Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Thoughts on the Leno/Conan Fiasco

Oh good Lord, I'm writing about late night television again? Hey, consider yourselves lucky: I've written three pieces on late night over the last year, only one of which made it here. I reviewed the first week of the new Tonight Show and The Jay Leno Show; for the former article I gushed about my giddiness of Conan's ascension. In the latter, I marveled at the trainwreck I saw coming from a mile away and detailed what it felt like to actually watch him from start to finish.

But I do not come here to tell you that Leno isn't funny or that Conan is superior. I shouldn't even be writing about this at all, not simply because the parties involved have not reached final decisions, not simply because the Internet has already suffered floods of discussion on the subject but because, frankly, this is the Internet, and thus it already sides with Conan. Do not let the inundation of #saveconan tweets and outraged Facebook statuses lull you into a sense that the world shares your pain: that way lies the box office failure of such guaranteed hits as Snakes on a Plane and the hysterical Presidential campaign of Ron Paul.

For the Tonight Show's audience, as it stands now, relies on older crowds than the ones who typically spend their days on social networking sites. Or at least, that's what the Tonight Show's audience was, before they gave Conan, not exactly a spring chicken but someone who undoubtedly plays to a younger crowd, the gig. It was a gamble by NBC (more on that in a moment), but after only seven months, mass fallout from the results of their late night lineup changes, the network decided to make a bad situation much, much, immeasurably much worse.

NBC's decision to cancel The Jay Leno Show due to its adverse effect on the 11 pm news programs of NBC's affiliates has created a snowball that turned into a shitstorm, spiraling out of NBC's hands just as rapidly and catastrophically as I just lost control of that metaphor. In an attempt to keep all of their hosts, NBC has proposed that Leno return to his original time slot at 11:35 for a half-hour program, while Conan would retain the Tonight Show but shift the program forward a half hour to 12:05, affecting Jimmy Fallon's Late Night and Carson Daly's Last Call similarly.

What does this mean for the parties involved? Well, first let's discount Carson Daly (everyone else has) and Jimmy Fallon; moving Daly from 1:35 to 2:05 will have no effect, and Fallon might actually benefit from a shift, relaxing pressure on him to give him the time to find his footing (and might I say that he's not been half as bad as some myopic, implacable naysayers would have you believe?). The parties most clearly affected are, obviously, Jay and Conan.

Conan assumed the role of the host of the Tonight Show in June of 2009, but he technically won the position in 2004, when NBC gently strong-armed Leno into giving up the program in five years' time in order to secure Conan, who didn't lobby for the job over Jay's convenience but was receiving enough lucrative offers from other networks with the approaching end of his Late Night contract that Jeff Zucker ensured Conan's loyalty (though he turned down the other networks) by promising him the biggest prize in late night. Leno never enjoyed the idea of having to let go of the Tonight Show, leading NBC to give him his 10 pm program to prevent him from jumping to another network.

For those who know anything about the last major upheaval in late night TV -- and, thanks to this mess, those of us who didn't snag a copy of The Late Shift before it went out of print have had all the relevant details given to us by various articles (see my review of the hysterically bad TV movie adaptation here) -- Leno's situation in '04 contains a certain cosmic irony: where Conan did not court NBC into giving him the promotion, Leno and his camp lobbied hard for the Tonight Show back in '92, with such ferocity that Johnny Carson grew tired of the infighting and announced an early retirement. Instead of turning the program over to Dave Letterman, who'd started Late Night and turned into a program that, in some circles, was just as legendary as Carson's show, NBC offered it to Jay, who tested higher with older audiences and wasn't as abrasive as the acerbic Dave.

Yet Jay has always displayed a tendency in his comedy to be just as nasty with Dave, albeit with the sanctimonious image of the everyman; salvaging some issues from my article on Jay's first week with his new program, the one that sticks out the most is my surprise at Leno's twisted bite. I love acidic, black humor, but I don't know how to explain Leno's brand of humor while still avoiding the non-issue of whether it's funny (because let's be clear: ratings trump talent when it comes to programming). Watching him present the image of an avuncular buddy-type host while engaging in bits like "Jaywalking," where a staffer or celebrity guest (not Jay himself) takes to the streets to find airheads who cannot answer simple trivia questions for the snickering delight of Jay and his audience.

I bring this up because it displays the deep hypocrisy that Jay and what few vocal supporters he has are building around him in this situation: most people who know Jay have bent over backwards to let us know what a "nice" guy he is. His entire persona is based upon that perception. But one of the first things they teach you in journalism school -- the first, if my first class is any indicator -- is that, at the end of the day, you review actions, not personalities and private lives. I do not dispute that Jay Leno is a nice man to his guests, to his family and friends and anyone else with whom he might converse. But he's been at the epicenter of the two biggest fuckups in late night history, one brought on directly by his intense lobbying and the other the result of his refusal to go quietly into that good night, a justifiable position to take albeit one underscored by the general pettiness of his decisions regarding the late night shift.

Comedian Patton Oswalt placed the Leno/Conan debate -- for this debacle has become largely an excuse for people (almost all of them Conan fans) to compare the two -- in intelligent and reasoned terms and managed to criticize Leno without taking the easy route of "he ain't funny" that has dominated the Internet firestorm. Oswalt charged Leno, once one of the most beloved stand-ups among both the mainstream and other comics (Bill Hicks, who later eviscerated the big-chinned one for selling out, cited him as an early influence), with giving up his talent to create a vanilla program; Oswalt also mentioned that both Conan and Dave were such big fans of Carson (Dave, Conan) and Letterman himself (Conan) that they used their programs as tributes to their heroes while exploring all the areas they, as superfans, wished their predecessors would have gone.

That's the overriding issue with Jay's relentless pursuit of the Tonight Show gig: he doesn't seem to want to make the program his. He wants to make it not someone's else's: not Johnny's, not Dave's and now, possibly, not Conan's. Why, as Oswalt asked, does he want the job so desperately? On the Tonight Show, Leno had no POV for his jokes; where Dave cast a mood of crusty misanthropy that made him ironically unsuited to the role of late night product-seller and guest-schmoozer and Conan played up his Harvard nerd image that served him more as a writer than a stand-up comedian playing one venue every night, Jay was just...Jay. That's what makes his comedy, funny or not, deeply insidious and, ultimately, tragic: he's trying so hard to please everyone that he's even sold his comedy's soul.

Conan released a statement amidst frenzied speculation that revealed his deep and abiding love for the program he inherited, refusing to move the Tonight Show into a slot where it would actually be tomorrow and citing the memory of the program's legacy as something bigger than himself (compare this to Leno's original assumption of the Tonight Show, wherein he didn't mention Johnny in the hopes that no one else would either). When he inherited the gig back in June, perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the transition was that, in a way, Letterman finally won. Even for someone like me, too young to remember Dave's Late Night and turning to YouTube for enlightenment, the idea that Conan, who so clearly modeled his version of Late Night after Dave's while taking it to fantastic new places both metaphorical and literal (who can forget his sojourns to Finland, Chicago, Toronto and elsewhere?), could get the job felt like a validation of off-beat and unique humor. In fact, Conan's statement itself proves his talent as a writer. The Harvard grad crafted the perfect weapon in a situation as volatile as this: a classy letter. By placing the Tonight Show above himself, by also displaying deference the proposed change's effect on his old show Late Night and what it would mean to the memory of Letterman's tenure there and to Fallon's current work on it, Conan establishes himself as the enemy of The Man, a humble and grateful employee who reached his breaking point and did not explode but calmly announced his inability to go along with a disastrous plan. It's a statement that practically forces NBC to release him from his contract (thus giving him a colossal payout and freeing him to go elsewhere), all without ever playing the victim à la Jay or attacking the people who treated him so well for 16 of his 17 years with them.

Numerous commentators have reacted positively to the news that Conan might head to Fox if NBC presses ahead with returning Leno to 11:35, but it still feels like a loss to me: Conan tried so hard to make the Tonight Show his own while respecting the memory of Steve Allen, Johnny Carson and, yes, even Jay; Leno spent two years floundering before Hugh Grant threw him a lucky break and inexplicably ensured his success for the next decade, but Conan, who worked in his early Late Night days under weekly threat of cancellation until he molded that program into a classic, now faces the prospect of losing the show after seven months. However, I want him to be on a show (and network) that treats him fairly, and Conan's right to believe that moving around the Tonight Show and tarnishing its legacy is a greater travesty than the effects of these changes on his ego. If he can find creative and ratings support at FOX (Jesus, wouldn't that be the irony of ironies), then I hope Coco flies the coop and, in my humble optimism, that Leno tanks and takes NBC with him. Ah, to hell with what I said earlier: #teamconan.


  1. Brilliant piece, Jake. I don't watch late-night TV -- hell, I'm often asleep before the end of prime-time -- but you map out the players and strategies here as adroitly as a military historian. A terrific read.

  2. Thanks. I'm not the world's biggest late night fan, but I very much like Conan and Craig and all the latest stuff has been absurd.

  3. Have you seen Conan this week? He has been on fire. And so has Letterman. It's almost as if the two are working together and both have never been funnier.

    Last night was especially great where Conan showed he still had control and dignity when Ricky Gervais was (hilariously so) going on and on about the mess and making every possible joke about it, and Conan, for a brief and lucid moment of seriousness, said, "You really must stop." And then the two just went on laughing about other things.

  4. Oh, that's the funniest thing about all this: it's made late night must watch TV for the first time in ages. Conan has been getting increasingly bold each night (I "whoa"ed along with the audience last night when he joked that NBC would replace slalom flags in the Winter Olympics with breached contracts), and Letterman hasn't looked so happy to be in late night since '92.

    I hear that Conan invited Dave onto his show, actually. Can you even imagine the symphony of destruction?