Monday, January 18, 2010

Conan O'Brien vs. Jay Leno vs. NBC vs. Humor

As political wars wage across the country - the average American just trying to live their life, rather than being staunch conservative or progressive soldiers as we like to treat them (As newscaster Tom Brokaw reminded in a recent TV special) - a different kind of war has been waging on television in the wee hours of the night.

Let's start from the beginning. Six years ago, Conan O'Brien, NBC, and Jay Leno struck a deal for Leno to retire in 2009 and for Conan to finally realize his lifelong dream: taking over the Tonight Show. Late night TV fans have cause to be happy: after 17 years of Blandy McBigChin turning the Tonight Show into a forgettable snoozefest - the entire purpose of which amounted to little more than tucking the baby boomers into bed and helping them get to sleep with safe, boring, conservative humor - someone following in the footsteps of David Letterman and Johnny Carson was going to take the reins and bring the funny back. Leno announced that he was happy to retire and supported Conan as his successor back in 2004 when the deal was initially announced, not long after Conan's Late Night Ten-Year Anniversary Special.

The cutoff date neared and Leno began to get anxious. He didn't want to retire after all, but he couldn't back out from his contract. So now NBC had two choices - give Leno a new show, seriously undermining the changes they were about to embark upon, or risk Leno getting a show on another network at the same time and lose one of their only more profitable shows as the network continues its slide into 4th place. With that, The Jay Leno Show is conceived - an hour of boring jokes and bits at 10 PM for Jay, before the local news, replacing the usual scripted hour-long programs that traditionally take that time slot. It's Jay Leno and talk shows are far cheaper than scripted shows? How can cutting an hour of scripted programming for a new cheap Jay Leno show possibly go wrong? This is what Jeff Zucker and the other NBC executives asked themselves, ultimately concluding that it was a worthwhile risk.

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien debuts and does well, but its ratings inevitably start to drop when the viewers who tuned in for the novelty stop watching. There are always those viewers with every launch of a new show - this is nothing new. The Jay Leno show hits a month later. Enough people watch for it to be profitable, but it's a massive drop from The Tonight Show. Viewers are fleeing and nobody's watching the local news on NBC. Things start looking bad for the affiliates. 10 PM is not bedtime. The Jay Leno Show isn't tucking anybody in and numbing their brain to sleep with lazy writing from a host who's been phoning it in for years and obviously doesn't have any real passion or excitement for what he does anymore - he just doesn't want to let go of it.

This is where things start getting particularly bad. Conan's ratings aren't terrible, but in his first half a year, Letterman is undeniably tough competition. Despite NBC's efforts to tone down Conan's wonderfully absurdist and often low brow humor from Late Night, the Leno crowd still doesn't like him. (These people don't tune in for the funny. Nor do they like change.) Conan's own audience is still backing him, but many aren't happy with the perceived taming of his comedy - especially following Conan's announcement that he wasn't going to change on the Late Night series finale in February last year. There weren't enough weird characters - even The Interrupter has only shown up once - and most of the beloved Late Night characters vanished entirely. (Including the particular fan favorite, The Masturbating Bear.) In their place, we got audience bits like Leno was known for - not so great, but still better than Leno's, at least - an amusing but somewhat lukewarm Twitter Tracker recurring sketch, and a few returnees from Late Night like Celebrity Survey, Noches de Pasion con Senor O'Brien, and the always-great Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. The surreal, out-of-left-field characters were mostly gone, as were the bits with the band, Pierre Bernard, Susie Santomauro, and Joel Godard's absence was definitely felt. (Andy Richter's just not the greatest announcer, though he's been gradually - and especially as the show nears its end now - returning to his rightful position on the couch by Conan as his sidekick.) Instead, we'd get comedian and writer Deon Cole appearing to comment on things - and Cole's funny, I've enjoyed his stand-up before, but like most fans from Late Night, I'd just rather see him doing more of a character sketch than a commentary bit. That would align more with the flavor of comedy Conan established so long ago.

If NBC had actually treated Conan properly - and they have a history of treating him like crap compared to Jay Leno and now Jimmy Fallon, who gets Late Night support the likes of which Conan never received - they would have had more confidence in him and let him keep doing the Tonight Show. Less taming of the humor, more of the Late Night style surreality and self-deprecation we all came to know and love. Every new host needs a few years to establish their audience, and at a different hour, The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien could have been so much bigger than even Late Night was. The younger audience - which tends to appreciate funny over bland - would have finally taken back the Tonight Show from a comedian who wasn't doing anything new, exciting, edgy, or even interesting with it, from an audience that isn't even watching for comedy.

Instead, NBC cancelled The Jay Leno Show, then made it clear they wanted to give him back the 11:35 Tonight Show slot for a later version of the same show they just cancelled. Jay was dragging the network down and actively hurting the affiliates, and instead of giving Conan a chance to establish a fuller Tonight Show audience, after only 7 months hosting it, NBC pulled the rug out from under his feet. Conan had two options: to take a stand for his show and his integrity as an entertainer who loves and cares about what he's doing, or to kowtow to NBC (Much like Jimmy Fallon and Carson Daly have to.) and let them bump the Tonight Show to 12:05, just after midnight. NBC chose to punish Conan for the damage Jay had done, and in the end, Conan made the choice to walk. For seven months, he's gotten to live his dream, and after 16 years hosting Late Night and all this hard work to reach his dream, all it took was one corporate executive decision to completely fuck him over.

TMZ has already reported that Leno has signed a new contract to take the Tonight Show back from Conan this spring following the Winter Olympics, all the way down to the name, knowing exactly what he's doing to Conan and going through with it anyway.

Conan has one week left ahead before The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien ends not even a full year after Late Night with Conan O'Brien. The internet is furious, to say the least, and like the rest of them, I'd like to see a sharp backlash against both NBC and Leno for this. The new Tonight Show with Jay Leno absolutely deserves to crash and burn hard for what they did to Conan. As for whether it will, I have a feeling that Leno's established 11:35 audience that hated Conan will be right back with Jay and both he and NBC will be laughing about this and continuing to try to blame Conan for what happened, revising history - as they've already begun to. (NBC Universal Sports' Dick Ebersol is already claiming this all happened because they "bet on the wrong guy," because Conan couldn't beat Jay's previously consistently always higher ratings in a mere 7 months, when the original plan was always to give Conan a real window in which to prove himself. He was never going to win over Leno's audience, but Ebersol was convinced that he could - or so he claims - and he's sore that Conan ignored his suggestions on making the show more "mainstream." Conan already attempted to make the show more accessible than the Tonight Show without completely selling out - what we have here is a sports division bigwig claiming that he knows how to run a mainstream comedy show, when he undoubtedly would have liked to have turned the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien into a carbon copy of Jay's show, just with a different host that Jay's audience still wasn't keen on accepting. "Mainstream" and "accessible" are the death knell of good comedy - they're just another way of saying bland and inoffensive. Conan wouldn't have any integrity as a comedian - let alone a host - if he was interested in selling out his own sense of humor and comedy style to appeal to people who don't actually want their comedy shows to be funny.) Show business is a disgusting world.

So with the rest of Conan's fanbase online, I say, fuck you, NBC, and fuck you, Leno. This is why you're in fourth place, and the more celebrity and public backlash Leno gets for screwing Conan over like he did Letterman back in the '90s, the better. Leave late night to people with actual comedy talent. And baby boomers - if you need some help sleeping, try reading a book.

Even more sad is that Conan had chosen to stay with NBC in the past because he didn't want to lose his backlog of characters. And now that he's leaving NBC, he's completely screwed out of these characters and sketches, since NBC owns all of them. The best he could do on a new show is take some of the same premises and rename them. Like most fans, I would love to see him spend this last week of The Tonight Show bringing back every character possible, just to give them one last hurrah. And given that Robert Smigel created Triumph the Insult Comic Dog - and Triumph even had a major role in a couple of episodes of Comedy Central's short-lived TV Funhouse back in the early 2000s (Which Smigel created) - one hopes that NBC can't stop him from taking Triumph to wherever Conan ends up next.

After getting sandbagged by NBC, I wish all the best to Conan, Andy, Max, and the show's writers and crew that made a point of uprooting their families from New York and moving all the way across the country to LA only to get this. You guys have done a great job and made a quality show - what NBC's done won't be forgotten. Here's hoping that Conan gets a new show on Fox, ABC or anywhere else where he'll be treated properly within the next year or two and brings as many of you as possible with him. I'd love to see a full-on return to Late Night form - and Conan's nothing-left-to-lose bitterness these past few weeks has shown just how much was being comparatively held back, hilarious as he's been in the face of this corporate backstabbing - and undoubtedly so would his other fans. Conan, Andy, the band, Smigel, as much of the rest of the writers, staff, and crew as possible - whether still in LA, back in New York, or even elsewhere - on Fox, ABC, or anywhere else would be welcome. Wherever you guys go, you'll have Team Conan waiting eagerly.

To close, enjoy this footage of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel ripping Jay Leno apart on his own show from a couple of nights back.


Lindsay Champion said...

You hit this whole thing right on the head, nice work! I couldn't agree more. And don't forget that Conan's ratings were on top until Letterman's sex scandal. Then add Leno at 10:00 to the mix and Conan never had a chance. They were giving the better guests to Leno because he was in prime time, and I guarantee you that Leno never had to fight for guests when he was at the show.

Also interesting is the fact that when Leno first got The Tonight Show, he was second in the ratings for 3 years until the Hugh Grant prostitute thing happened, and he had Grant on the show. If NBC had given Conan even 1/3 of the chance they gave Jay, this wouldn't be happening. In my opinion, anyway :-D

Benjamin Fennell said...

Good to hear, I was trying to be comprehensive with this post, and I've tried to get every side of the story. :) Yeah, I remember reading discussion about that on the IMDB when everyone was abuzz over Letterman then, and now we're seeing a similar ratings explosion for Conan over NBC's terrible calls here. NBC treated Conan terribly at Late Night, and despite the higher investment, that didn't change at all with the Tonight Show - when Jimmy Fallon's getting better treatment from NBC with his later show, that says a lot. Rather than show even a shred of confidence in Conan or look at why he's had ratings problems, they'd rather simply assume that if he's not pulling Leno ratings in these first few months, it means he never will. From interviews, it even sounds like they just gave Conan the Tonight Show out of fears of losing him, but they never wanted to or had any intention of treating him like a top late night host on the network, second fiddle to Leno - and then even Fallon - which is beyond ridiculous.

Yeah, I definitely agree. Developing a larger base and drawing larger ratings has a history of hinging on getting a big guest or some sort of public controversy that draws people to your show. Conan's never gotten any of that, and NBC's never given him that kind of exposure. It really bugs me every time I see all these Fallon ads on NBC when Conan never got that kind of support in any way. They've been giving him such a raw deal for so long, there's no blaming him for walking. NBC doesn't deserve any sympathy here as they try to cast the blame on Conan. I just hope it doesn't take him too long to get a new show elsewhere and that he can bring as much of the staff and crew as possible with him. Likewise, I really hope for more freedom wherever he goes and whatever he does next, so they can bring back more weird, surreal characters and comedy closer to that Late Night edge NBC tried to push out of Tonight. Conan deserves much better.