The hyperbole flowed like warm cava in the Late Late Show Green Room when Ryan Tubridy announced on Thursday morning that he would be stepping down as host. If you happened to flick the radio on mid-interview, you might have thought you were listening to a Southern Baptist pastor rather than a guy off the telly.
“It was glorious. It was glorious. Like, that Toy Show is magic. There’s magic in the air... it’s beautiful,” an understandably emotional Tubridy said. “When you’re the Late Late Show presenter, you belong to a lot of people.”
RTÉ director general Dee Forbes was also reaching for quasi-transcendent metaphors on the News at One. “He touches the national psyche every Friday night,” she told Bryan Dobson. “He has made The Late Late that place where the nation comes together on a Friday night to reflect.”
The question for RTÉ to consider now is whether we still need our psyches touched every Friday. Is a big, communal, semi-spiritual knees-up, in a format borrowed from Johnny Carson in the 1960s and barely altered since, really what the Ireland of 2023 wants?
When Tubridy stepped into the presenter’s chair in September 2009 as a bouncing, preternaturally confident 35-year-old, the world was a very different place. Netflix’s Irish launch was still three years into the future. Spotify was what you might have assumed birdwatchers did. It was the spectre of satellite TV that was keeping the Montrose bigwigs sleeplessly stalking the corridors of their comfortable, south Co Dublin semi-ds at night. Sixty per cent of Irish homes were in 500-channel land. They thought their worst fear was what would happen when it reached 80 per cent or, heaven forbid, 90 per cent. Bless their innocence.
Looking at the guest list for his first night in the chair is like squinting at your old wedding photos two decades on and trying to recall who the lady in the lilac hat is: Brian Cowen, Bryan McFadden, Cherie Blair, Joan Collins. Tubridy leaned across a worryingly insubstantial looking flat-pack table (these were much leaner times) and asked the then-taoiseach if he drank too much. “No, I don’t, not at all,” Cowen replied. Over 1.6 million people tuned in and the newspapers and weekend radio discussion shows were full of Tubridy’s impudence all weekend. And that was pretty much as good as it got.
You could count on one hand the number of times since then that the newspapers have splashed with the content of Friday’s Late Late. This isn’t really Tubridy’s fault. Even 14 years ago, it was widely accepted that the heady days of the entire nation tuning in as one to see who would disappoint Gaybo this week – or to watch aghast as he unfurled his acid tongue or even, on one thrilling occasion, a condom live on air – were long gone. Gaybo’s gift, or that of his producers, was to grasp the concept of Fomo long before millennials had come up with the catchy acronym. You couldn’t not watch in case you missed an Annie Murphy or a Pee Flynn or a Terry Keane or a Peter Brooke.
These days – apart from the glorious annual festival of precocious infants strung out on sugar and overpriced Chinese plastic that is the Toy Show – you know exactly what you’ll be missing. There’ll be the RTÉ canteen round-up section, the current affairs bit, the 15 minutes of heartstring-tugging, a few tunes and just maybe a fleeting glimpse of a big star telling the same anecdotes they’re simultaneously sharing over on Graham Norton.
When Tubridy took over, the show was a comfortably middle-aged 47; these days, it’s sliding inexorably towards the mandatory RTÉ retirement age. But still it limps doggedly on, no longer the alpha and omega of Irish culture, but a beloved family hound whom no one can bear to put to sleep. Tubridy has a sense of knowing who he is as a presenter – the bounciness has weathered nicely into a more laid-back charm – but the show itself doesn’t appear to know what it is trying to be. If The Late Late has a mission statement, it is that the world outside Montrose may have changed utterly, but once you step inside the cosy Studio 4, you should never know it. Maybe that’s part of the appeal. But it isn’t a strategy.
In her Radio One interview, Forbes acknowledged that “the ways people are watching and listening has changed”, but as far as she was concerned, the question being asked about the show’s future wasn’t existential so much as a decision about who fills the boots next. Cue some of the same names that were floating around 14 years ago, including Miriam O’Callaghan. Forbes even asked Bryan Dobson – jokingly one assumes – if he’d be up for it himself. He wisely ruled himself out. During his interview with Claire Byrne, Tubridy asked her if she would go for the gig, then took the opportunity to throw a bit of shade at other front-runners, declaring that his last show would happen 48 hours before he turned 50. “I will never present The Late Late Show in my 50s.”
It is a smart move for Tubridy to get out now, while he’s still young enough, energetic enough and likable enough to have lots of options. The inevitable speculation about who will replace him seems to be missing the point. A better question might be how long RTÉ can get away with asking us to suspend our disbelief and pretend the world outside Montrose hasn’t changed; that this is still a country where families sit down together on a Friday night in front of a single screen, for three hours of rapt communion.