Jay Leno: The Self-Styled Forrest Gump of Late Night?


Dave told it like it is last night: yes, it’s funnnnn to watch a showbiz disaster unfold when (a) you know that nobody involved is going to be physically harmed, and more importantly (b) you’re just as certain that neither you nor anybody you know personally is involved in any way. These late-night shakeups have been one hell of an entertaining distraction for me ever since last Thursday, when everybody first encountered the rumor that NBC was close to canceling the Jay Leno Show.

And by “distraction” I’m not just talking about the time I’ve lost on Gawker.com, either. I’ve been watching both Jay and Conan regularly for the first time since either hosts’ shows debuted.

It’s not like I thought either of these were terrible shows. I didn’t get in the habit of watching Jay because he was the same guy doing the same comedy that I didn’t watch at 11:35. And I always liked Conan. But I didn’t watch his Tonight Show simply because I was very happy with my current providers of late-night comedy and I wasn’t looking to switch to a different service at this time.

That’s really what we’re talking about. For all the talk about Dave being too grumpy or Jay diluting his show to please the widest demographic or Conan being freakishly gangly and pasty, the battle between these three isn’t a question of “who’s the true King Of Late Night?” No, it’s a case of there being three very good comedy products out in front of a marketplace of people with very different entertainment needs. You’re about as likely to get me to switch from Dave or Craig as you are to get me to drop Coca-Cola for any other brand. I’ve tasted Pepsi and I acknowledge that it’s a fine beverage. But it’s just not what I’m looking for. And you were lucky to get me to sample it in the first place.

I’m watching Conan as I write this. The man’s on fire; he’s been razor-sharp all week long. I can’t say how much progress he made in the months since I watched his debut — back then, I thought he was understandably awkward, feeling his way around through the earlier time and the intimidating legacy of Johnny’s chair — but tonight I see a man who’s completely in command of his stage, who knows what he wants to accomplish with every joke, and who’s as fearless as a man who no longer knows or cares how many shows he has left.

Leno’s been swinging hard, too. Though I think he’s been misstepping pretty severely in his monologues. When Conan tells jokes about how NBC is screwing him out of a job, I can only nod in sympathy. When Jay makes those same jokes, I can only blink and wonder if he just said what I thought he said. Just what does Leno have to be upset about? He created a show that met certain minimums of profitability but which (by some estimates) was costing local affiliates’ 11 PM news shows 25% of their viewership every night. The stations were in open revolt, so NBC pulled the plug on Jay’s show and put him back on at 11:35.

And this screws him over…how?

For the very first time since Leno started appearing on Dave’s old NBC show, liking Jay Leno is requiring a certain amount of effort on my part. This past week’s events have encouraged me to think about the milestones of his late-night career in a new light:

Leno’s manager gets impatient and schemes to push Johnny Carson out of his own show. According to Bill Carter of The New York Times — the Journalist Of Record in the late-night wars — NBC was in no rush to push Johnny Carson towards retirement. Despite their concerns about his aging audience, competition from younger hosts, and the fact that CBS and others were actively courting Leno to host his own competing 11:30 show, they were apparently confident that he’d make that choice on his own before long. So Leno’s manager, Helen Kushnick, planted an embarrassing unsourced front-page screaming-headline story in the New York Post about the network’s frustrations with Carson and their desire to hand The Tonight Show to Leno, his obvious successor, as soon as possible. Carson was so steamed about the headline that he didn’t even want to stick around for his 30th anniversary with the show, nor did he bother to inform NBC in advance that he’d be using a routine presentation in front of an auditorium of NBC affiliates to announce his speedy departure.

Carter reported that Leno had asked his manager point-blank if she’d been involved in the Post story, and that she’d lied to him. He also says that their relationship was a deeply complicated one, and suggests that Jay had long-since lost interest in digging too deeply into how she got things done.

Leno agrees to give up The Tonight Show in five years’ time. I recall that when he made the announcement on his show, he cited how caustic the previous transition of hosts had been, and how longterm relationships had been damaged, and that despite the #1 rating he was pulling in as host of “Tonight,” he wanted to ensure that history wouldn’t repeat itself. From Bill Carter’s September, 2004 Times piece reporting the transition:

NBC executives said yesterday that Mr. Leno was instrumental in making the new arrangement, having agreed when he signed his latest deal in March, that he would be willing to step aside for Mr. O’Brien in 2009. He will be 59 at that point, while Mr. O’Brien will be 46.

In a statement, Mr. Leno said: “When I signed my new contract, I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor, and there is no one more qualified than Conan. Plus, I promised my wife, Mavis, I would take her out for dinner before I turned 60.”

But last November, in a widely-quoted interview with Broadcasting & Cable Magazine, Leno was singing a slightly different tune. He didn’t disagree with the interviewer’s (leading) question about being yanked off the air with his show #1 in the ratings, and talked of fighting windmills at NBC. Sure, Carson wasn’t exactly quiet about his disappointment with the network, but then again his retirement announcement wasn’t filled with romantic notions of happily stepping aside to ensure a smooth transition for the next guy.

From the interview:

Has your relationship with NBC changed throughout all this?

I have the same friends I had in high school, and these [at NBC] are acquaintances. You have a business relationship; as long as you are making money for someone, you are friends. And when you’re not making money for someone, you’re not friends. I get it….As long I’m making money for the company, I will be here. When I’m not making money for the company, I won’t be here, and I understand how that works.

At the time, the most widely-circulated line from the interview concerned his clear willingness to take back the 11:35 slot:

Do you want to go back to 11:35?

If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that’s what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to.

Would you rather do that than this [the 10 PM show] ?

I don’t know. Would I take it? I guess. But it’s not my decision to make; it’s really not. I don’t know.

Jay Leno has been interviewed more in one week than I will in my entire lifetime. And even I know that the only correct answer to that question was “I’m really just focused on 10 PM.” Was Jay just exhausted, and incredibly careless? Or was he already seeing his abdication of “Tonight” as a problem that he hoped NBC would find a way to solve, as opposed to a regret that he couldn’t do anything about?

I can’t say. But I wonder.

Me At Dave's Desk (Web)  446.jpg

Which takes us to this week.

NBC announces that “The Jay Leno Show” will move to 11:35, bumping the entire late-night lineup by a half an hour.

Leno hasn’t been silent about the brouhaha, of course. But to both the press and his audiences, his comments have been limited to jokes about his show being cancelled and NBC messing around with him.

Conan has stated that he won’t be a party to “The Tonight Show” being moved from its traditional spot both on the schedule and as the first piece of fresh comedy after the local newscast. He seems to be resigned to the fact that his show will be completely off the air after the Winter Olympics.

It seems fair to conclude that Leno’s perfectly OK with this situation. NBC surely wouldn’t have announced the move unless an agreement for an 11:35 Leno show were already in place.

So you see where I am in my feelings about Jay Leno. There’s a lot of lipstick on his collar and I’m prone to start wondering about protests of innocence.

Through each of these pivotal moments in his career, his public stance has been that he just does his job as best he can; he’s just a leaf being spun by the breeze, without an active hand in his own destiny. The Forrest Gump of Late Night.

I’m willing to give him a mulligan on how Kushnick got him the Tonight Show. I think the situation is analogous to Don Corleone’s wife in “The Godfather.” Jay might not be innocent, but neither is he actively guilty of the things his “spouse” did to put bread on the table.

Okay, but was Jay pushed out of the “Tonight Show” chair in 2004, as he now suggests? Or was he open and amiable to a 2009 retirement and a smooth, clear transition for Conan? Who knows. But it certainly seems as though he had the option of fighting for his job if he really wanted to keep it. He was in a position of supreme negotiating strength: he had a contract through 2009 and an ungodly-consistent record of #1 finishes in his time slot.

If Jay had dug in his heels, Conan (who was being wooed by other networks and whose contract was due to expire shortly) might have walked. Well, that would have been Conan’s choice to make. Leno’s choice was to agree to leave the show at the end of his contract and issue an unequivocal statement of his support and his willful contribution to the move.

After the failure of the 10 PM show, was Jay forced to return to his old time slot? Of course not. According to published reports, Conan has a two-year “Tonight” contract. No, it stands to reason that recently, Leno was sitting in yet another NBC office, taking yet another meeting with executives, faced with yet another free choice to say Yes or No to an offer on the table. He apparently said “Yes, sure; move me to 11:35.”

And yet in his monologues, he paints himself as a victim of NBC. In his 2009 and earlier interviews, he suggests that he felt he really had no choice of remaining as the host of “Tonight.” There’s an interview (which I conveniently can’t locate) in which he likened his 2004 situation with NBC to a girlfriend who starts indicating that maybe she’d like to start seeing someone else. I recall him saying that in a situation like that, you don’t argue; you accept that they’re interested in making a change, and you leave of your own accord. But in this November interview with Broadcasting & Cable, I perceive an attitude of “gosh, if NBC makes me an offer to move to a different time slot, then that’s what I have to do…right?”

Other bits of that same interview offer a simpler answer: that it’s merely in his nature to fight the fight of the underdog whenever he finds one, and not to just walk away.

Which would normally be a laudable sentiment. Let’s not forget that he was the underdog in 1993, when Letterman was roundly and routinely kicking his butt from the Ed Sullivan Theater every night.

But it’s not something to be proud of when the consequences of his Yes are added up. When he was offered his old time slot back, Leno had to have known that only two repercussions were possible, both highly damaging to other parties:

1) Conan would start his show at 12:05. Despite retaining the Tonight Show name, in reality he’d merely be doing “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” a half an hour earlier than he was doing it a year ago. Jimmy Fallon’s show, still trying to find its feet as it is, would likely struggle at 1:05. There’d surely be no room for Carson Daly at 2 AM.


2) Conan would (rightly) see NBC’s move as an affront to himself and the work of his staff, and would choose to close his doors. God knows how many of “Late Night”‘s longtime staffers moved their homes and families to California to follow their boss, convinced that Conan would be in business with NBC for two years at the very least, and possibly a decade or three more.

Meanwhile, Leno has famously and frequently stated that he doesn’t even touch his TV money, and lives solely off of his income as a comic. He’s stated that he considers himself a standup first, and a broadcaster second. And according to published reports, he keeps more than 160 standup dates a year.

Does this seem like a man with a commitment to his show? Or is it a man who simply likes to fill his time with a lucrative second sideline to his real job, and who likes to fight for the sake of the fight?

I’m certain that I’ve won desirable jobs at other people’s expense. But I’m not sure that I could justify behavior like Jay’s, if I were in an analogous position and I knew my actions would have analogous repercussions for others.

…And assuming, of course, that my understanding of the situation is correct. I’m not even a bystander in all of this; I’m one of millions of spectators. I could be completely off base. I assume it goes without saying that when you hear me sputter about this situation, you should picture a 375-pound red-faced Barcalounger tick in a Patriots jersey, screaming at the TV that he would have taken the Pats all the way to the Super Bowl if HE had been quarterbacking last Sunday. I bet there are fewer than ten people on the planet who are in any sort of position to speak with any sort of authority about what constitutes “the right thing to do” here.

If I’m not completely off base, however:

Leno should just leave.

He really must just leave.

The first Late Night Wars were so long ago that people forget the bizarre way that Letterman wound up at CBS:

With Leno’s “Tonight Show” taking on water, NBC offered Dave the 11:35 slot, promising not to renew Jay’s contract when it expired in a year and a half. NBC had gone through a huge internal battle over it (well documented by Bill Carter) but ultimately, the network decided that they’d put the wrong guy in Johnny Carson’s chair and chose to fix their mistake.

Letterman supposedly agonized terribly over the decision. A lucrative deal with CBS was on the table. But “Tonight” was his boyhood dream.

We all know what Letterman did. The argument, stressed by his friends, management, and trusted staffers, was that “Tonight” had become damaged goods. He wanted to be Johnny’s successor but Leno’s term meant that this dream could never happen.

Moreover, for the first months of “The Tonight Show With David Letterman,” there’d be a big knife sticking out of the desk, with Dave’s prints on the handle and Jay’s blood dripping from the blade. He’d be the selfish guy who booted out “that nice Jay Leno” from a job that he’d earned through hard work and perseverance, whereas Dave would be perceived as being driven by some smug sense of entitlement. And what would happen to Jay in that circumstance? He’d probably wind up at another network, able to build a new show from scratch without any of the baggage of past political battles.

If Jay takes back the Tonight Show — and does anybody believe that if Conan makes good on his promise, a Jay Leno show airing on NBC from 11:35 to 12:35 would be named anything else? — then the Tonight Show will live on as nothing more than a trademark. It’s damaged goods. The continuity of its comedy legacy will have been broken; it’ll be just another talk show. Its host will be thought of as a clock-puncher instead of an involved, committed innovator, a man who sees the chair not as the seat of a rich tradition, but as just a place where he can rest his feet and relax for an hour every night before his next show at some random casino in Lower Godforsaken, Tennessee or wherever.

And Heaven help him if “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” doesn’t climb back to its 2008 ratings level almost immediately.

Conan will find work for himself and his staff, just as Dave did before him. He’ll create a brand-new property from the sweat of his massive, pasty-white brow (and, of course, the variably-tanned brows of his staff). In the end, he’ll have a success that he can truly call his own. Unlike Forrest Gump, Conan appears to be more than willing to assume full responsibility for his own destiny.

And amidst it all, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson will keep laughing and laughing and laughing. Not at the people involved, but at the overall situation. To CBS, which had absolutely nothing going on from 11:35 to 1:35 before Worldwide Pants joined the company, those two shows are like 15 years’ worth of free money. Now that Dave and Craig are taking the late-night lead away from NBC, I bet CBS is doing a lot of laughing, too.

At this point in the narrative, it should be acknowledged that none of these men will ever be anything less than insanely wealthy for the rest of their lives. They’re grown adults who entered into contracts with big corporations, advised by smart people who made certain they were aware that NBC doesn’t love them. It’s silly to be arguing about this on a day when thousands of people are dead in Haiti. Well, I can speak so freely and penetratingly about the Late Night situation only because it’s so trivial. Even right now, I struggle to complete this paragraph in a manner that can coherently express the sorrow of this disaster. I can only paste in the link of a very highly-recommended relief agency that can put your donations to excellent, immediate, and direct use. And then I sigh once more, and then I move on.

I have friends who are true experts in television. I’ve known and read Aaron Barnhart since he was the talented author of an Internet mailing list about late-night TV; I used to convert his newsletter to ebooks for the Newton Messagepad, if that gives you a hint about how long I’ve known him. For years now, he’s been a nationally-respected television critic for the Kansas City Star. I’ve known Mark Evanier since the days when swapping emails began with the screech of a 2400-baud modem. He’s worked in television for decades. When Leno and Letterman were up-and-coming LA comics, he didn’t just have ringside seats…he sold a joke or two to Jay. And if there’s barely anything about the entertainment biz that he doesn’t know, there’s certainly nothing he can’t write about with masterful elegance.

I can’t claim those kinds of credentials. All I know about Leno, Conan, Dave, and Craig is what I see in their shows and read in the news.

The postscript to Dave’s departure from NBC: he was in such turmoil over the choice between “Tonight” at NBC and starting up a new show at CBS that his friend and consiglieri Peter Lassaly (himself a former “Tonight Show” producer) urged Johnny Carson to lend his advice. He had determined to keep out of it, but agreed to take Dave’s phone call.

Clearly, as bad as the NBC offer was, it was still incredibly difficult for Dave to turn it down. But after a few quiet words of common sense from Johnny, Dave made the only choice he could possibly make.

I’m no Johnny Carson. But as a mere viewer, I’ll go out on a preposterously presumptuous limb.


Turning down the Tonight Show is the only choice you can possibly make.

22 thoughts on “Jay Leno: The Self-Styled Forrest Gump of Late Night?

  1. Distorted Loop

    Leno has been slamming NBC for bad management, poor ratings, ugly executives, and just about anything else you can think of in his monologue for many years. His monologues also always address big news items of the day. Combine the two (Leno’s distaste for NBC and the fact that everyone, even misguided tech writers who don’t even watch Leno OR O’Brien, is talking about the situation and I think that rather than some cynical undercurrent of misrepresentation by Leno as you propose, maybe he’s just using what he always uses (NBC and news of the day) as source for his daily jokes.

    The one thing I am amazed by that no one is talking about is that Comcast is about to purchase NBC from GE. With that in mind, why the shakeup of anything, when Comcast is likely to have its own ideas? Are NBC executives trying to make decisions that they think a more conservative Comcast overlord will find appealing in an effort to save their jobs when the inevitable culling of old management takes place?

  2. Bill Heald

    This whole brou ’bout haha has been fascinating to someone like me, sort of sitting in a diner and watching all these ambulances zoom by. I haven’t been able to watch late-night chat in years, and I’m not sure why. Something about it just makes me immediately change the channel. I don’t dislike any of the players; in fact I think Craig Ferguson has a wonderfully engaging charm. But it sounds like perhaps things will get really ramped up by this catfight which will change some things for the better. Or not.

    Andy’s piece brought back some great memories about watching Carson when I was a kid, though. It was so Adult! And on so late. It just all drifted away for me years ago. Oh, I have a memory from back in NYC: it was shortly after Conan first appeared on late-night TV, and he was all over everywhere as this odd new kid on the block. I was walking in a hellishly cold day on the upper west side. Passing me on the sidewalk was that reed-slender O’Brien, his tall, orange-tipped frame leaning into the wind and striding with great purpose. He’s still fighting the wind, but I thing he’s put on a few pounds since then and can deal with it much better. I wish him luck.

  3. Lamar

    Watched the clip from Dave’s show. It’s good to know that, after all these years, he’s not still bitter and angry about getting screwed out of the Tonight Show by NBC and Leno.


  4. Rob Dodson

    “Does this seem like a man with a commitment to his show? Or is it a man who simply likes to fill his time with a lucrative second sideline to his real job, and who likes to fight for the sake of the fight?”

    If you’ve spent anytime at all at http://www.jaylenosgarage.com/ you come away with the distinct impression that everything Jay does in TV and comedy is solely done to support his car habit. He’s got one of the greatest collection of cars in the world. He is very knowledgeable and very passionate about cars. You can tell he’d much rather be in the garage, in his jean shirt, hair mussed, working on or talking about cars, than standing up on stage in a suit trying to please some audience.

  5. Bill Heald

    Rob has a great point, and don’t forget his passion for motorcycles as well. His collection of two wheelers is likewise pretty amazing, and he’s been riding for decades. The thing is, I think Leno is a genuine workaholic. He has to keep multitasking, as if running his garage (and all it’s associated projects) isn’t enough to keep most folks extremely busy. I think he might be quite content to just to a weekly show on the latest in wheels, but who knows.

  6. Vinnie Bartilucci

    There’s enough people who like Jay (no, really) that they’ll still view Conan staying as the head of the Tonight Show as Conan forcing “that nice Jay leno” out. Luckily, Jay and Conan’s audiences are rather different. Alas, Conan and Dave’s audiences are pretty similar.

    One meme that’s been circling the net seems to be the move NBC should have gone for in the first place – give Jay a weekend show in the style of the old Ed Sullivan show. That way NBC keeps hold of Jay, which is really what they want, and there’s no percieved competition between him and the Tonight Show.

    Once again, NBC wants to eat its cake and have it too. They try to hang on to too much, which only means a weaker grip on it all.

  7. Karen

    Brilliant post. Nice to see someone fleshing out the Carson transition for those who’ve forgotten or were too young remember. I think it would be a bad move for Jay to take it back, but I’d really rather he did so Conan can go off do the show he wants with a network that will support him. Jay and NBC deserve each other.

  8. Michael Battalio

    Very good article, but all of it really comes down to one question: who makes you laugh? I laugh out loud to Conan, Dave and Craig, but I don’t to Leno. It doesn’t matter where he goes; I’m not going to watch him because he doesn’t make me laugh. There are obviously people who do find him funny though. That’s great. Follow Leno wherever he goes, but realize that he can’t have a show forever. Shows end; the people leave. Get over it.

  9. Lain

    Once again, my incoherent thoughts are given better form by Andy’s writing. Insightful and pointed without ever being mean-spirited. Nicely done, sir!

  10. steinolich

    Eloquently put, sir. This is the perhaps one of, if not the most insightful post I`ve read about this late-night debacle. “Jay is the Kay to NBC`s Micheal Corleone” is a spot-on metaphor.

    I`ve read other theories about the Jay-Conan issue, e.g. a ploy to increase ratings, a move to win over affiliates to seal the deal with Comcast, etc., but as you`ve mentioned us spectators can only speculate. The “fact” everyone can probably agree on is: the bottomline of this mess is the millions of dollars will probably never make in my lifetime.

  11. steinolich

    * the millions of dollars blue-collar, and even some white-collar workers will never earn in their lifetime. Dammit technology, why must it be so difficult to keep up with you? *laughs*

    Letterman is definitely enjoying this. Craig (whose show I love) is apparently a bit stressed out by it all. :)

  12. Scott Heinowski

    I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment, Mr. Ihnatko, and I truly think that there are a lot of network execs that I would be pushing out, if I were a shareholder (or whoever does that pushing). I am hoping that Leno does the classy thing and rejects the proposal, but I do not have confidence. I will say though, if NBC botches it up as badly as it looks like they may, the affiliates are going to be much madder when people switch in droves to CBS.

  13. Fred H Schlegel

    Hi Andy, Thanks for putting words to why I’ve taken to dislike Leno. He does seem more of the puppet master in this little drama even if a lot of the strings are also held by NBC. Can’t say I’ll bother watching him ever again.

  14. Austin Heller


    You mention:

    > In his 2009 and earlier interviews, he suggests that he felt he really had no choice of remaining as the host of “Tonight.” There’s an interview (which I conveniently can’t locate) in which he likened his 2004 situation with NBC to a girlfriend who starts indicating that maybe she’d like to start seeing someone else.

    Leno said something along those lines in this Rolling Stone interview, on the fourth page:


    (great work, by the way.)

  15. Anthony Poirier

    WHy is everyone trying to make Leno the bad guy here? Leno agreed to give Conan the tonight show and he did. No anxiety or remorse. NBC wanted to keep Leno as he had many offers elsewhere but stayed for many possible reasons. People are talking about Conan’s people leaving the east coast to relocate to California. Why have we not put a human perspective on Leno’s talented crew? If he left then the all those families who have been loyal and hardworking would be out of work just the same.

    NBC made the Jay Leno show and if you do your research you will see that Leno fought alot with this as he wasn’t thrilled in the direction they wanted to take it. They also put massive expectations on him to be the Hero to pull them out of their programming horrors. Leno is a workaholic and he probably felt most comfotable staying put even though he’s made MANY ill regarded comments about NBC exec’s and the company itself. If you worked for someone for 17 years and was extremely grateful for what that company has done for you- I’m sure you’d stay too. Leno is loyal and not the jerk that certain people are portraying. He’s got mass appeal and it’s the only reason why NBC is doing what they can to keep him around. If he was old and boring then he’d be the one asking to go.

    Conan gets the dirty end of the deal because of this and I feel for him. If NO ONE out there hasn’t realized it yet- It’s all about a bankable person that these networks rely on. It’s always just about MONEY. Conan is unsure in their eyes but it’s crap that he hasn’t been given an honest chance. Leno’s ratings were bad too when he first took over the Tonight Show.

    As for Leno being the greedy man well he’s a workaholic and has never taken a vacation. He does 160 gigs of stand up a year and wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he walked away from NBC. Should he relinquish his show in order to give Conan his chance? Sure but as an outsider just like yourself; We don’t have all the actual details and it’s unfair to judge someone’s actions without the full story. The good news for Conan fans is that if he does leave he gets his settlement of 40 plus million dollars and an open door to basically any network he wants. Why let the NBC network interfere with his creative genuise? The man will do just fine where ever he goes!~

  16. Caret

    I read Andy because he is brilliant and entertaining. I rarely agree with him, which is what makes it interesting.

    As someone pointed out, Jay is a car guy and a comic. The TV gig is just a job.

    NBC thought they would save a bundle going the reality route at 10 pm instead of a proper one-hour drama. Anyone could have told them that the audience for prime time is not the same as the audience at 11:35 and later. But the networks are run buy bean counters. So…

    When the ratings fell through the floor, the affiliates revolted, NBC had to scramble to “fix” things. This is not Jay’s fault so I don’t see why he has to fall on his sword. They told him we’re moving you back, he said OK. He probably wasn’t that thrilled with the 10 pm slot anyway.

    I agree that Conan is getting a raw deal here, and in his shoes I too would quit rather than be kicked to 12:05. But let us remember AGAIN that no matter what any of these people do, nobody is going to starve, nobody is going to be jobless for long. The problems of millionaires (and their staff who must mostly make 6 and 7 figures) don’t hold my attention for long, especially in a month when there are important issues.

    Speaking of disasters, it occurs to me looking at all the aid pouring into Haiti, if I were a resident of New Orleans, I would be mighty PISSED right about now. (Ya, ya, different team, different administration. How about helping NOW???)



  17. Larry

    It’s interesting how a show, via its host, can grow and change in different directions over time, effectively becoming an entirely different type of show. I watched Johnny and Dave almost religiously during the ’80s (’70s+ for Carson), and it was because each was so uniquely different. Carson’s show was “old school,” for lack of a better term. A viewer could feel the respect and professionalism, the air of antiquity and nostalgia without feeling outdated. Did anyone NOT shed a tear when Jimmy Stewart read his famous, tear-streaked poem about his dog? Did we ever feel it was forced or canned comedy when Buddy Hacket tripped across the stage, or Rickles bombed one of Johnny’s sketches? This was classic stuff, albeit still contemporary. Letterman, on the other hand, was the mischievous rebel, who gave us a sense of “guilty pleasure” over the slightly-sardonic interviews and intentionally ludicrous sketches. It was a lot of fun.

    And then Johnny left, and Dave matured, and neither ended up being a good thing, really. Despite my “loyalist” resentment of Leno at the time, I did honestly try to watch “his” Tonight Show from time to time, but it just wasn’t the same show, and I never once found it funny or truly entertaining. Letterman, too, seemed to change gears, as if he was trying to do more serious broadcasting, and the fun aspects just weren’t there anymore.

    To be honest, I don’t think anyone has yet to reclaim either throne. Conan is funny, and professional, but caught somewhere in between. Fallon seems a nice guy, but is too raw and new to get much of a handle on, and Ferguson (hope I spelled that right) is hilarious, if a bit reserved, but sitting in a niche market (he’d fare much better in an earlier time-slot).

    In the end, it’s really down to the host’s experience and personality, and how the material us treated/used, and I’m left thinking that, quite honestly, there’s nobody right now, in any time slot, I have a desire to watch at all (critics be damned, I miss the short-lived Chevy Chase show). :) In other words, I don’t really care who “wins” right now. Sure, I feel for Conan, and think Jay should just gracefully slip away into the shadows with some dignity left intact, but that’s just the moral side of things. The shows themselves all fail to meet expectation these days, so who comes out on top doesn’t matter, and hasn’t for 15 years.

    I will say this, though. The idea cited above for a weekend show in the vein of Ed Sullivan, thus solving the issue, is absolutely brilliant. Perhaps, with a lesser amount of time to work with in a given week, the forces behind it might treat it with greater respect and give us higher quality. You can’t bring back Johnny, but you could bring back his legacy in the form of style, respect, and treatment. Even I, who obviously has become a bit jaded over talk shows in recent years, would eagerly tune-in to such a show.

    Ok, I’ve said my piece. I’m gonna head back to my rocking chair now and resume yelling at kids for walking on my lawn. ;)

  18. Jamie Stewart

    Conan is really funny, and crazy. I think I would really get a great kick out of him in person. Even so, I enjoy Jay’s version of the Tonight Show more. I’m the kind of viewer that only catches the show occasionally anyway, but when I do I enjoyed it much more with Jay. I have difficulty describing the reasons why. If I were a critic I might have a different opinion, but just as a regular guy I guess I just like what I like. Jay’s monologue usually is less likely to embarrass me if I’m watching while over at my parents house. Headlines and Jay Walking are really funny segments that I look forward to. Neither of their shows are the kind of funny that will be the topic of conversation at work the next day. I would like to see Jay back, but I don’t wish ill toward Conan. Anyway, I think Craig Ferguson is the most consistently funny. Every time I see David Letterman I enjoy it, but I feel like I’m watching the same show each time.

  19. Harry

    Who cares people? This article is spot on, from the Public WSJ Opinion Site.


    JANUARY 24, 2010, 10:56 P.M. ET
    How Conan Should Have Said Goodbye

    Just a few words now to my incredibly loyal audience, including the crowds of people who came from far and wide to stand in the pouring rain all night to get into the studio, my heartfelt thanks and prayers that you soon find your way out of the mental disorders plaguing you. Godspeed on that.

    As you know I’m deeply grateful to NBC, my home for so many years. First, though, it’s time to acknowledge what we all know in our hearts and whatever minds we have left after years of immersion in the witlessness that passes as late night comedy: including especially, that of Leno who has taught me at last, the meaning of terms like “the emperor has no clothes.”

    But most of all I want to leave here this last night sharing with you my amazement that the contracts and fates of a couple of empty-headed products of their equally vacant-minded writers should be major news for weeks, covered like some world crisis. Never mind the business part of this story, of NBC and its missteps, given column space and depth analysis that Janet Napolitano and the whole bizarre crew in charge of our national security didn’t get. But—all the hand-wringing, the debates about my fate and Leno’s fate—really bizarre stuff—about who’s to blame is really astounding. It’s just astounding that a network’s programming change like the one that sent me scooting out of NBC, and stories of Leno’s numbers as opposed to mine, and the problems of the affiliates should have been inflated into a major national drama and reported on as though all America cares—and cares a lot. Does any sane person believe this?

    But we all know who really cares. The narcissism that drives the media knows no bounds (I really wish I could talk this way in real life) and every media story is, to a journalist, a world -shaking event.

    Late night show hosts adrift! Poor Leno, deprived of his rightful audience! Poor Conan!

    Somewhere deep down even the press knows, like everyone else, that the 500th re-run of “Seinfeld” or “The Office,” “The Simpsons” or “Frasier” is a billion times fresher, and worthy of being called comedy than anything we’ve ever come up with—except, of course, for the occasional spectacle of Letterman’s on-air breakdowns.

    It’s not the first time I’ve wondered about this kind of thing—especially those news/talk shows. For instance, that one on ABC on Sundays that ends with: “And now for the Sunday funnies.” Others have done the same .

    One thing was always obvious to me about those new talk programs that couldn’t wait to toss in a few clips of late night comedy—they can’t have a lot of faith in the news and commentary they just finished dispensing if they need us for a crutch.

    So, friends, I’ll go forward and get another contract but I promise you this now. I go knowing that if Letterman, Leno and I are considered top entertainment talents—if what happens with our time slots and contracts passes as major news for weeks running—then our culture is in big trouble. But we know that already, don’t we?

    One final piece of advice, to all those studio audiences screaming themselves silly at our shows, whatever we say—the kind that attended that Letterman show in such a state of stupefaction (I really do wish I could talk this way) that when Letterman tried in his own weird way to confess his sexual affairs with employees, they kept laughing and applauding. They’d lost capacity for any other response. A serious condition. Get help, people.

    To my friends in the national media—that goes double for you.

    Till we meet again. Conan.

  20. Kathy Vanderwerff

    I watched Conan on tour the other night and it was great. I can’t wait for his new show to come to TBS. It will be the start of a new chapter in late night TV.

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