Scenes from a television war -

Scenes from a television war


The Conan-Leno fight is clearly a generational one. I have yet to hear anyone in my online social network declare for “Team Leno”; I’m not sure that there is any such thing, or who would be part of it if there were. Consider this: Jay Leno was at one time one of the most respected standup comedians on Earth, and continues to perform live all over the continent and refine his live act. Conan O’Brien, a Harvard man who spent no more than ten seconds paying comic dues of any kind, has no traceable experience of standup. And yet every single standup comic I’ve heard or seen weigh in on the feud has backed Conan—even though he appears to be walking away from the Tonight Show, which has been the dominant economic force in their industry for more than 50 years. There’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.

At first I was tempted to wonder if blowback from the 2007-08 Writer’s Guild strike was playing a role here. Some comics were uncomfortable with Leno making a side deal to do struck work by writing his own monologues for the Tonight Show. But Leno was exonerated in WGA hearings, and besides, union hatred of blacklegs can’t account for the mass popular agitation against Leno. Moreover, from a strictly business standpoint, Conan started this whole fracas during his 2004 negotiations with NBC when he demanded that the countdown be started on Leno’s Tonight Show tenure. This game of musical chairs, with Conan, Leno, and Jimmy Fallon trying to squeeze together onto two bus seats, would never have existed if not for that maneouvre. Any such move against Johnny Carson would have been regarded as an appalling act of showbiz regicide.

In part, surely, this affray is being perceived as a replay of the Leno-Letterman war. (Wars, one notices, often come in pairs.) Back then, Leno’s cartoonish scheming coupled with his interruption of what was perceived as a natural monarchical succession, with Letterman as the rightful heir, to turn industry and popular sentiment against him. Over time, Leno proved that NBC had made the correct business decision. But like King John he couldn’t shake the bad reputation he had earned by stepping out of line. He made matters worse by giving the world a safe, sterile Tonight Show, without the slyness or the dimly anarchic aura of Carson’s version. Though, again, it must be to somebody’s taste. Leno seems a lot like Margaret Thatcher—you never heard any performer or intellectual in England say they didn’t loathe her with every cell of their body, and yet she kept on winning elections.

Letterman himself has seen a lot of his edge dulled in the meantime; I can’t be alone in having found his Late Night work seminal, but finding myself unable to watch him fawn over celebrities and extract cheap laughs from audiences now. Owing to events, however—9/11, the heart bypass, marriage, progeny, and even his philandering—he has somehow grown in American affections. Conan, who already loomed larger than Leno in the annals of American comedy before anybody thought of giving him a talk show, is certainly serving as a proxy or champion for Letterman in people’s imaginations. If the spirit of the revolt against Leno could be summed up in a single phrase, it might be “Not again!”


Scenes from a television war

  1. "There's something happening here, but what it is ain't exactly clear."

    Wow ain't is a word now?

    • it's a quote from a song.

    • "Wow ain't is a word now?"

      Yes, it is. Any further questions?

    • Leaving the fact that Cosh was quoting a song aside, here's the link to "ain't" in the Oxford English Dictionary.

      For me, if it's in the OED, it's a word.

    • I'm pretty sure that was a Buffalo Springfield reference.

    • Colby, you're playing too old for for some segments of your readership. Time to start adding footnotes.

      • I reserve the right to use "ain't" on my own authority if the spirit so moves me, though.

      • Too old?

        I'm sorry, but how old does one have to be to get that reference??? "For What It's Worth" is a pretty iconic song for Pete's sake. It came out almost a decade before I was born, and I got that reference instantly. I just can't imagine anyone who'd be "too young" to get that reference actually reading, and posting a comment to, a Macleans blog post about the Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien war. Anyone too young to get that Buffalo Springfield reference is likely too young to know who Jay Leno is.

    • For what it's worth, yes.

    • I tape Jimmy Fallon every night – I like him better than any of the other 3!! He is wittier

    • It's a song Eric…..'For What It's Worth' by Buffalo Springfield :)

    • It's a song lyric…ain't you got no culture?

  2. I agree with almost everything you have written although I remain a committed Letterman partisan.

    The one quibble I would have is with your line, "who spent no more than ten seconds paying comic dues of any kind." I believe Conan O'Brien had a stellar reputation as a comedy writer. He had written for Saturday Night Live and the years he was with The Simpsons are among its best. I am sure your fellow blogger Jaime Weinman would be able to give a rundown of the rest of Mr. O'Brien's curricululm vitae.

    • The point is, he got into the business straight out of university and was immediately successful–indeed, he occupied an important chair in comedy before graduating, as editor of the Lampoon. Conan's never had to fend off drunk hecklers in a crappy Iowa nightclub.

      • Not sure how accurate but I think Conan has a rep for letting young up-and-comers get a chance on the old show, which is probably a better way of gaining goodwill in the industry than "paying dues". At the very least, there are 3 current Office cast members who'd agree with that depiction of Conan.

        • That might be fair, but then, Late Night is the natural venue for younger comedians; it's not a sign of the goodness of Conan's heart (though his reputation in that regard is exemplary) that they would appear there before they make it onto the Tonight Show.

          • Just because Tiger Woods won the first Masters tournament he played in as a pro, doesn't mean he didn't deserve to win the rest of the tournaments over the years. There are other forms of comedy than stand-up, and Conan has mastered many of them.

          • A bunch of you have missed the point (probably my fault). I specifically SAID that Conan was a more respected comedian than Leno for his work outside standup; I'm merely observing that Leno is a member of the standup comedy tribe, has a history of doing that exhausting and lonely work, and might ordinarily be expected to have a claim on the tribe's loyalty.

      • Why does that matter? Neither did Carson… And neither did Letterman, for that matter. He never toured as a stand up, and was pretty much plucked from the comedy store in LA and put on a million dollar a year retainer before NBC knew what they wanted to do with him.

      • You mean not going through a lengthy period of, er, sucking, is reason to dismiss Conan's comedic skills?

  3. By the way Jay Leno has been a douchebag for almost 20 years.

  4. We are living in the days of "The Late Shift 2"!
    Jay's swan song of douchiness.

  5. Re. standups’ position: this might be one of the rare cases where Conan’s stated position, that 12:05 is massively dicking on tradition, is reverberating. Accurate or not, getting on Tonight is still seen as a pretty major accomplishment and possible deal-maker for standups, so pushing things back half an hour would really hurt the value of an appearance, which already happens at the end of the show. You can extrapolate this somewhat into everyone else in showbiz: basically, everyone is getting bumped back half an hour to let Leno do 20 minutes of monologue and a sketch, unless someone gets out of the way.

    • That hypothesis has the ring of truth.

    • To take it a little further, the tonight show is defined largely by its time slot, the name of the show is less important than the time it appears. Its the first show on after the news, when most people are watching. To push it back, and give the slot to another show, makes that new show the defaco "Tonight Show", irregardless of its name. Its essentially the end of what the Tonight Show means…

    • More importantly, 12:05 isn't "Tonight", it's "Tomorrow Morning".

      • Semantics probably aren't the biggest beef for someone who did a "In the Year 2000" bit until 2009, then replaced it with a "In the Year 3000" bit with Palin and Heidi Montag jokes. ;-)

  6. I dunno, it might just be a case of:

    Conan = Funny,
    Leno = Not so much.

    • I would rework this is a little:

      Conan = irritatingly unfunny
      Leno=soothingly unfunny
      Letterman=smugly unfunny

      • OR

        Bill Simpson=irritatingly senseless

    • OR

      Leno = funny to old people, watching in greater numbers
      Conan = funny to young people who are in lesser numbers, but far more present/vocal on the internet

      • Conan = funny to young people who are in lesser numbers, but far more present/vocal on the internet

        And they're also, I hate to say it, "far further from death".

    • Yes, it's really not that complicated

    • Or at least:
      Conan = funny to comedians
      Leno = not so much

  7. Almost as controversial as when the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson moved from N.Y. to L.A. (sorry Colby, you were too young : NEP – 8.5) :)

  8. I used to think, "well why not just make a primetime show and be done with it?" but the more I critiqued my own thought the more holes I punched in it.

    That show wouldn't get the big ratings either, although it could easily be 1/2 hour. One hour would be too long and even Jay couldn't keep the show going with his prodigious fleet of planes, trains and automobiles.

    Also, Jay would never accept such a demotion.

  9. Why does Jay Leno need this? Why did he need a daily 10pm talk show, and why does he need The Tonight Show back? It's certainly not because he has more to offer in the way of original, entertaining comedy; something tells me the world isn't desperately clamoring for more Jaywalking.

    My guess is that he's doing this because his aircraft hangar full of cars isn't quite full yet. It's hard to get on board with the hack whose only motivations are naked greed and stroking his own ego. Not that I necessarily have a problem with naked greed, but it's harder to swallow when there's no accompanying talent (anymore, at least).

    • Did you know he spent $100,000 on a supercharger for his Duesy SJ?

      A gearhead like me is tempted to say "money well spent", but the mind boggles all the same.

      • I love it that you used "the mind boggles" correctly!

        • I'm not just a pretty (anonymous) face.

    • I'm not certain Jay even knew about it before it was announced, and I'm not sure he has agreed to it.

    • It's well known that Jay has banked all of his Tonight Show money and lives off the proceeds of doing standup even since getting the chair, so he's clearly not in this for the pay cheque.

      • Adam Carolla, who is pretty friendly with Leno, mentioned this in a podcast a while back. Leno supposedly hasn't spent a penny of the Tonight Show cash. He lives pretty frugally except with respect to stuff that has an engine.

    • Slightly in Jay's defense, I think it's possible that the idea to move Jay back to 11:35 is driven entirely by NBC and not by Jay. Now, if Jay were as classy as Conan he'd refuse to screw Conan over in that way and say "Look, if you're going to cancel my 10 o'clock show fine, but I'm not going to screw over Conan O'Brien by essentially taking his job away from him seven months after he moved his family across the country to take it".

    • I'd say Jay wants NBC to declare, through its actions, that (a) the 10 p.m. show's failure is not his fault and (b) they never should have moved him from 11:35. In this theory, he doesn't need the money, he needs vindication.

  10. I think that Conan deserves a shot, nothing more and nothing less. He put in his dues, asked for the move to the Tonight Show, and they granted it, and they need to give him more than 7 months to prove himself. There must be somewhere else they can find a place for Jay Leno.

    Also, I don't understand how people can watch Letterman these days, I can't stand him anymore.

    • Exactly.

      As a commenter elsewhere pointed out, Jay Leno got beat by Letterman for two years after he started hosting, with ER as his prime time lead in, and somehow NBC expects Conan to get in to his grove in 7 months with the crappy "Jay Leno Show" on at 10:00??? Yeah right!

  11. Aren't you all missing one point – Leno isn't that funny. If you ever watched his 10:00 show it was infantile and the jokes truly bad. He tried to add spice by making crude and sexist jokes, which comes across as desperate.

  12. I've always liked Leno (and never much cared for Letterman). Conan can be funny but he sometimes takes things too far.

    Either way, I'd probably throw in my hat for Team Conan just because I've never gotten the sense that it's Leno who fought for the change. And in a battle of NBC vs almost anyone…. I'm backing the latter every time.

  13. Or, the whole faux kerfuffle is free PR for the segment of way past prime time, cleverly engineered by back room ratings guys.

    Or, the whole thing is being driven by the broader US phenomena of red-state, blue state and the younger demographic, whose buying habits are still malleable, prefer the "hipper" (democrat?) O'Brien and are thus more inclined to attract advertisers, than the "stodgy" (Republican?) Leno.

    BC readers may recall the Rafe Mair issue, where advertisers wouldn't support the highest rated radio show in the province because his demographic was "immune' to the advertising message. Translation: their buying habits were already set.

  14. I cannot for the life of me understand what people see in Conan O'Brien. I've tried watching the Tonight Show with him there, but it doesn't even come close to being as entertaining as either Leno or Carson. But then, I personally find people with ginormous egos repulsive, so it may just be that.

    • Well, I've never found Leno funny at all. He always takes the easy way out on jokes, and you can see the punchline 10 miles out. Conan, on the other hand, (at least in the old days – haven't watched in a long time) was generally pretty off-beat, and had a good dose of absurdist humor. This was a hell of a lot funnier than Leno. Then again, you probably think Corner Gas and Little Mosque on a Prairie are funny, too.

    • For someone to write that they prefer Leno over O'Brien, and simultaneously that they "find people with ginormous egos repulsive" leaves me very confused. To me, that means that either you misunderstand the meaning of either the word "ginormous" or the word "ego", or that you think that the young fella' with the red hair is named Jay Leno, and that the egomaniac with the chin is Conan O'Brien.

      I'm with Coco.

  15. But it's curious, as Colby suggests, that the sympathy is all one way. As Patton Oswalt points out, Jay was one of the absolute best standups around before he started toning it down for Tonight:
    And, of course, when you appeared as a comedian on Leno's Tonight, you were drawing an audience of a couple of million more than you get on Conan's Tonight. Superficially, standups have good reasons to back Jay (for another thing, he now almost certainly is going to have that 11:35 slot) but few have … anyone besides Seinfeld?

  16. It isn't too complicated, Leno's going to stay at NBC, Fallon is going to keep the late night spot. In this manner, the older demographic will get to enjoy Leno (with his ultra-scripted, unoriginal joke-type humour) sooner than the younger demographic which goes to bed later. In turn, they will get to watch Fallon (who is bland and boring and talentless).

    Conan will go to Fox, get Leno's same 11:35 time frame, but since Fox is already taming with programs like the Simpsons and Family Guy, which attract the younger viewing audience, FOX will establish itself as the key network of the 15 to 35 demographic, while NBC will establish itself as the key network for the 35 to 55 demographic. Fallon will lose his job, unless viewers tune in to NBC to watch fallon after the Conan show on FOX.

    Only thing I'm not liking is the Republican-Conservative views of FOX which, with the hiring of Conan, will in turn give them more power and Bill O'Reilly will keep his job and keep pumping senseless propaganda into the heart of the american bible belt.

    Not too complicated eh?

  17. Fox is not the same as Fox News

  18. What will we wind up with? Conan on Fox at 11:05. Leno on NBC at 11:35. Letterman dead in the water, squeezed between them.

    • I'm still hoping for "Letterman decides to retire because he thinks it'd be funny, and Conan moves to CBS and makes Leno and the NBC executives regret ever being born", but I'm living in a fantasy world.

  19. Going out on a limb here- I like Leno better. Conan is just too wimpy. Whiny. Leno isn't a great comic outside sex jokes, but he's more of a grownup and The Tonight Show needs someone who can be blamed when the boss screws up.

    If Conan screwed up the Tonight Show, he could just go, 'Whaddya expect?' Whiny Baastan beaner accent included.

    When Jay screws up, he can tell. Also I like his Popular Mechanics column. Generational thing? I'm 44. What''s Colby, 39 going on 9?

    • Conan didn't screw up the Tonight Show– NBC did by being cheap-ass and putting Leno on at 10 instead of dramas that would've had better ratings and thus a better lead-in to the local news and then Tonight Show.

  20. You're way off, I'm afraid. Conan did not "start" this, in 2004. He simply pursued his right to not want to languish in the post Leno 12:30 shadows and think of getting his own show elsewhere. NBC didn't want to lose him and offered him the Tonight Show. Was he supposed to wait until Leno classles-ly rides the show to his grave? Further, Leno drove Johnny Carson out of all people so come on. Plus, Leno could have a smidgen of class and not go back once he's gone, not constantly undermine his successor with jabs as he did all fall, then go back and steal his timeslot.

    But most importantly, what you're missing is this, Leno is horrendously unfunny to anyone under 50, and his tame safe cheap humor needs to go. That's why we're behind Conan. He also seems like a far more decent guy, while Leno has a clear history of being a Machiavellian creature.

    That being said, Conan hasn't clicked on the safer Tonight format and maybe he'd do better in a looser format elsewhere (trying to look on the brightside).

    (Following Kanye West's stealing Taylor Swift's spotlight): "Kanye, what would your [dead] mother think of what you did?"-Jay "all class" Leno

  21. Here's the problem. The younger generation, to which Conan apparently appeals, DOES NOT WATCH TELEVISION!

    They are on their iPhones or otherwise on the Internet, chatting, surfing and so forth.

  22. Conan is the worse late night talk show host I have ever seen. He is so childish.

  23. Having read all the comments above, I have some thoughts and questions.
    1) Conan did not get the ratings for the Tonight Show. I didn't think he would by the way. He is irritating. That can be funny for a short time but it soon gets old.
    2) Did the NBC suits outmaneuver O'Brien, keeping him in place for four years?
    3) Is Leno a passive-aggressive winner?
    I used to prefer Leno and gradually moved to Letterman as he mellowed.
    What I really liked was when Carson was an hour and a half and had real discussions with authors and newsmakers.
    I even have very fond memories of the days when Jack Paar used to have brilliant guests like Oscar Levant and Alexander King.
    Smart ass is not necessarily smart.
    A few years ago, when it looked as though Andrew Dice Clay shock profanity was going to dominate stand up, "Time" magazine pointed out that the top earning comic never used profanity. That was Jay Leno before he had a show.
    A little memory is a dangerous thing.
    And finally, since DVR's, time slots don't matter so much. They will probably soon be quite irrelevant. Television is becoming a magazine rack.
    In "The Compleat Angler," in 1653, Izaak Walton wrote that the successful fisherman selects his bait according to the tastes of the fish rather than to the tastes of the angler.
    Some of the above comments are more from anglers than fish.

  24. The lack of stand up history is a good thing. Stand up is for hacks. Conan is a clever, funny guy, a writer. That is why his monologues aren't the best, but his skits and improvisation are top notch. Stand up is a tired medium. As if 10 years of clubbing around telling jokes give you an edge over writing for the Simpsons (Harvard-educated? OOh no, heavan forbid. When did comedy become a working class only game?)

  25. Conan is an irritating whiner

    Jay all the way!!!

  26. Give it to Chelsea Handler. All the dudes are sexist and physically unattractive.

  27. My original reaction "who cares?" then the Haiti disaster, "did either of these characters pledge anything to Haiti?"

  28. If you like these kind of shows, I would think that there is NO contest between Leno and Conan. Conan is rude–and not even funny. At least on the Leno show, some modicum of intelligent reparte comes across as well as intelligent interviews. Conan never seems to know what's going to come out of his mouth–with no forethought having taken place before that.

  29. For those who are too young – or were too uninterested, at the time – to recall, it might help to get some background on this story. Read all about how Leno acquired The Tonight Show gig, back in 1993. (NY Times; 1994)