Let’s talk about this late-night talk-show kerfuffle business. I won’t be coming at this from the point of view of detailed industry analysis, because I don’t really know that much about the television industry apart from that it often rewards mediocrity, which is not so different from so many other industries, and I won’t be coming from a fan’s point of view, either, because I can’t remember the last time I sat down and watched a late-night chat show from start to finish.
No, I’m examining this as someone who half-watches fifteen or twenty minutes of a talk show in bed before falling asleep, but who does like comedy and therefore finds this stuff sort of weirdly, tangentially fascinating.
From that perspective, I was pretty happy when Conan O’Brien got the Tonight Show gig, because Conan is clearly the funniest and most inventive of the major network latenight hosts, yet I rarely saw his 12:30 show during the week, because I try to go to bed well before then. I do enjoy Letterman’s crankiness and idiosyncrasies, but Conan is the guy for my generation, which is kind of odd because I’m not even sure if we’re in the same generation, but dude wrote for SNL and The Simpsons when I was first watching SNL and The Simpsons, so he’s got the comedy bona fides for anyone my age. On the Simpsons twentieth anniversary special the other night, Conan said that if he was offered a job to sit in a remote field and think of weird stuff for Mr. Burns to say or do for the annual salary of a dollar and some cheap wine, he would do it. Though I don’t literally believe this, that sentiment is why Conan is my horse in this race.
However, I had to admit when Conan got The Tonight Show that it seemed premature. Not because he hadn’t made his bones, but because from a purely financial point of view, Jay Leno is a big deal. People like him. Especially people with unsophisticated taste and a yen for cheap shots at all the dumb non-news news that they get from the Today show in the morning. He’s been beating Letterman soundly for years now. I guess the idea was that NBC wanted to sew up Conan for the foreseeable future, so they figured, hey, by 2009 Leno will probably be looking to retire or waning in the ratings anyway, so let’s lock up his replacement.
When those things didn’t happen, they still had a deal to replace him, so they gave Leno that primetime talk show. To be honest, I kinda dig the idea of a primetime talk show in the sense that I like anything to shake up the pointlessly stodgy network-TV format. But a daily hour is probably too much, and I never watched Leno’s show because Leno isn’t funny.
I’m actually a little surprised Leno’s primetime chat show hasn’t gotten better ratings, though it should probably be noted that four or five million viewers a night in latenight is just fine, while in primetime it makes you the biggest hit on the CW and/or one of the lowest-rated shows anywhere else. Still, NBC was apparently making money off of this deal; they were just squandering a lot of audience and affiliate goodwill in the process by getting the actual late-night lineup off to a slower start than a show that could garner, say, ten million reviewers from 10-11PM.
So regardless of profits, NBC is nixing The Jay Leno Show. Their plan, subject to the approval of both Leno and Conan, is to do a half-hour Jay Leno bit at 11:35, followed by The Tonight Show at 12:05, and finally Jimmy Fallon’s Late Show at 1:05. Everything gets bumped back half an hour; Leno essentially functions as the late-night warm-up act, easing viewers into the “new” line-up. The Tonight Show has dipped in ratings under Conan – owing to him being less of a people-pleasing hack – but presumably with a Leno lead-in, and up against the second half of Letterman’s show, it’ll bump back up.
As quick fixes go, this actually seems logical to me, but I’m not a programmer or a semi-spurned late-night host, so what do I know. This, if it actually goes through, might also repair what seems to me like a big problem with the Conan Tonight Show: they’ve been booking sub-Late Show guests. NBC and whoever else swore up and down that there wouldn’t be booking problems with both The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show competing for guests, but have you actually checked out the guests for the latter this season? It’s kind of embarrassing. With Leno siphoning off the Los Angeles crowd and Jimmy Fallon taking care of anyone in New York, Conan often has the lowest-wattage guests on any given night, which is kind of sad for the freaking Tonight Show. I mean, dude has had Norm MacDonald as lead guest like three times since taking over. Don’t get me wrong: I love Norm, and it’s fun to see him come on Conan with absolutely nothing to promote, do some bits with Conan and Andy, and just basically screw around. In some ways, this makes for better TV.
But not every low-rent guest is Norm MacDonald. Many of them are reality TV players, or sports stars. It’s an unpleasant feeling to be falling asleep watching Conan and hear that someone you’d actually like to watch – Amy Adams, say, or the reunited Monty Python survivors – will be coming up… on Jimmy Fallon’s show well after you should be asleep. I remember Leno said in a Rolling Stone interview over the summer that numbers-wise, only a handful of guests really make a demonstrable difference in ratings, but it can’t help Conan that his Tonight Show has such lame bookings. If Leno only does half an hour, you figure with his horrible monologue and horrible recurring bits, he’ll only have time for one guest a night, if that, and Conan will start talking to some actual stars, not just the NBC stable players and third leads in movies that wouldn’t look so shabby at 1AM. Tuesday night’s guests, for example, per the Tonight Show website, are “TBA” and former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. For serious.
I also hope the move to midnight – if Conan goes for it, which he may not – will allow him to make the Tonight Show more his own. He still does a lot of signature bits, and I love that Andy Richter has been returning to the couch, now sidekick as much as announcer, and, as I’ve said, I’d still rather watch Conan do a slightly hackier version of his schtick than just about any of the other hosts in top form, because Conan’s just a funny, goofy, smart guy. But it pains me to see Conan having to go after, like, Octomom jokes, Leno-style, in the monologues, because Conan’s strength has never really been the opening monologue. He’s not a stand-up comedian; he’s a writer-performer. I hope that the producers will consider Leno’s opening thirty minutes a get-out-of-monologue-free card of sorts; no one expects it to be eliminated entirely, but maybe Conan can slip away from that yuk-yukkiness that can feel so stale. Or, by the way, kinda hateful: did anyone catch that nasty and unfunny joke Conan made about Ellen DeGeneres and Tim Gunn the other night? I confess I didn’t, but someone repeated it on Facebook, and it’s the kind of ignorance-based humor that Leno traffics in; Conan should know better.
It’s too bad that Conan and Fallon may have to bump back an hour, too, because they both sort of get a timeslot demotion even though Conan is funnier than Leno and Fallon’s show has been shaping up nicely. Fallon cleverly sidesteps the fact that he’s not as natural a writer as Conan (nor as comfortable an interviewer, despite the decade of performing experience he racked up prior to hosting a talk show) by making his show a loose, vaguely spontaneous, whimsical affair that doesn’t necessarily depend on huge laugh lines. It’s too bad that I’ll catch the show even less often with a proposed 1AM start-time.
Of fact, in purely selfish terms, moving Conan to 12:05AM is a pain in the ass. I try to go to bed around 11:30. With Conan on the Tonight Show, I had an easy go-to viewing option if I want to watch a little TV in bed before drifting off, and I never had to even think about Jay Leno. Now with Leno back in that slot, there’s a dead zone that can only be filled by the first half-hour of Letterman or my Fox affiliate’s 11:30 rerun of Seinfeld. When I heard rumors that Conan could make a jump to Fox – NBC has apparently said that if he does want to walk off Tonight, they won’t sue him or whatever – I was amused at the prospect of him returning to the home of The Simpsons, but also wondered: would Fox affiliates be willing to replace Seinfed reruns with anything?
I mean, for serious: Seinfeld has been off the year for almost a dozen years, has only 180 episodes or so, and it still gets several prime syndication spots. That’s kind of insane. That’s like if when Seinfeld was finishing its run, some of the most popular syndicated reruns had been The Cosby Show. But by 1998, Cosby Show was turning up on Nick at Nite. I love Seinfeld dearly, but I don’t particularly want to watch it anymore; I’d rather see a Simpsons rerun, even from a lesser Simpsons season, because there are over 400 of those. You could run them all year and not show the same one twice.
In summary: Fox, if you really want to capture my viewing attention, sign Conan. And start his show after a Simpsons repeat.