30 Days of Tonight

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

medium shot of Conan O'Brien with Tonight Show title card

I took a look out of curiosity — as well as respect for both Conan and a late-night institution that dates back to before even Johnny Carson. The filmed opening was funny, but the rest of the taped bits offered diminishing returns and my Will Ferrell tolerance is low, so the main take-away for me was merely a vague excitement around the zeitgeist. One also has to wonder exactly what NBC has done to the TV landscape by slotting Jay Leno at 10 p.m. (ET) weeknights come the fall.

While it aired too late on school days for most of its run, Carson’s tenure on Tonight was a comforting indulgence during summers and holidays. Mom, an inveterate night owl, trusted my sister and me to get the sleep we needed, be up when necessary the next morning, and handle risqué material that didn’t fly over our heads. This might make her parenting sound more lax than it was, but we — or at least I, during that period when our small age difference actually meant something — fondly remember not just Carson but the early years of Saturday Night Live; I’ll write about that eventually.

Johnny’s final Tonight show was pure class. I don’t know if “class” is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Conan. Then again, Johnny had his fair share of slight raunch for his time (and some rather feeble 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 bleeped and blurred. It seems to me that irreverence has been a staple of Tonight since original host Steve Allen, but then so were flair and intelligence until we hit Leno.

With Conan following the woeful (yet undeniably popular) Leno we have the closest thing to the intersection of irreverence and intelligence we’re apt to get in today’s world. I rarely watched Jay as Johnny’s permanent guest host, so 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 — such as threats of blacklisting talent who did Arsenio or Letterman’s The Late Show after Dave jumped from NBC to CBS… well, I soon realized that even when intriguing guests were scheduled to visit Leno the only thing I actually liked about his version of Tonight was the end-credits saxophone theme composed by Branford Marsalis. One year later, Marsalis was gone as bandleader and I had Dave to watch at 11:35.

Although 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. 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 content to continue his quirkier comedy at the later hour, then Leno’s succession to the lead spot looked 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 wit — under the apparent belief that when his idol retired he’d be moving on up. It’s as though 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 ever have been a scenario in which this played out happily?

For as much as I enjoyed Johnny’s reign as America’s golf buddy, uncle, or grandpa — “Kids,” as Bob Saget intones in voice-over on How I Met Your Mother, “once there was a white-haired man from Nebraska who ruled late-night with a soft-spoken manner, perfect reaction shot, and effortless interviewing style” — it was Letterman or SNL that we talked about in high school. While the era of Dave outfitting himself in a suit of 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 behind him, 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. Both of their shows have obvious Carson DNA — not only 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 re-entry into the late-night realm, 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 Peabody awards, one more than either Carson or Letterman) and despite Comedy Central’s relatively small audience compared to the broadcast networks’ Stewart could well prefer to stick with his brand of sociopolitical satire over the more traditional sort of show he briefly 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 ascension. Craig Ferguson’s incarnation of The Late Late Show is easily the freshest thing to hit the talk-show sphere in years, but even when I’m staying up to catch an interview of his 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 intermittently. He’s the first late-night 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 likely the best house band, however, with all due respect to Max Weinberg’s new Tonight Show lineup and Paul Schaffer’s CBS Orchestra on The Late Show. I tuned into Late Night last Friday to see Fallon and Cameron Diaz screaming mundane conversation at each other, 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 finally a performance from 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 because he can. Ferguson speaks openly (and usually comically) about his past substance abuse, lending even more weight to the earnest 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 a kind of bully pulpit, especially since the horror of September 11th, 2001, speaking frankly with journalists and newsmakers about issues faced by our country and the world, very possibly feeling new obligations since his late-in-life fatherhood. Whenever he decides to retire from The Late Show, I hope he’ll continue something like that at least occasionally. Perhaps he could exchange slots with Ferguson and return The Late Late Show to the format it had when he picked Tom Snyder — whose Tomorrow followed Johnny Carson’s Tonight before Letterman came along — to be his lead-out at 12:30 upon his switch to CBS.

I’ve probably seen more Tonight Show over the past month than during Jay Leno’s entire stretch, and Conan is hardly can’t-miss. The month progressed with me quickly forgetting to click over to check him out, whomever his guests may be, much as happens with Kimmel. When Letterman’s in repeats, there’s always Stewart’s Daily Show and its spin-off The Colbert Report — which are can’t-miss for me yet often get time-shifted. I suspect that folks older than my parents (who are Dave’s contemporaries) and conservative viewers in general will enjoy Leno at 10 p.m., perhaps to Conan’s detriment later in the night, while the hip ex-hippies of their generation who don’t already forego chat-and-comedy for either Nightline, a good book, or sleep will keep Letterman at minimum stable in the ratings; the perfectly affable Conan might come off as just a skitch too strange or unfamiliar even as he tries to open up his comedy tent to the greater number of guests and potential viewers that come with Tonight’s hallowed ground.

What are your thoughts on the state of late-night television and my own loquacious contemplations thereof?

Images © 2009 Universal Media Studios.

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  1. 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.

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