Exile in Jayville
Last Thursday Conan O'Brien, now holding court weeknights on TBS's Conan, stopped by CBS's The Late Show with David Letterman to chat with Dave about something the hosts rather infamously have in common.
I refer of course to sons playing tee-ball.
Screencap © 2012 Worldwide Pants.
They also found time to discuss each man, in his own way, having been screwed out of the former marquee gig in late-night broadcasting — Johnny Carson's (and Jack Paar's and Steve Allen's) old chair behind the Tonight Show desk — by NBC in favor of Jay Leno. It's a metaphorical chair, to be sure; The Tonight Show hasn't been filmed in the studio Carson used, let alone with the same "home base" furniture and props, since Johnny left. And the TV landscape sure isn't the same as it was when Conan took over the post-Tonight slot at NBC from Dave when Letterman went to CBS to challenge Leno, never mind how different it is from Carson's heyday.
One thing that hasn't changed? I'd rather stare at a blank screen than listen to Jay Leno. That voice aside, even notwithstanding his insipid behind-the-scenes machinations and the idiocy that fed and/or reinforced it within the NBC brass, Leno hasn't learned in 20 years how to conduct a competent talk-show conversation.
After Conan took a seat with Dave — for the first time since Letterman had him on Late Night at NBC to pass the baton — there was a short period of knowing silence between the two men and copious audience applause. "I think the longer we just sit here, the more uncomfortable it will make Jay," Dave finally said.
They really did talk about their kids, though, with Conan throwing out a couple of choice analogies. Discussing his son's meltdown shortly before the O'Brien family was to meet President Obama, Conan described trying to get ahold of a child who doesn't want to be got ahold of to "picking up anti-matter with chopsticks". There was also this as the men riffed on their sons playing sports: "When you see a 6-year-old or a 7-year-old or a 5-year-old make a legitimate out — field the ball, throw it to first, and put someone out — it's like seeing the face of Christ on toast."
My biggest surprise was at how nonchalant Conan was. That might not be quite the right word, as he clearly was a little (more than a little, for comedic effect, although I think genuinely still a bit) apprehensive about going over the whole Leno/Tonight debacle again, be it from lingering pain or just battle fatigue — but it also struck me that Conan was clearly sitting down with Dave as a peer. He and just about every other current late-night host of his generation have spoken of revering Letterman as a trailblazer in tweaking the Carson mold affectionately from within, and even after so much time in the trenches I suppose I expected Conan to come across as a tad more of a disciple almost honored to be able to commiserate with Dave over their similar bait-and-switch treatment at NBC; he did, it's true, joke to Dave, "The only consolation I took during that period was that you were happy." Yet overall he seemed so matter-of-fact that I wondered if he was there as a de rigueur promotion of something else besides his TBS show and maybe didn't really want to be other than out of obligation.
Almost two decades have gone by since Carson stepped down from The Tonight Show and, a year later, Letterman left NBC's Late Night to compete head-to-head with Leno on The Late Show at CBS. Many others had failed at 11:30 p.m. opposite Carson and then Leno, from Joan Rivers to Alan Thicke to Pat Sajak to Chevy Chase to Dennis Miller. Early on, Dave beat Jay, but Leno pulled ahead eventually — proving that there's no accounting for taste among the American masses, even if both men often ended up losing to Ted Koppel's Nightline.
I really appreciated that Dave tapped Tom Snyder, the sublimely ridiculously garrulous host of NBC's old Tonight Show lead-out Tomorrow, for the initial incarnation of The Late Late Show on CBS. Snyder left after a couple of years and the show was retooled as a more traditional comedy/variety late-night show hosted by Craig Kilborn and now by Craig Ferguson — who on occasion recalls the best of Snyder's in-depth chats with sometimes surprising guests on topics beyond the movie opening next weekend, as Letterman does from time to time himself. I've talked about all that before, though; I guess I'm just wandering down memory lane again in amazement of how much the late-night television topography has not only fractured but pretzeled around itself since my childhood.
You can find the entire episode as well as select clips online at the CBS website. It hasn't been loading for me, but that's likely due more to glitches on my end right now.
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