January 17, 2010

Battle for 'The Tonight Show' – Team Coco: I'm with Conan

Late night television has not been this entertaining in years. I have always had a fascination with late night comedy shows and the men who host them. When Johnny Carson died, I looked into the history of late night television and was amazed at its history, legacy, and drama. This exact situation happened in the early nineties when Carson retired and Leno and Letterman both vied for The Tonight Show. Ironically, NBC tried to pull a Conan on Leno and replace him with Letterman not long ago. All this was chronicled in Bill Carter's The Late Shift which was turned into an entertaining HBO film.

Letterman clearly has a lot of built up bitterness and anger at Leno from over the years. The pair were good friends and Leno was a regular fixture on Late Night with David Letterman. I was shocked that a young Leno acted in a cocky manner with a dick-ish comedic quality. Leno's stand up comedic talents were much hailed but he seemed to sell out to appeal to the masses.

Conan has made himself relevant again. Leno stole much of Conan's thunder by staying at the network and elevating his own status at 10 o' clock. It is truly a shame Conan was never let out of Leno's shadow. For his entire career in late night, he has always followed Leno, now to his detriment. It's hard to believe how nice everybody played nice in 2004, when Leno promised to retire and praised O'Brien as his successor, even making him his final guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I find Leno a fascinating figure as an insecure man who had a singular, lifelong dream and has clung to it ever since with a lack of identity removed from it.

Everyone in late night has been commenting on the situation, mostly by siding with Conan and criticizing Leno. Howard Stern, Rosie O'Donnell, Bill Simmons, and Patton Oswalt have voiced their concern over Leno's refusal to move on. Andy Richter's plea puts all the silliness in perspective. Conan has reentered the ridiculousness by putting his show for sale on Craigslist. The absolute winner in the situation has been Jimmy Kimmel. Kimmel has been biting and hilarious commenting from the sidelines. He did an entire show in character as Jay Leno that was satirically sharp, critical, and utterly ruthless. He then came on Jay's own show and destroyed him and called Leno out on his actions while being absurdly funny at the same time. Meanwhile, Letterman has been able to release his long held venom for Jay "Big Jaw" Leno with further proof through the ordeal with Conan. Letterman can let loose without fear of coming off bitter or a sore loser now that he has taken over the ratings lead in late night. His comments have been classic and witty.

This generation of viewers who never saw Johnny Carson do not realize what the institution The Tonight Show really was before Jay took over. Both Letterman and O'Brien clearly understood what the show was and what it meant to them. For thirty years, Carson turned The Tonight Show into a must watch late night institution that combined all of America. Carson is somehow responsible for every single late night comedy program. His decision to pull repeats of his show on weekends lead to the creation of Saturday Night Live. Cutting his show back from two hours to one and a half and a single hour paved the way for Late Night with David Letterman.

O'Brien worshiped Letterman, the way Letterman worshiped Carson. They both refused to tarnish that legacy and had to give up their dreams in pursuit of it. Carson and Letterman remained close as Johnny was the one who advised Dave to leave NBC. Carson never appeared on television again except for a couple cameos on Dave's show. Carson was hurt he was never consulted over his replacement. In turn, Letterman paid Conan a visit in his first year even after his dramatic exit from NBC.

Here is why I, and many of my peers, hate Jay Leno. He wanted The Tonight Show so badly and sh*t all over David Letterman, who Jay admits he owes a large part of his success to, and got his ruthless manager to pressure Carson out and what has he done with the show? Nothing. His act every night is safe, bland, boring, and awkward. Why does he want to keep this job so badly? Leno is notourious for being a workaholic. He takes few vacations, has no children, tours constantly, and spends none of his NBC earnings. His pure aim is doing the same thing every night. He probably has the best, most respected forum in comedy and he has done nothing with it for years. Leno's comedy act is famous for its edge and originality. Do not be fooled, Jay Leno is a very shrewd businessman, one without an agent or manager, who does not care about money, only keeping his position. Norm MacDonald was right. Leno managed to outfox Carson, Letterman, and O'Brien. Both Dave and Dave have desperately wanted The Tonight Show and both could have had it or held onto it if that's all they wanted. The difference between them and Jay, is that they both realized it was not worth their dignity, reputation, and all the trouble.

NBC, the last place American network, has made such a mess of things. Late night was one area where they were still king and they screwed that up too. Unlike their primetime schedule, they had an embarrassment of riches when it came to late night programming. So much so they moved Leno to primetime foolishly. Even if Leno regains his #1 spot at 11:35 when he returns there, Leno is almost 60-years-old, and his image has been severely tarnished as this is the second time around he has power-played his way to the top. How much longer could he host The Tonight Show? Who is lined up to replace him? The show's legacy has been severely hurt. It took three years before Conan succeeded at Late Night and Leno eighteen months before his ratings beat Dave's. Conan had three summer months as host of The Tonight Show without having The Jay Leno Show as a lead in and seven in total.

One thing is clear. Late night television has become more topical, relevant, entertaining than ever. Seeing the true life drama play out in all its comedy has been truly great. I am sure Conan will take this mishap going forward and use it to reign supreme again the way his Late Night predecessor, David Letterman, did so well.

Source | David Chen / Gawker TV / The Live Feed

2 reactions:

Dave Shorr said...

Actually, NBC flirted with the idea of giving Leno the boot about 18 years ago, if you'll take a look at the date on that NY Times article. And the reason that they considered this, didn't have anything to do with ratings, it had to do with the fact that NBC's relationship with Jay's agent Helen Kushnick had become so untenable that it simply wasn't worth the headache to keep Jay on board. Leno was ultimately given the ultimatum to fire his agent or lose the job.

Rick Chung said...

Yeah, I remember that from The Late Shift. Letterman was also offered the show (without any guarantees) if he waited a year until Leno's contract was up.

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