I Never Want These Late Night Wars To End



In a time of mostly depressing news, it feels good to have a fascinating but essentially trivial story playing out before us on our TV screens every night, complete with jokes and music. The news in Late Shift 2: Freddy’s Revenge is coming so fast that it’s hard to keep up with it all (in a pre-YouTube/streaming era, it would be impossible; nobody watched Leno’s show last night, so without the internet, we’d never have seen the instant-classic Kimmel moment). But here’s some more stuff from last night:

– The Kimmel thing deserves its fame as a brilliantly awkward moment, as well as the first (probably last) moment when the complacency of Leno’s show was shaken up. All the shows have gotten more interesting because of this fight, with the exception of Leno’s, because Leno has mostly stuck to a few very careful, bland jokes that deliberately fudge the issue of what happened. (Most people with actual lives don’t follow this closely, so it makes sense for Leno to let his audience think that he’s been “fired” and is a great big victim. What made Kimmel’s bit so devastating was that it was the first time anyone on Leno’s show has acknowledged the way the outside world sees the situation. Some have compared it to Stephen Colbert telling the White House press corps that the rest of the world sees them as mere stenographers; it’s a really trivial version of that, but yeah. It’s bringing an alternate viewpoint into a hermetically sealed world.

I feel like at least one of Kimmel’s jokes was scripted or planned in advance; the “NBC ordered your show off the air” bit fits in with what Leno has been saying, and Leno fed him a straight line for that. Some of the others, though, the ones about him shiving Conan (portraying Leno as a victimizer rather than a victim), Leno clearly did not expect. And the sad thing, as others have pointed out, is that he has no comebacks. Leno is an experienced, talented standup comedian, and all successful comedians know how to deal with heckling, which was essentially what Kimmel was doing here. Either Leno has been in his bubble for so long that his comedy reflexes are shot, or he has such a wall of separation between his TV work and his standup that he doesn’t know how to deal with this situation on network TV.


– Dick Ebersol, longtime NBC executive and better Saturday Night Live producer than post-1985 Lorne Michaels, struck back hard at Conan O’Brien, blaming the whole fiasco on O’Brien’s “astounding failure” and his unwillingness to take notes about adapting his act to the 11:30 slot. He calls other comedians “chicken-hearted and gutless” for blaming this on Leno, and bluntly said that in giving the show to Conan, “We bet on the wrong guy.” Ebersol is a friend of Jeff Zucker’s, and his comments have been widely seen as a proxy for Zucker. (Which would make him the “Hud-Zucker Proxy.” Yes, that is a bad pun and obscure reference rolled into one, thank you.) Blaming O’Brien for a situation that began with Leno’s failure at 10:00 is a little nuts, as is his statement that Conan had failed after seven months when Leno spent his first year and a half getting beat by Letterman. (Sorry, as pointed out in comments, I had the chronology wrong there. Letterman started his CBS show a year after Leno took over The Tonight Show. Here’s an ironic-in-retrospect article about speculation that NBC would replace the low-rated Leno with Letterman.) But it demonstrates the resentment that NBC executives are probably feeling, perhaps even a little nervousness about the possibility that this could damage Leno if the “blame Jay” movement ever catches on.

Mike Hale traces this whole situation to the real culprit: the foolish 2004 decision to force Leno out and promise the show to O’Brien in 2009. That is where the whole mess really began. It also probably explains Leno’s sense of victimization; he was forced to leave his show to accommodate his less popular younger colleague. The network had to beg him to stay because, to their surprise, he continued to get great ratings at 11:35. So from his point of view, he probably owes nothing to NBC (which had no faith in him five years ago) or O’Brien (who asked for, and got, his job). I’m not defending the victim act, if only because it makes for really dull television, but all the bad decisions that have come in the last two years are traceable to that one big bad decision in 2004.

– Finally, the culture-war subtext of Late Shift 2: Mission To Moscow is increasingly becoming text. This Letterman video last night explicitly casts the whole thing in culture-war terms. Again, the fun of Late Shift 2: City Under Siege is that it’s a fun, harmless version of the cultural and generational conflicts that are deadly serious in other areas.

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Update: Nathan Rabin has a good essay in the Wall Street Journal about why Leno, once a respected comic’s comic, is now almost universally hated by his fellow comedians. (Though of course they’ll want to continue going on his show once this is all over. Letterman has their respect, but The Tonight Show, even now, is probably better for their careers.) I personally find it interesting that Jerry Seinfeld was one of the few comedians to defend Leno and NBC; he did that mostly because he’s got a reality show coming up on the network, but there are a lot of Leno/Seinfeld parallels. As standup comics, they had a number of similarities, and they both have a strange combination of regular-guy observational style with a cold, almost contemptuous side. And both have a tendency to go for lowest-common denominator jokes when left to their own devices. You could say that Leno today is Seinfeld if he had never worked with Larry David.

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I Never Want These Late Night Wars To End

  1. Yes, because if anyone knows comedy, it's Dick Ebersol. The guy who gave us the the 5th through 10th seasons of SNL (1980-1985) which everyone remembers a complete disaster. If it wasn't for Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, Dick Ebersol would've been driven out of show business thirty years ago.

    • I was completely unaware Ebersol's SNL years were held in such disdain… wasn't Ebersol the one that made Eddie Murphy a star?

  2. While Ebersol may not know comedy, his SNL years are very underrated, and I much prefer them to most of Lorne's post-comeback seasons.

    Also, Ebersol saved SNL by taking it over after the disastrous Jean Doumanian season.

    None of which means he's right about Leno/Conan. He's not.

    • Jaime,

      Please stop defending the Ebersol SNL years. You're hurting your credibility and my brain.

      And your selective posting of this story suggests that you might actually be defending Leno. Don't go there, man.

      • Please stop defending the Ebersol SNL years. You're hurting your credibility and my brain.

        Then my work is done. Besides, better I should do that than defending most of the post-1985 Lorne years. Brrr.

        And your selective posting of this story suggests that you might actually be defending Leno. Don't go there, man.

        There's no defense for Leno creatively at this point, but I think that made a lot of people (including me) unwilling to really face up to how silly it was of NBC to force him out. It was "yay, finally the Tonight Show will stop sucking," except that sucking is not, in itself, a good reason for a network to massively re-tool a hit show. (And we all know NBC didn't do it because they're deeply committed to a better, funnier Tonight Show.)

        • For what it's worth, I agree with Jaime on the Ebersol years; so would a lot of other people, if those shows (the best of them, anyway) were in circulation, which they're not, except for a few Eddie Murphy clips and the "Synchronized Swimming" sketch.

  3. I was probably one of the few that watched the Jay Leno show last night, not on purpose mind you. I had recorded 30 Rock and when it ended my TV was on Leno and the 10 @ 10 was about to start, so I watched and laughed. But I couldn't help but wonder what they were thinking on the Leno show inviting Kimmel on. Did they think he would play nice or wouldn't take such shots at Leno?

    As for Leno not firing back at Kimmel, I think Leno would look worse for going back at him as it would come across as defensive to a lot of people who watch. Instead, I'm sure Leno thought he was being the better man by standing there and taking his lumps. Getting back at the hecklers at a comedy show is one thing but doing so on a TV show is entirely different.

  4. Oh, that Letterman video made me laugh. He was so bang on there.

    And Dick Ebersol is a human stain.

  5. "Leno spent his first year and a half getting beat by Letterman."

    That's not true at all. Leno had NO network competition, only the syndicated, thus not necessarily up against him directly, Arsenio Hall and quickly cancelled Dennis Miller shows from May 1992 to Aug 1993. He had more than a year to build up a fan base unopposed, then spent the nearly the next two years getting beaten by Letterman. He'd been in that timeslot for more than three years (and Carson's regular fill-in years before that) before he became the biggest name in late night.

    I think this Kimmel clip is kind of lame, I'm surprised it's causing commotion. The two go back to the writer's strike and appearing on each other's show, so they have a history together. Except for the semi-impassioned Kimmel plea at the end, nothing there seems like anything other than pre-planned zingers to make Leno look like a guy willing to take his critics on.

    PS The Jean Doumanian SNL had the best musical guests.

    • i agree on Kimmel. While, i certainly laughed while watching, i believe the whole thing was set up. I think that is reason for now responses. They wanted Kimmel's lines to stand. Not sure why, though. Perhaps they think that he can eventually attract some sympathy by having everyone bash him hard for a few weeks.

      I also found Stern's allegation – essentially that Leno, never wanting to leave The 'Tonight Show' agreed to take the 10pm slot to tank it, to ensure Conan has no strong lead in audience as a ploy to recover 'his' show – interesting. Far fetched, perhaps, but not so far fetched I can't beleive it.

      Also these dudes all are a really fascinating combo of being think-skinned/hating each other. Has made for great teevee though!

  6. That Letterman video typifies the amount of thought and effort that have gone into his bits over the last 10 years. He and his show are lazy, obvious and lame.

    I agree with Jaime on the stupidity of the 2004 decision though.

    Kimmel rules. I hope he benefits out of this.

  7. Does Jeff Zucker have any bottom teeth?

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