When Conan O’Brien hosted his final episode of The Tonight Show last Friday—“we have exactly one hour to steal every item in this studio,” he announced—it somehow seemed appropriate that he was losing the show to Jay Leno the same week the Democrats lost Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat to Republican Scott Brown: this latest late-night shakeup has inspired the kind of passion usually reserved for political movements. When NBC announced that it was giving the 11:35 p.m. time slot back to Leno (after angry affiliates forced the network to cancel his low-rated prime-time show), there was what veteran TV critic Diane Werts described to Maclean’s as “a frenzy.” NBC executive Jeff Zucker, who is often blamed for the decline of the network, told Charlie Rose that he received death threats over the move. Demonstrations were held across America to protest the reinstatement of Leno, including a rain-soaked rally outside the Tonight Show studio, where O’Brien and sidekick Andy Richter waved to the crowd like politicians departing office. When Leno got The Tonight Show in 1992 instead of David Letterman, it was just an entertaining showbiz story, but Leno and O’Brien have come to represent more than who gets to interview Tom Hanks. They may be a proxy for two different viewpoints in a divided country.
When O’Brien announced that he would leave NBC rather than accept a later time slot, it seemed like young, Internet-friendly people, disappointed in President Obama, were turning to “CoCo” as their new cult figure. Many of these fans have embraced a new logo that shows a serious-looking photo of Conan draped in front of an American flag; the picture is the talk-show equivalent of the Obama “Hope” logo that produced so much chatter (and so many lawsuits) in 2009. And in O’Brien’s farewell to The Tonight Show, he ended by talking specifically to young people, telling them not to be cynical and promising that “if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” He seemed to be embracing the idea that he’s the host for the young and hopeful.
Werts says that Leno, on the other hand, “skews older” than O’Brien, and he is bigger in the Midwest than in New York. Kim Masters, who covers television for the Daily Beast, told Maclean’s that “Jay’s appeal has always been a heartland appeal, between the coasts.” And like many politicians, Leno appeals to an older crowd by selling himself as an average man of the people: he delights in telling viewers that “I don’t have a manager, I don’t have an agent,” and that he makes deals based only on handshakes. Viewers who aren’t Leno fans consider this image as phony as Scott Brown, a wealthy lawyer with five houses, portraying himself as a truck-driving populist. “If you’re driving from Omaha to St. Louis and your car breaks down,” Letterman said mockingly, “right at the side of the road is Jay to change your tire.” When NBC decided to ease Leno into retirement and promise the show to O’Brien, it was a triumph for the hipsters, with the network throwing its support to what Werts describes as “the snarky New York sort of intellectual.” Now that NBC is supporting Leno again, it may seem like they are giving late night back to the heartland, at a time when the U.S. government seems to be heading in the same direction.
Much of the conflict, though, goes beyond politics; it has to, because Leno and O’Brien do less politicized comedy than Jon Stewart or even David Letterman. Instead, the feud is part of a larger culture war over what entertainers owe to their audiences. Leno is someone who made a conscious choice to dumb down his material once he had his own show. As Johnny Carson’s regular guest host, some viewers saw him as an edgier alternative to an increasingly old and out-of-touch Carson. “He was really renegade and really cool,” recalls Werts, who was covering television for Newsday at the time. Whereas Carson could be patronizing to anyone who wasn’t a white male, Werts says the young Leno “had women and blacks and Hispanics on and he could talk to them as if they were people and not from another planet.” When Leno took over as the star of Tonight, he reacted to his early ratings troubles by making all his material as bland as possible, with deliberately corny jokes phrased in the simplest way possible. A typical modern-day Leno joke was his response to David Letterman’s increasingly brutal jokes about him. “Letterman is taking shots at me, which is a surprise. Usually, he’s just taking shots at interns,” Leno said, and the band followed up this creaky, awkwardly phrased joke with a musical sting, just to let us know it was funny. “He turned into this whole other person,” Werts says. “It was really bizarre.”
O’Brien’s humour is basically the opposite of Leno’s. As one of a generation of Harvard Lampoon graduates who wrote for The Simpsons, he is in love with jokes that question the very nature of what a joke is. His running gag of having an African-American writer, Deon Cole, explain O’Brien’s mistreatment in racial terms (“they firing you because you black,” he told O’Brien, who describes himself as the whitest guy alive. “Stay strong, brother”) is supposed to work as a parody of corny racial humour for those in the know, and a straightforwardly corny joke for the unenlightened. His show, like The Simpsons, operates on two levels, but caters more to the people who get the hidden meanings. That’s why young viewers and self-proclaimed hipsters looked forward to his taking over The Tonight Show: even though his adjustment to the earlier slot was sometimes awkward (Masters thinks he was trying to “mutate into something he wasn’t”), there was at least the chance that the most famous talk show on earth could once again become cool. The anger over O’Brien being forced off Tonight may be a reaction to what they see as the victory of Leno’s populist approach—giving the audience the kind of jokes it already likes—over O’Brien’s attempt to educate people about different types of comedy. The perception, Werts says, is that Leno “has the regular-folk fans, and Conan has the ‘I’m-too-smart-for-you’ fans.”
Even young viewers who don’t love O’Brien’s jokes (it’s not likely that much of his demographic recognizes his more obscure references, like his imitation of 1920s movie characters) may feel drawn to him by the perception that he’s standing up to a big, hated company like NBC. As an institution that drove itself into the ground with bad decisions, and then promoted Zucker as a reward for all the screw-ups, NBC has become one of the most hated companies in the world. Masters says that “a version of the anger that’s being directed at the big banks is being directed at NBC.” It could be that when O’Brien refused to go along with NBC’s plan to move The Tonight Show to 12:05 a.m., his fans started to see him as the leader of a revolt against a despised corporation that wanted to mistreat its workers. Even people who never liked his comedy are on his side now: Mark Evanier (a writer for TV variety and cartoon shows) wrote at newsfromme.com that he has friends who don’t watch O’Brien, but support him because they’re “so thrilled to see someone big slap down their idiot boss.”
That’s the exact opposite of the way Leno is perceived. Ever since he drove Letterman to CBS, Leno has been pilloried as the ultimate company man; in a famous routine, comedian Bill Hicks fantasized that if Leno blew his brains out, they would splatter on the wall in the shape of the network’s peacock logo. His decision to stay with the network, taking whatever time slot they gave him, has reinforced the idea that he is what Masters called “a creature of habit” who “perceives himself as an NBC guy.” Letterman has stepped up his mockery of Leno as someone who “is just doing what the network tells him.”
But Leno has courted sympathy with his fans by portraying himself as someone who’s acting out of economic necessity, not for himself but for his staff. When he finally spoke out about the situation last week, he told his audience that he took the 11:35 slot back because “this way, we keep our people working.” O’Brien’s fans see their man as a hero for quitting his job rather than compromise his principles. Leno is arguing that sometimes you have to hold on to a bad job for the sake of the people who are dependent on you. That argument may resonate with older viewers, worried about their families in a recession, as much as O’Brien’s stand resonates with young people, in love with rebellion.
What no one knows now is whether O’Brien, the newly crowned king among young, anti-establishment viewers, will be able to put together a show to take advantage of this new popularity. The best bet seems to be his old Simpsons network, Fox, which Masters says is “clearly interested” in O’Brien and giddy over his publicity and increased ratings: “I was talking to some of their executives and they said, ‘You can’t even buy a marketing campaign like this.’ ” If Fox gives him a show, it could exploit the divisions in U.S. culture, bringing young people back to its network while Leno’s audience gets older and older. But that would also be the final irony in the culture wars. It may turn out that Conan O’Brien, the favourite host of young Obama supporters, can find only one person to employ him: Rupert Murdoch.