Bob Costas, one part humorist, one part researcher, and all excellent interviewer, gave NBC a bit of a surprise with this "throwaway" half hour of chat that ran after "Late Night With David Letterman" at the mind-numbing hour of 1:30am E/P, or really 1:35 to be precise.
The first thing you should understand is the title of the program. "Later" wasn't just referencing the hour the program aired, it was also a descriptive word for the guests on the show. Basically all of the featured talkers that sat across from Costas were people who had already had a good body of work under their belts, so you were seeing them "Later" in their careers. These were people who had stories to tell, and they told them to the show's host, usually in very entertaining detail. So, the show was like a living archive, letting the guest that evening talk about their past and catching the viewer up on what they had been doing in the years between their biggest successes and the night of the telecast.
Next, Costas knew his place. He wasn't a stand-up comic, he wasn't a performance artist who dressed up in costumes to do sketch comedy. The show never had "desk humor." In fact, it didn't even have a desk! Just two comfortable over-sized chairs, that Costas and his guest of the night shared. And the show had no audience, which added to the intensity of the discussion.
On camera it was just the host and the guest, in a setting that looked a bit like someone's private library, where Costas would ask pointed questions of a variety of people from the world of film, television, music, politics and, of course, sports, since that is his main area of interest.
What made the show so smart? Three elements: Guest selection. Not only did every guest have interesting things to say, they told their life stories in interesting ways, which is also partially due to the second element: Costas himself. The level of attention to knowing about the guest, the standard of phrasing a question and presenting a follow-up question that truly enriched the first answer was second to none. No television host was working in that way at that time, and it was nearly perfect. Finally, it was also in the editing, and the way film clips and photographs were placed into the program that enhanced the experience of watching. It was more like flipping through a photo album than watching a television program.
You got the sense that Costas and his staff not only cared about every guest that appeared on the program, but that they thought of them all as a part of their collective family. Frequently, guests would stay on for a second night or occasionally a third night, if they had a lot of experiences to share, and the feel of the program was a relaxed pace, very different from the frenetic segments seen on nearly every other late night talkfest.
Watching this program gave the viewer the sense that it was just Costas, the guest and themselves sitting together and having a chat, and though a lot of other hosts have attempted to capture that feeling, no other host has. That included Costas himself, who does a similar style interview as a segment on his HBO series "CostasNow." Though he may not have recaptured the lightning in a bottle that was "Later," Costas should look back with pride at the work he accomplished on this small budget, smaller ratings program. It was brilliant.
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