Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dear Leno'Brien: thanks for the memories!

Conan's pain is late-night TV's gain.

It doesn't matter whether you're on Team Coco, Big-Jawed Jay, or Carson Daly - just kidding, there's no such team! - for the first time in recent memory, late night matters again.

No more can talk-show guests simply tell stories about Robin Williams being "quite a prankster on the set," or say, "I have no idea what we're about to see" when they set up a clip. No, now they actually have to weigh in on their allegiance in the late-night wars, take a side, and have the courage of their convictions to defend it.

Sadly, it looks like things are beginning to wind down, though we can look forward to Conan's last show tomorrow night, the renewed Leno versus Letterman feud when Leno returns to the Tonight Show, and the return of Conan when he lands at another network and launches a new show (minus the masturbating bear).

And the great, national pastime will become a ratings watch, as we spend our time wishing, hoping, and praying that Leno has a major crash and burn, proving that NBC was wrong yet again.

As the dust clears, here are the winners and losers as I see them:

I. Winners:
  • Jimmy Kimmel

One of the greatest things I've ever seen on TV is Jimmy Kimmel slamming Leno on his own show, to the apparent horror of Leno and his audience.

And that was the day after Kimmel did the first part of his show as Leno himself, a scathing impression it was, complete with chin, lisp, and witless banter, Leno-style.

I didn't know that Kimmel had it in him, but he does, and now I'll watch his show forever.
  • Conan O'Brien

Before this whole mess, the general consensus among Conan fans was that his Tonight Show was pretty weak, and nowhere near the brilliance of his work on Late Night - a show on which I interned as a researcher in 1994.

I worked on Conan's show with Maggie Wright, daughter of then NBC President Robert Wright. Every day, she had another bad-news story about Conan's chances as host: "They've offered Late Night to Greg Kinnear," she told me one day.

Had Kinnear actually taken up NBC on the offer, Conan would've lost Late Night 15 years ago, and that would've been that.

But now, Conan's become a modern-day folk hero: the nice guy screwed over by "the man," solidifying Team Coco's brand loyalty and ensuring that he has a dedicated fan base for all time. Way to screw the pooch, NBC.
  • David Letterman

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and Letterman has served it up to Leno night after night after night, culminating in the above clip, where he mocks Leno's fake high fives with the audience, and accuses him of stealing his material, Howard Stern's material, and Howard Stern's announcer.

Letterman was in Conan's position 15 years ago, so he can relate - but, even better, Letterman is a performer who is funniest when he's angry, as Sarah Palin, John McCain, and now Leno know only too well.

Over the past two weeks, Letterman's sermons from the desk have grown more and more biting. On a recent show, he reminded his audience that Leno once hid in a closet to listen in on an NBC conference call. Later in the show, Kiefer Sutherland showed up in a dress, and made a joke about coming out of the closet "with Jay Leno."
  • Craig Ferguson

Just as funny as always! Sorry, Jay, this man - not you - has the funniest monologue on TV.

II. Losers:

  • Jay Leno

Only Jay would practice damage control by trying to position himself as a victim, which he's done with depressing regularity and ineptitude.

In the above clip, he reaches the lowest of the low, asking people not to blame Conan O'Brien. Uh...I don't think anyone was blaming Conan.

In the wake of the scandal, Conan's ratings have skyrocketed as Jay's brand has sunk to greater depths with each passing day. Now everyone can't wait for Jay to fail at the Tonight Show, which - let's hope - he will do as quickly as possible.

Get ready for a rocky return to the Tonight Show, complete with syrupy speech and waterworks from the guy who's used to people loving him and can't seem to understand why they've stopped.
  • Carson Daly
No one's ever really thought about Daly before this mess, and now they're only doing it to point out how no one cares about him one way or another.

His lack of impact on anything and anyone was parodied on last week's SNL and Letterman helpfully pointed out that the difference between not having a show and having Carson Daly's show is negligible at best:

Runner up for irrelevance: Jimmy Fallon, whoever that is.
  • NBC
The network that once had the Cosby Show, Seinfeld, Cheers, Friends, and invented must-see TV is now a sad shell of its former self.

NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker has become a household name for all the wrong reasons and NBC Universal Chairman of Sports (no kidding!) Dick Ebersol took the network from low-class to no-class, slamming Conan and Letterman at once as "chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn't beat in the ratings."
  • The Daily Show
So, let's say the biggest story in late night ever happened and Jon Stewart only mentioned it on his show once. That would be, like, totally lame, right?

Time was, we'd get "comedy" on the Daily Show. Now we get Stewart mugging at the camera and shouting in lieu of "punchlines."

I think Stephen Colbert is just the man to replace him. Wait a I smell a new late-night feud?

Let's sit back, relax, and watch the fireworks, shall we?


  1. Excellent post!

    You mentioned Carson Daly, which makes you far better person than I am, because I've never once brought him up, in all the entries I've posted on the subject. I wonder how it feels to be that irrelevant.

    I'm gonna have to start watching Jimmy Kimmel with more regularity after he impersonated Leno, and mocked Leno on his show. That was seriously brilliant stuff. David Letterman has gotten some great digs in too, I agree; he's best when he's angry.

  2. Team Mike Bullard is surprisingly undermanned in all this.

  3. In my opinion, Fallon is the best show on late night.

  4. There's a "Team Arsenio" Facebook page with well over 11 members!

  5. As much as I love Jon Stewart, I have to agree with you, he's really gone a bit soft or something the past few years. The commentary hasn't been nearly as sharp, and while I used to only tolerate The Colbert Report, now I prefer it.

    Kimmel is, and will always be, trash to me. I just strongly dislike him, he's always come off as a bit of a misogynist to me.

  6. I haven't really followed this whole debacle too closely, but I might as well weigh in with my two cents...

    Though Jay's little spiel was likely nothing but PR posturing, there may be an ounce of truth about what he said about NBC in effect forcing him out as a means of keeping Conan.

    It was always expected that sooner or later Conan would take over the Tonight Show, the biggest question was how long would NBC make him wait. I think there's a good possibility that this whole situation is far more about a floundering network's desperate attempts to remain relevant in some way than it is about Leno being a world-class douchebag.

    Regarding the programming- my favourite Leno bits were always Jaywalking and Headlines, so that doesn't exactly bode well for Jay. Neither of those segments showcased his talents in any way, shape, or form. A trained monkey could probably deliver those and still make America laugh.

    As for Conan, I've always enjoyed his monologues more for his delivery and his overall personality than for the actual material. His reactions to lame jokes that didn't go over well often compensated for the weak material.

    My two favourite segments on Conan were Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Clutch Cargo (the talking faces skit), both of which actually showcase the creativity of Robert Smigel. Sadly, they will likely cease to exist once Conan moves to another network, due to Smigel's longtime involvement (and contractual obligations?) with NBC. But, you never know.

    My favourite part of the whole thing is Carson Daly. Was there ever a more insignificant person in an equation like this? It brings to mind a name I used to label people of complete and total insignificane with: pocket lint. Carson Daly truly is the pocket lint in this debacle!

  7. Fallon is your favorite show, Matt? That surprises me: I find him so bland and devoid of personality...

  8. I've come out this whole thing realizing that Conan is my faorite late night talk show host of all time. I loved him when he was doing Late Night and stopped watching him when he was doing the Tonight Show because it just didn't seem like the same show. Over the past few weeks he has returned to his former glory, saying whatever he feels like & exploiting this genuinely crappy situation for som hilarious comedy bits (most expensive sketch in late night being the best!)
    On his last show he proved himself to be a good person and a classy guy by giving one of the best goodbys speeches I've ever heard and then he went out with a bang, playing "Freebird" with Will Ferrel. Great Stuff.

    I've never like Jimmy Kimmel, Letterman just seems like a grumpy old man to me now, and you summed up Leno's position rather nicely, I think.

    Craig Ferguson is hilarious, and Honestly (this will never happen!) but I'd like to see Dave retire and Conan take over for him. CBS would rule late night then!


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