I wasn’t going to write anything about the statement heard ’round the world because a) I posted a late night-related article yeserday and b) I figured I’d leave decoding Conan O’Brien’s missive and surmising his potential options to the real experts. But after spending most of the afternoon on Twitter reading snap judgments and their linked to in-depth analysis, I decided to put finger to keyboard.
As we all know by now, Conan fired off a carefully worded, thoughtful, fuck you to NBC. But while it was certainly surprising to read things like “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” (this actually seemed a little bit of a low blow. While NBC might have bungled all of this, it’s not fair to criticize the shows and talent who are working hard to do their best from 8-10pm (mostly just the Thursday night comedies and recently Chuck)), but what struck me the most was how Conan spoke about Johnny Carson, and his longtime ambition to host The Tonight Show. And this is where it shows how Conan might have been mistaken for quite sometime, and that perhaps this was bound to go off the rails at some point.
Conan (can I call you Conan?) writes that “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.” And much like David Letterman, Conan respected and revered both Carson and the show, which really were one and the same. The Tonight Show might have had a handful of hosts during its run, but really it’s still synonymous with Johnny Carson, and it turns out while The Jay Leno Show just premiered last fall, it’s really been on for the last 18 years. The Tonight Show is the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was and is the Jay Leno Show, and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien is, well, Conan. Had Letterman taken over The Tonight Show like Carson wanted, as Letterman was groomed to do, then perhaps the same Carson spirit might have transferred to Dave and then to Conan. But, really, the show that Conan wanted to lead into the next decade has already been gone for two. If he takes a step back and thinks about it now, to follow in Carson’s footsteps might have been to not so literally follow in his footsteps. Maybe it would be more Carson-like to create his own legacy, not try to extend or recreate an existing one.
So what now?
- It doesn’t seem like NBC is going to reverse course again and deny Leno the 11:35pm slot, so one way or another Conan is gone. He could quit outright, but it’s unknown what that would mean for his staff, many of whom, as Alan Sepinwall noted, picked up and moved cross-country to join Conan in LA (one of whom I number as a friend, so this hits especially close to home). If anything, Conan’s statement shows that he’s a class act who truly values the late night shows and the people who work on them, so my sense would be that he would want to avoid this option if it were to prove detrimental to his staff. Unlike NBC, he seems to be playing with a full hand of compassion.
- Cite NBC for breach of contract? Well, it looks like NBC will only be liable if they abrogate The Tonight Show moniker from Conan, not the time slot. But as Conan astutely notes (and as Seth Meyers previously did on last weekend’s “Weekend Update“) the “Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show.” So perhaps that will allow him to easily, and without penalty for him or his crew, get out of his contract and jump ship. But where to?
- I thought that Fox was the obvious and fitting choice. It’s the “young, hip, edgy” network, and the one where Conan cut his teeth as a Simpsons writer and producer in the early 90s. If Leno is going to reunite with 11:35pm, then perhaps Conan should reunite with Fox, and finally exorcise the demons of Joan Rivers, Chevy Chase and Magic Johnson. But Ken Tucker rightly points out that if he goes to Fox then Conan will be on the air even earlier, at 11pm. This puts him up against not only Letterman and Leno at 11:35, but against the Daily Show–Colbert Report tandem for the full hour, shows that probably have the greatest crossover with Conan’s demographic. It might not be too much to ask Conan’s fans to follow him, but it might be too much to ask them to choose him over their (fake) news. Muddling matters even more is that Fox affiliates do good business airing syndicated reruns like Seinfeld (still a big draw, even if Jerry stuck his nose where it doesn’t belong) in the 11pm-12am slot, so if Fox attempts to replace them with Conan the network runs the risk of angering its affiliates just like NBC (all of this has happened before and will happen again). And indeed, even though nothing is official, the affiliates are already voicing their displeasure about the possiblity of stepping aside for Conan. Trouble behind, trouble ahead.
- So then ABC, as Tucker suggests, with Jimmy Kimmel moving back to midnight? Maybe. But based on Conan’s statement, and his ire over his treatment by the network, I doubt he will want to be complicit in doing the same thing to Kimmel, even if Kimmel is not setting the late night world on fire.
So then what?
Here’s a crazy idea: The Late Show.
David Letterman is officially signed through this year, but reportedly has agreed with CBS to extend the deal through 2012, as has Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson. But when that run ends do you think Letterman and/or CBS will hand the keys to the Ed Sullivan theater to Ferguson? Despite critical praise, I’m not sold on the idea that Craig Ferguson is the person to succeed Letterman (with all to respect to CF). So then, does this open the door to Conan taking over in 2012, or even sometime sooner?
Much like O’Brien, but even moreso, Letterman idolized Johnny Carson. And O’Brien has already taken over a show from Letterman once, a program for which Conan still has a deep respect for, explaining in his statement “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.” Thus, perhaps it would make sense if Conan inherited a show from Letterman once again. If the Carson gene ran from Johnny to Dave and not Jay, and Conan owes more to Letterman than to Leno, then this, in a way, preserves that legacy that O’Brien so reverently speaks of. And if Dave wants to finish out his contract, this gives Conan a relaxing, well deserved two-year vacation. It’s a long shot, sure, but who foresaw any of this?
- What will happen to that brand new studio they built on the Universal lot for Conan’s Tonight Show? Sure would be a shame if that went unused.
- However, I bet NBC would rather the studio remain vacant then pay for two high-profile late night talk shows. They might not want to lose Conan, but by doing so they’ll be able to take a lot of money off the books, and if they’ve proven anything, it’s that their primary concern is the bottom line.
- There’s nothing guaranteeing that returning to Leno to his old home will be successful, regardless of whether or not he regains The Tonight Show title. For the most part, return engagements are never as fruitful as the original run (possible exceptions: Lorne Michaels rescues SNL, George Steinbrenner roars back from banishment to return the Yankees to prominence, Steve Jobs is recalled and brings Apple to new, astronomical heights). But there’s really no precedent for something of this magnitude. So it looks like NBC is just hoping and praying this works out. If not, many heads will roll.
- No one is getting hit harder in this than NBC, not even Leno (and really, his only crime is not being funny. Not his fault he was offered more money to stick around and do what he loves and we hate). But I have to be fair to them, in that they are responsible for the bulk of the programming that I watch and subsequently discuss on this blog, from SNL to the Thursday night comedies to Jimmy Fallon, plus their successful cable ventures on Bravo and SyFy. Those three channels inspire much of the content here at Jumped The Snark, so NBC must be doing something right, even in spite of themselves. At the very least, maybe that indicates that things aren’t as dire as they seem.
- How big are the ratings going to be on this evening’s shows? Oh, the irony.
- The real winner in all this: Carson Daly. Looks like the Mr. TRL might get to stick around after all.
- It’s really hard to believe that we went from lambasting Leno for months to speculating on his demise to now considering Conan’s post-Tonight Show options. How did this happen? I can imagine that Conan is asking himself the same question.
As is stands now, Conan can try to play nice with NBC, make a mutually beneficial deal and head out for a new adventure. Or he can play hardball, fight for every dollar that he’s owed and then go out and try to embarrass his former bosses from another network.
But whatever happens with Conan, with his statement today, it appears that the late night landscape will never be the same, from NBC to CBS to ABC to Fox to cable.
In the end, it looks like he might just be Conan the Destroyer.