Tag Archives: Johnny Carson

What About Dave? The Forgotten Late Night War

David Letterman BeardAbsent, or maybe just ignored, among all the words committed to The Tonight Show plan for succession has been a discussion about what will happen to The Late Show with David Letterman and its lead-out The Late Late Show. Like Jay Leno, Dave has been at this game a long, long time. Unlike Jay, Dave seems to not care about ratings (possibly because he knows he’s likely to lose), does not appear to be that concerned with being well-liked (which has worked to his advantage, and has paradoxically made him more revered) and is not in any imminent danger of being forced out by the network brass, basically been given carte blanche by CBS to stay as long as he wants and, essentially, to do what he wants. When one jump-starts a late night franchise from scratch, we guess he’s granted some amount of immunity. But, unlike Jay, Dave doesn’t have a younger, hipper, potential replacement nipping at his heels, which makes the future of The Late Show even murkier.

While Craig Ferguson has built up a small but very loyal, impassioned following, and has received rave reviews for years from critics, we don’t have the sense that he’s long for his job, or at least eying the 11:35pm slot. In that small studio (we’ve been there) in CBS Television City, without a house band or announcer, Ferguson can deliver long, meandering monologues (verging on soliloquies) straight to camera, as if the audience and the viewing public wasn’t there, and engage in extended, intimate irreverent conversations with a diverse pool of guests. The Late Late Show interviews occupy that space between the celebrity shilling meant for the masses that one can observe on most late night talk shows and the quiet, introspective, one-on-one interviews conducted without a studio audience on past programs like Tom Synder’s Late Late Show. Sometimes it feels like The Late Late Show is performed for the studio audience, and then broadcast to millions of homes as an afterthought. Which isn’t to say that Ferguson couldn’t do a more traditional, more accessible late night show if he were bumped up to the main slot, we’re just not sure he wants to. Signed through 2014, when Letterman’s current contract runs through, it feels in some ways like he’s only there as long as Dave is, his relaxed, low-key, mischievous Scottish wit a complement Dave’s acerbic bitterness. 

But if not Ferguson, then who?

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Watch the Throne: NBC & the Future of ‘The Tonight Show’

Jimmy Fallon Thank You NotesHere we are again, NBC looking ahead to replace Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show with a hipper, younger host, and a hipper, younger brand. This time, in place of the loose-limbed bean pole with the shock of untamable red locks as successor, we have the shaggy-haired giggle monster and impression impresario as Tonight Show usurper. So what makes NBC think that Jimmy Fallon is the right man for the job – only three years after Conan abdicated – and, perhaps more importantly, why now?

We actually take a somewhat different view from many television critics and media pundits, who believe this is history repeating itself, with the buffoons at NBC either incapable or unwilling to learn from their mistakes. Yes, if you look at the raw data, this move perhaps makes even less sense than the promotion of Conan to the Tonight Show desk in the summer of 2009. Leno, after returning to the late night centerpiece in February 2010, has held his own, even gaining viewers while NBC’s ratings have plummeted. Fallon, only four years and nineteen days removed from his maiden voyage on Late Night, is perhaps not quite ready yet to ascend, whether that be because he needs to further polish and refine his skills, or because he has not yet established enough of a viewership to command a promotion to Johnny Carson’s old spot. Is Jimmy Fallon, who just a decade ago was the  goofball on SNL who couldn’t keep a straight face, ready to tuck in the nation’s older viewers and Slow Jam the News them to bed? And what’s to stop Jay Leno from jumping ship to another network and sticking it to NBC, a possibility  was such a concern four years ago that the Peacock gave Jay a 10pm show, an unequivocal unmitigated disaster.

As Bill Carter reports,* this seems to be all but a done deal, with relations between Jay and the network sinking to an all-time low, bitter invective being spewed on each side. Leno, we can assume, is offended by the lack of respect and credit; after all, he’s still winning his slot while the network crumbles, he’s been a good soldier and has gotten nothing but grief for it. But here’s what’s important, and what makes this different from the Conan situation: as Wired argues in their latest issue, the Nielsen Family is dead and the traditional television model is obsolete. Installing Fallon as Tonight Show host – as reports say will happen by the end of 2014 – is not as much about challenging the upstart and Fallon contemporary Jimmy Kimmel on ABC, as it is about trying a new model, attempting to break out of the box. Fallon has built up a rabid fan base with silly sketches and fun games and brilliant taped pieces, all of which have appealed to the web’s viral culture. Certainly, a popular YouTube video – even one as popular as Justin Timberlake delivering an cappella version of “SexyBack” – doesn’t goose ratings, and it doesn’t do much to affect the bottom line. However, it is indicative of Fallon’s place at the vanguard of new media, of new viewing habits, and at the changing of the guard. Will Fallon alienate some of Leno’s longtime loyal viewers, sending them to Letterman or Kimmel or maybe just to bed early? Sure. But does it really matter, in this current television climate? We’re not so sure.

Also, it’s important to remember that NBC is a moribund enterprise right now. And while that may initially lead one to think that they should keep the one thing that seems to be working, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, we think the opposite is true. So much is dysfunctional at NBC right now that it might be worth it to blow the whole thing up. When you’re routinely getting smacked around by the likes of Univision and AMC and USA (NBC’s own less glamorous, but often more successful cable cousin), why not cut off your perfectly fine nose to spite your brutally beaten face? In a television landscape where numbers mean less and less, NBC, more than any other of the big four networks needs to get creative and change the paradigm. Putting Jay on at 10pm four years ago was changing the game the other way, backward thinking in trying to keep old viewers while embracing new, trying to maximize value under the old model. Moving Fallon to the big chair is looking the other way, trying to stay head of the curve. Why be a slave to the old design, why cling to some antiquated rule that The Tonight Show needs to be in Los Angeles and why keep struggling against the Leno albatross? In a television world where late night talk shows are increasingly irrelevant, why not take a shot a true irreverence? Really, what does NBC have to lose?

Some light background reading:

Conan: Barbarian or Adventurer?

In Defense of Jay Leno/How He Might Screw This All Up AKA More Thoughts on Late Shift 2: Dave’s Revenge

The One in Which We Compare Conan O’Brien to Barack Obama

*Really, what does Bill Carter report on other than late night talk show behind-the-scenes machinations? Can we get his job if and when he retires? We don’t even mind signing a contract stipulating that we will inherit his position in five years or else be paid a steep pay or play penalty).

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Filed under Analysis, Be careful what you wish for, Count Bleh, Flashback!, Must Flee TV, Other people's stuff, Talkies

Conan: Barbarian or Adventurer?

Conan the Barbarian 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?

Read on: Fox? ABC? Or, just maybe, CBS? Plus: Steve Jobs!

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