though I know that he does have a genuine love for games. (Remember when Nicole Kidman tried to flirt with him, and he couldn’t tear himself away from his Mario game? Yeah. That’s … that’s love.)
It’s weird, though, that I was so annoyed by Fallon going full-fanboy over the Switch. I think it’s because he was doing the same thing as Conan, except in the opposite direction and to a far more extreme degree. Fallon wasn’t engaging with Breath of the Wild and the Switch in any thoughtful fashion, even if he did prove he was informed about them; he was just ooh-ing and ah-ing and letting Nintendo do its PR thing.
It would be weird to assume Fallon, of all people, would do anything else. Just like Conan, he’s not a reviewer. He’s a comedian and a performer and a marketing vehicle. But games are afforded such limited real estate on these big, mainstream platforms, so to see them reduced to uncritical vehicles for boyish glee is kind of disappointing.
I agree that a big part of it, beyond the fact that Jimmy Fallon is a laughter-prone comedian first and foremost, is what you were saying about gaming and good television. I think it’s an interesting point that gaming doesn’t always translate well to TV, especially considering how much time people spend watching, say, PewDiePie play games on YouTube. But I completely agree with you that making video games look exciting on television is difficult, and I think that late night is forced to go to extremes in order to make up for it.
Playing a video game is a time commitment. Late night television is about compressing a lot of stuff into a limited timeframe. Ergo, it’s really, really hard to communicate what’s great about a video game on one of these shows. Have you ever see Fallon, Conan or someone else get it right? What would be your ideal situation for showing a game on mainstream television?
Julia: It’s tough, and I don’t know how you do it better at this point. Like you said, there’s only a short amount of time for a segment like what the Switch had on Fallon. If we look at Conan, however, he has all the time to make the segments a little longer or spend more time with the writing team coming up with better jokes that don’t feel as childish.
Conan’s Clueless Gamer segment thrives on YouTube. Like Fallon’s digital skits, it’s a segment that people turn to the next day. It’s also not something they record the day of the show. It’s planned in advance and time is allotted for the host and his guest to play through. There’s absolutely no reason that they couldn’t make the digital clip longer, even offering an extended cut that shows off more gameplay. It would also allow the team more time to prepare and understand what they’re getting into without having to play the full game.
Right now, it’s a problem that I’m sure most people aren’t concerned with. At the end of the day, it’s a small segment on a major late night show. What most viewers walk away with is information about a new game or console and a couple of laughs. But over a period of time, the redundancy of jokes and the theme that surrounds each segment is clear: This feels like something that we can make fun of because we don’t understand it and it’s geeky. It’s nerdy. We can all point to Conan’s web producer Aaron Bleyaert knowing the entire history of Nintendo’s character roster while Conan points out how ridiculous and dumb he sounds as stereotypical jokes.
There has to be a way for late night hosts to use gaming, if they want to, without resorting to making fun of the entire medium. For example, late night hosts consistently do parodies of films and television series, but the difference is how many nights out of the year they spend giving serious interviews to those actors, writers and directors. Maybe the solution is bringing on more developers, like Stephen Colbert did with Hello Games and No Man’s Sky and giving them a platform to show their game on that isn’t just YouTube or Twitch.
Allegra: I agree that the No Man’s Sky segment on The Late Show was respectful and insightful, and I think that having actual game creators show off their games will certainly help. They’re the people who have the most interesting stories to tell and things to say in interviews. Interviews on late night TV are so contrived, but I think bringing more developers on could help to shine a light on what they do — and how, just like movies and music and TV, gaming is an art form that deserves respect as such.
I don’t know that Jimmy Fallon or Conan O’Brien are the best people to show off how diverse and interesting games are, and I don’t know if TV is the greatest medium. I guess we always have YouTube.
Julia: PewDiePie isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.