Ego And Late Night Comedy
The Current Situation
Unless you have been away hibernating you are aware of the current controversy regarding the Tonight Show. A few months ago Conan O'Brien took over the reigns of the most coveted late night talk show on television. His ratings have not been very good compared to David Letterman. At the same time, NBC decided to give a prime time slot to the former host of the Tonight Show, Jay Leno, to help boost NBC's failing prime time lineup. Leno's show was a bomb. Now, NBC has announced it will give Leno a half hour show starting at 11:30, the normal time for the start of the Tonight Show. O'Brien shown disgust at the idea and it now appears that NBC will give up on the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien and will give the reigns back to Leno
The Fight Over Late Night
The Godfather of late night television was Johnny Carson who every night at 11:30 entered the homes of millions of Americans for thirty years. When Carson decided to step down in the early nighties, the nation caught a glimpse of the inner workings of the television business when the battle between David Letterman, who for years was the host of Late Night, the show that followed Carson, and Jay Leno, a stand up comedian who was the regular guest host when Johnny was off. The battle between Leno and Letterman was the talk of the gossip columns.
Leno eventually won the battle when, if the book and the movie the "late shift" is to believed, by underhanded press releases and sleazy back room deals by his agents. Letterman moved to CBS and the two have battled for ratings ever since, with each taking the lead at different times.
When Leno decided it was time for him to step down, he decided he did not want a big fight to occur as had been the case when Johnny left. Instead, Leno announced five years ago his intention to retire and at that moment announced the decision that O'Brien would be his replacement. When the final show came, Leno symbolically passed the torch to O'Brien. It was a nice moment, a gracious gesture, and a nice transition.
That moment has passed.
Can't Lego My Ego
According to TMZ, which has apparently become the most reliable source of facts these days, Jay Leno has already won the battle with Conan O'Brien and will take over the Tonight Show again after NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics end. But the question must be answered, why couldn't Jay Leno walk away? The answer is the same as why couldn't Michael Jordan, Brett Favre or any other star walk away. Their ego won't let them leave the shining lights and fanfare.
Jay Leno seems like a decent guy. But I don't think he is funny, and for the most part much of America agrees. Apparently, middle America prefers his brand of humor over the sarcastic comedy provided by Conan. But this is not the point. Jay walked away. He passed the torch. And then he started a competing show on the same network, and when that didn't work, he worked to get his show back. Excuse, may I have may torch back? Ego.
How would Jay Leno have reacted to Johnny Carson consistently hanging around the old studio, talking to studio executives and doing on prime time what he used to do at late night? He would have had a fit and rightfully so. But Johnny didn't do that because there are two things Carson had that Leno never will: class and humor.
And how about the ego of NBC, a network that has lost credibility in news, humor in comedy, and ratings altogether. And yet the very NBC executives that caused this situation are now blasting Conan O'Brien for having the audacity to use his show to unleash his complaints. How dare you complain about the manner in which we are screwing you? They have recently threatened to keep Conan off the air for three years.
Winners & Losers
As the Team Jay versus Team Conan fight continues, and apparently has ended, it is time to take stock of who the winners and losers in this saga really is. NBC and its lack of vision and professionalism has done the biggest favor to David Letterman who is now able to put a sex scandal behind him and poke fun at his favorite target, NBC. Letterman's ratings have been rising since the sago began and given the current situation, may never go down.
Conan himself will be a winner in all of this as everyone sees that it is him who is getting screwed. As for the failure of his show, NBC's lack of prime time success and the fact that Conan was not given very much time to make his show work at 11:30 will be the blame, not Conan. For those who do not know, Conan is funny. Maybe he is not 11:30 funny, but he is funny and will land on his feet somewhere. My hope it is on HBO.
NBC and Jay Leno are the biggest losers in all of this. Leno failed in two time slots and his "nice guy" perception will also take a hit. NBC is a loser because it has to act like a professional corporation and appears to be run by buffoons.
The biggest winner in all of this are the views. The last few weeks have provided some the best comedy in years. Letterman and O'Brien are at the top of their game because their competitive juices are flowing. Even Leno has gotten better, but his best moments have been when his is taking it on that giant chin about his behavior from his guests: See Jimmy Kimmel interview.
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