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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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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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