Exile in Jayville
Last Thursday Conan O’Brien, now holding court weeknights on TBS’s Conan, stopped by CBS’s The Late Show with David Letterman to chat with Dave about something the hosts rather infamously have in common.
I refer of course to sons playing tee-ball.
They also found time to discuss each man, in his own way, having been screwed out
of the former marquee gig in late-night broadcasting — Johnny Carson’s (and Jack Paar’s and Steve Allen’s) old chair behind the Tonight Show desk — by NBC in favor of Jay Leno. It’s a metaphorical chair, to be sure; Tonight hasn’t been filmed in the studio Carson used, let alone with the same “home base” furniture and props, since Johnny left. And the TV landscape sure isn’t the same as it was when Conan took over the post-Tonight slot at NBC from Dave when Letterman went to CBS to challenge Leno, never mind how different it is from Carson’s heyday.
One thing that hasn’t changed? I’d rather stare at a blank screen than listen to Jay Leno. That voice aside, even notwithstanding his insipid behind-the-scenes machinations and the idiocy that fed and/or reinforced it within the NBC brass, Leno hasn’t learned in 20 years how to conduct a competent talk-show conversation.
After Conan took a seat with Dave — for the first time since Letterman had him on Late Night at NBC to pass the baton — there was a short period of knowing silence between the two men and copious audience applause. “I think the longer we just sit here, the more uncomfortable it will make Jay,” Dave finally said.
They really did talk about their kids, however, with Conan throwing out a couple of choice analogies. Discussing his son’s meltdown shortly before the O’Brien family was to meet President Obama, Conan described trying to get ahold of a child who doesn’t want to be got ahold of to “picking up anti-matter with chopsticks”. There was also this as the men riffed on their sons playing sports: “When you see a 6-year-old or a 7-year-old or a 5-year-old make a legitimate out — field the ball, throw it to first, and put someone out — it’s like seeing the face of Christ on toast.”
My biggest surprise was at how nonchalant Conan seemed. That might not be quite
the right word, as he clearly was a little (more than a little, for comedic effect, although I do think genuinely a bit) apprehensive about going over the whole Leno/Tonight debacle again, be it from lingering pain or simply battle fatigue — but it also struck me that Conan was sitting down with Dave as a peer. He and just about every other current late-night host of his generation have spoken of revering Letterman as a trailblazer in tweaking the Carson mold affectionately from within, and despite so much time in the trenches I suppose I expected Conan to still act the disciple almost honored to be able to commiserate with Dave over their similar bait-and-switch treatment at NBC; it’s true that he joked to Dave, “The only consolation I took during that period was that you were happy.” Yet overall he came across as so matter-of-fact that I began wondering if he was there to promote something besides his TBS show out of obligation and maybe didn’t really want to be.
Almost two decades have gone by since Carson stepped down from Tonight and, the following year, Letterman left NBC’s Late Night to compete head-to-head with Leno on The Late Show at CBS. Many others had failed at 11:30 p.m. opposite Carson and then Leno, from Joan Rivers to Alan Thicke to Pat Sajak to Chevy Chase to Dennis Miller. Early on, Dave beat Jay, but Leno pulled ahead eventually — proving that there’s no accounting for taste among the American masses, even if both men often ended up losing to Ted Koppel’s Nightline.
I really appreciated that Dave selected Tom Snyder, the amusingly garrulous host of NBC’s old Tonight Show lead-out Tomorrow, for the initial incarnation of CBS’s The Late Late Show. Snyder left after a couple of years and the show was retooled as a more traditional comedy/variety late-night show hosted by Craig Kilborn and now by Craig Ferguson — who on occasion recalls the best of Snyder’s in-depth chats with sometimes surprising guests on topics beyond the movie opening next weekend, as Letterman does from time to time himself. I’ve talked about all that before, however; I guess I’m just wandering down memory lane amazed at the extent to which the late-night television topography has not only fractured but pretzeled around itself since my childhood.
You can theoretically find the entire episode as well as clips online at the CBS website. It hasn’t been loading for me, although that’s likely due to glitches on my end at the moment. [Update: Now the link only redirects you to the Late Show home page and Letterman ain’t there no more.]
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