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The ‘Tonight Show’ Crisis of 2010

Apr 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 28 • By JOHN B. KIENKER
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The War for Late Night

Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno

Kevin Winter / Getty Images

When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy

by Bill Carter

Viking, 416 pp., $26.95

Before last fall’s elections gave pundits a chance to wring their hands once more over the divide between Red and Blue America, another episode in the culture war—as instructive as it was destructive—played itself out at the beginning of 2010, this time in television’s late-night programming.

Even if we hadn’t watched the late shows in years, we all caught the general story from the headlines and the more acerbic monologue jokes: After usurping The Tonight Show in 1992 from presumptive heir David Letterman—a tale memorably told in Bill Carter’s earlier The Late Shift (1994)—Jay Leno struck again almost two decades later by reneging on his announced retirement and forcing Conan O’Brien into cable exile after less than eight months in the host’s chair. But as Carter, national media reporter for the New York Times, shows in his new book, the truth is a little more complicated than that.

It begins not in 2004, with Leno’s announced retirement, but in 2001: Conan O’Brien’s career as host of NBC’s Late Night had ignited, and the Fox Network was aggressively wooing him in order to compete with the Big Three beyond primetime. NBC didn’t want to lose their hot young up-and-comer, so they eventually convinced O’Brien to turn down seven times his Late Night salary (Fox was offering him $21 million) for a chance to fulfill his dream of hosting The Tonight Show. For his part, O’Brien had such cherished memories of staying up late with his father to watch Johnny Carson that he was willing to wait. But did Leno want to give up the gig just yet? NBC was not looking to the future so much as haunted by the past. The once undisputed number-one network was now in fourth place, and the NBC executives, led by entertainment president Jeff Zucker, thought that with careful planning they could set up a smooth transition for the next phase of The Tonight Show franchise and avoid the mess they had on their hands when Johnny Carson retired.

The deal hit Jay Leno like a ton of bricks. Here he was at the top of his game, consistently beating David Letterman’s CBS Late Show in the ratings to make The Tonight Show the number-one show in late night for a decade—and he was being suddenly shown the door? Still, ever the good soldier, he dutifully went through the motions of publicly announcing his retirement in 2004 and promising to hand the baton off to O’Brien in 2009. Like his bosses, Leno didn’t want a repeat of what happened in 1992 when he was vilified as a ruthless schemer for his part in becoming the new Tonight Show host. But because all Leno ever wanted to do (as he put it) was “tell jokes at 11:30,” the NBC team now faced the prospect of losing the number-one star in late night to ABC, which was hinting it would dump its news show, Nightline, and shift late-night newcomer Jimmy Kimmel to 12:35 to make room for Leno.

The NBC execs never could come to terms with whether O’Brien or Leno would be the least hurtful competitor if one of them jumped to another network the way Letterman had done. NBC wanted O’Brien in order to attract the ever important 18-49 demographic; they just needed a way to keep Leno on board, too. After Leno repeatedly refused the idea of doing a comedy show at 8 p.m., Jeff Zucker’s last shot was to make The Jay Leno Show O’Brien’s lead-in at 10. NBC would no longer compete to air the kind of quality dramas that had helped cement its reputation and, instead, would be content to be viewers’ second choice if the other networks were in repeats.

Soon after O’Brien’s Tonight Show debuted, Letterman started beating him in overall audience numbers—a fact breathlessly reported in the entertainment media—even though O’Brien maintained the holy grail of 18-49-year-olds, and an even bigger lead among 18-34-year-olds. Meanwhile, The Jay Leno Show, although cheaper to produce than fare like Law and Order, was a disaster: hapless, pointless, and driving away audiences. 

Faced with affiliates in mutiny, NBC once again tried to have it all. They would return Leno to 11:35 and keep O’Brien in his dream job by moving The Tonight Show to 12:05. The storm finally broke with O’Brien’s “People of Earth” letter, in which he publicly rejected NBC’s offer to host The Tonight Show a few days after, stating, “I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.”

Leno and NBC, just as they had feared, found themselves the public villains, and O’Brien rode a wave of “Team Coco” adulation such as he had never known, aided by fellow late-night hosts. Jimmy Kimmel eviscerated Leno—on Leno’s own show, no less—in an interview segment. (Leno: What’s the best prank you ever pulled? Kimmel: .  .  . I told a guy that five years from now I’m gonna give you my show, and then when the five years came, I gave it to him. And then I took it back almost instantly.) Letterman took his shots, too, calling the conflict “vintage Jay”—although he eventually threw Leno a lifeline by inviting him to film a Super Bowl commercial with him and Oprah Winfrey. (Letterman had invited O’Brien as well, who was in no mood to make light of what had happened.)

Jay Leno never understood why he wasn’t the hero in a great comeback story: Hardworking everyman unfairly fired wins back his old job in the last reel. Zucker, for his part, thought he had made the right decisions all along, arranging all the pieces as skillfully as he could in order to keep as much revenue as possible flowing into NBC’s coffers. (Ironically, Zucker had been Conan O’Brien’s early and adamant supporter to take over The Tonight Show.)

Carter tells a breezy tale of court intrigue with wit, confidence, and, above all, sharp sympathetic portraits of all the key players. The War for Late Night is filled with drama, laughs, and behind-the-scenes details. But does a retelling such as this offer anything more than a recap of tabloid fodder? Whether NBC’s dealings were dishonorable, or just good business, The Tonight Show is still on at 11:35, Jay Leno is back at the helm, and things seem pretty much as they were.

So why was all the fuss so partisan? Carter chalks up a lot of the enmity directed at Leno to a difference of age: The NBC affiliates and some of the network’s old guard like the graying Leno, the Internet crowd prefer the hip, younger O’Brien. But this overlooks the fact that the same younger viewers who love Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart also love David Letterman, who is even older than Jay Leno. We get closer to the truth when, at the end, Carter quotes Jeff Garlin, a comic actor who roomed with O’Brien in Chicago when the two were struggling to break into show business: “The people that Jay appeals to are not comedy fans. .  .  . It’s just the general public.” Comparing Letterman and O’Brien to Leno, says Garlin, is like

comparing John Coltrane to Kenny G. One of Kenny G’s albums probably sold more than all of John Coltrane’s library. But you can’t tell me for a second that Kenny G is better than John Coltrane.

Jay Leno became the popular scapegoat not for being a joke-telling machine, but for being a bland one. He exemplifies the rewards mediocrity can reap from a mass audience, the same audience that made CBS’s Two and a Half Men the country’s number-one sitcom and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham its number-one comedy act. The late-night war became another skirmish in our culture wars, in which, as William Voegeli has put it, “good taste is mostly a matter of good distaste: the positional value of denigrating the wrong things is more important, and more reliable, than appreciating the right things.” Conan O’Brien, now sporting a beard, relocated to cable’s TBS channel after Fox couldn’t commit unreservedly to a show for him. Perhaps it’s for the best.

Paul Cantor has written that we are living in television’s golden age. But that golden age is playing itself out on cable with shows like Rome, The Shield, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad which have thrived with smaller, more discerning audiences. For the time being, network TV still holds an edge on comedy, although even the past decade’s funniest shows—all of them on NBC ironically enough, with the exceptions of Arrested Development and a couple of British imports—languished despite critical praise. Now solidly competing with Jon Stewart among 18-34-year-old viewers, Conan O’Brien still has a chance to craft something new and original, and redefine late night comedy—if not The Tonight Show, for the new millennium.

 John B. Kienker is managing editor of the Claremont Review of Books.


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