30 Days (and 17 Years) of Night

[Update, One Year Later: What a difference another 12 months make!
Some of the links related to the NBC shows, predictably, no longer work.]

Has it really been a month since Conan O'Brien's debut as host of The Tonight Show?

I took a look out of curiosity and respect — both for Conan and for
the institution. The filmed opening was funny, but the rest of the taped bits offered diminishing returns and my Will Ferrell saturation point was reached long ago, so the real take-away was just a vague excitement for the sake of the zeitgeist. One also has to wonder just what NBC has done to the TV landscape by slotting Jay Leno at 10 p.m. weeknights come the fall.

While it was past my bedtime on school days for most of its run,
Johnny Carson's tenure on Tonight was a comforting indulgence during summers and holidays. Our mother, an inveterate night owl, trusted my sister and me to get the sleep we needed, be up when necessary the next morning, and handle anything risqué that didn't fly over our heads. This might make her parenting sound more lax than it actually was, but we — or at least I, during that time when our 2.5-year age difference actually meant something — fondly remember not just Johnny but the early years of Saturday Night Live. I loved Steve Martin from his SNL appearances, The Jerk, and his record albums (still have my "King Tut" 45 somewhere), and to this day I mentally giggle at him opening up the couch next to Johnny's desk into a sofa bed one night so that he could feel as comfortable as he did watching the show at home. Johnny's final Tonight aired the Friday of commencement weekend my senior year in college. I had another semester to go, thanks to my migraines and a poorly timed bout with mono, and so was free to watch the elegant Mr. Carson "bid [us] all a very heartfelt goodnight." He was a class act.

I don't know if "class" is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Conan; then again, Johnny had his fair share of off-color bits for his time (and those silly Mighty Carson Art Players skits). Given the general coarsening of our culture it's hard to begrudge any of the late-night talk shows their blue humor — as long as it's funny — in the FCC's "safe harbor" hours, when explicitly naughty stuff still gets blurred and bleeped (as does normally mundane material in Jimmy Kimmel Live's hilarious Great Moments in Unnecessary Censorship). Seems to me that irreverence has been a staple of The Tonight Show since the days of Steve Allen, but so were flair and intelligence until we hit Leno.

My laptop's dictionary defines "a class act" as "a person or thing displaying impressive and stylish excellence," and after the woeful (yet undeniably popular) Leno it appears safe to say that with Conan we have the closest thing to that definition we're likely to get in today's world. I rarely watched Jay as Johnny's permanent guest host; once he took over Tonight, his utter lack of personal appeal to me combined with the way he got the job over David Letterman in the first place and his manager-turned-producer's subsequent dirty pool — like the threats of blacklisting talent who did Arsenio or Letterman's Late Show after Dave jumped from NBC to CBS... well, I soon realized that even when intriguing guests were scheduled on Leno's version of Tonight the only thing I actually liked about it was the saxophone theme that Branford Marsalis composed for the end credits; soon, Marsalis was gone as bandleader and I had Dave to watch at 11:35.

While I charged Leno in March with three strikes at the plate as a late-night host, according to reports he did have one quality essential to the job: work ethic. And to be fair, I'm not sure what NBC executives were thinking when Jay became Johnny's exclusive substitute. Did they assume that Dave would stay on NBC at 12:30 when Jay took the reins? Or did they figure that Jay would continue guest-hosting Tonight with Dave as headliner, despite their disparate styles? If Letterman was happy continuing his quirkier comedy at the later hour, then Leno's succession to the lead spot looked like a done deal given his frequent face time and favorable ratings as Carson's stand-in, but Dave had been perfecting his own brand of witching-hour wit — with the (understandable) understanding that when his idol retired he'd be stepping in; from a sympathetic perspective, it's as if he were penalized for not being available to sub for Johnny because he was busy providing NBC with another solid, critically acclaimed hour of programming. Could there possibly have been a scenario in which this played out cleanly? An excerpt from New York Times reporter Bill Carter's contemporarily infamous book about the affair, The Late Shift, is available online.

As much as I enjoyed Johnny's reign as America's golf buddy, uncle, or grandpa — and I remember the days of The Tonight Show running 'til 1 a.m. ("Kids," as Bob Saget intones in voice-over on How I Met Your Mother, "there was a time when a white-haired man from Nebraska ruled the airwaves with a softspoken manner, perfectly timed reaction shot, and effortless interviewing style") — it was Letterman or SNL that we talked about in high school. While the days of Dave outfitting himself in Velcro or Alka-Seltzer may be over, and I dearly wish he would drop things off the roof more often, his impishness has merely transformed, not vanished, with age. He's the establishment now, with Johnny's time slot and nearly three decades of hosting under his belt, but there was always some of the curmudgeon in his punk behavior; the ratio has simply flipped.

Just as Conan has spoken freely about his debt to Dave, from whom he inherited NBC's Late Night, so have his own successor Jimmy Fallon and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel. Their shows both have obvious Carson DNA — not just as processed by Letterman, but also through the nearly unbreakable codification of the talk-show format — yet tellingly neither of them cites Leno as an influence. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, frequently mentioned in scenarios involving Letterman's retirement or Fox's bid for entry into weeknights, movingly referenced Dave in accepting an Emmy last year; he's quickly catching up to Dave in the Emmy count (plus, his show has two Peabodys, one more than either Carson or Letterman) and despite Comedy Central's relatively small audience compared to the broadcast networks' he may well be more comfortable doing his brand of socio-political satire than the more traditional sort of show he once hosted on MTV.

When it comes to my particular eyeballs, in fact, Fallon's
Late Night has actually been the biggest beneficiary of Conan's move. Craig Ferguson's incarnation of The Late Late Show after Dave is easily the freshest thing to hit the talk-show sphere in years, but even if I'm staying up to catch one of his interviews after the marvelously freewheeling monologue I don't have much patience for the bits between that and the guests, so I've hopped over to Fallon on occasion. He's the first late-night network host younger than I am, which is weird, but his unpolished interaction at the desk — a skill that I freely admit is harder to hone than most people would think — is often excruciating; I cringed just describing to my cousin Fallon's painful patter with Steve Martin and Paul Simon last month. The Roots are indeed the best band in late night, however, with all due respect to Max Weinberg's new Tonight Show crew and Paul Schaffer's CBS Orchestra on The Late Show, formerly known as The World's Most Dangerous Band. I tuned into Late Night last Friday to see Fallon and Cameron Diaz screaming mundane conversation at one another, and stayed for a crazy segment in which Diaz set a world record for sharing a hammock with rabbits, The Roots' tributes to Michael Jackson, and a performance from the compelling quartet Grizzly Bear, to whom I was introduced last year by Ferguson.

The recently naturalized Scottish American has invited his favorite authors on the show and devoted an entire hour to Ringo Starr just because he can. He speaks openly (and usually comically) about his past substance abuse, lending even more weight to the serious monologue he delivered last year explaining why he wouldn't be making jokes at Britney Spears' expense. David Letterman has similarly used his position as something of a bully pulpit, especially since September 11th, 2001, speaking frankly with journalists and newsmakers about issues faced by our country and the world, likely feeling new obligations since his late-in-life fatherhood. Whenever he decides to retire from
The Late Show, I hope he'll continue such conversations in some venue; perhaps he could switch slots with Ferguson and return The Late Late Show to the format it had when he hand-picked Tom Snyder — whose Tomorrow aired after Johnny Carson's Tonight before Letterman came along — to follow him at 12:30 upon his move to CBS.

I've probably seen more of The Tonight Show over the past month than I did during Jay Leno's entire stretch, and while Conan was fine I really don't need him. The month progressed with me very quickly forgetting to click over to check him out, even for guests I was anticipating, much as happens with Kimmel; there's always the Chelsea Lately roundtable to play back during commercials while watching Letterman, or when he's in repeats Stewart's Daily Show and its follow-up The Colbert Report — which are can't-miss for me but often get time-shifted to the weekend. I suspect that while folks older than my mother (who has just a couple of years on Dave) and a fair number of more conservative viewers in general will enjoy Leno at 10, perhaps to Conan's detriment, the hip ex-hippies of her generation who don't already forego chat-and-comedy for either Nightline, some before-bed reading, or sleep will keep Letterman at least stable in the ratings, having matured with him, while the perfectly affable Conan may come off as just a tad too strange or unfamilar even as he tries to open up his comedy tent to the greater number of guests and potential viewers that come with Tonight's territory.

What are your thoughts on the state of late-night television and my own loquacious contemplations thereof? The comments section is open!

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Mathieu said...

Dave was my introduction to Late Night television and has since been a mainstay in my pre-sleep routine.

Jay who?

Conan does appeal to more than your regular Letterman fan, but, maybe that's because I'm 15+ years younger, ;)

Great blog you have here, sir.

Blam said...

I'm glad you like it. From the other blogs you follow, I seem to be in good and quite eclectic company.