Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The case for Conan and the reality of Leno

I'll start this off by saying that I haven't had cable television for almost a year and a half. I'll also go on record by saying that I've watched less than six hours of late night talk show in as many years, even when I had access. The format itself holds little to no interest for me. I would generally only tune in when someone I'm interested in is being interviewed or a band I like is playing.
Having said that, I have been continually intrigued by the Conan v. Leno fight currently being played out at NBC. My interest is more of anthropological one in that the host of "The Tonight Show" is such a ceremonial position in our culture.
First, here's Conan's statement in case you haven't read it:
People of Earth:

In the last few days, I’ve been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I’ve been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I’ve been absurdly lucky. That said, I’ve been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my bosses are demanding an immediate decision.
Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in June of 2009. Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004 I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.
But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.
Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 to accommodate the Jay Leno Show at 11:35. For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show. Also, if I accept this move I will be knocking the Late Night show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.
So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction. Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet a time slot doesn’t matter. But with the Tonight Show, I believe nothing could matter more.
There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next. My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.
Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair; it’s always been that way.



Here's my take:
I am completely unsurprised by this entire situation. When I was shocked was when I first heard that Conan would be taking over for Leno several months ago. At that point I couldn't remember a time that I watched "The Tonight Show" when Jay Leno wasn't the host. Except for the last seven months I haven't had a moment of my life where I didn't think of "The Tonight Show" as a vaguely lame program that people much older than me thought was funny.
What I am surprised by is how long Conan has lasted in his new seat of power. I would have thought this would have happened much sooner. It's painfully obvious that Jay Leno just likes being the definition of mediocre that he is and any change to the formula is dangerous. It's also been made apparent that Conan O'Brien is a smart, funny comedian who is at the very least relentlessly creative and self-improving.
But in the land of the Snuggie and Sarah Palin did anyone ever have any doubt that the big, dumb "C" student would win the day? (Just ask David Letterman if you don't know the answer to that.) As Conan pointed out in his above-quoted statement, "The Tonight Show" is more than a show to many people (including him); it's an institution. It's a living museum whose curator stands as the face of modern comedy for the average American. And is there a better word to describe the current incarnation of Jay Leno as "average"?
Congratulations, America, you win. You'll soon have your precious Jay back and you can all go back to sleep.
Now play us out, Bill Hicks:

UPDATE: I just found this video from 2004 when Leno first announced Conan's takeover. So much integrity on display here:

"It's mine, Conan...MINE! Muahahahaha..."

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