Absent, 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?
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!