Late Night Wars, Take 3?

In the words of Yankee great Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Earlier this week rumors surfaced that NBC is once again setting a timetable for the post-Leno tenure of The Tonight Show. Leno’s contract is set to expire in 2014 and when it does NBC appears to be looking to giving Jimmy Fallon the coveted 11:35 pm time slot.

My love for Jimmy Fallon is well known, but while I am happy for this possible opportunity for Jimmy Fallon the person, I am far less excited for Jimmy Fallon the talk show. And NBC has proven that their ability to botch a transition knows no bounds.

During the last late night kerfuffle, I was solidly Team Coco. I still think that NBC screwed Conan – they didn’t give him enough time in the job and they gave him a terrible lead in (the 10 pm Jay Leno failure) that not only made people change the channel, but also meant that the guy he was replacing was just hanging around waiting for his old job back. I imagine that anyone would have difficulty performing under those conditions. But there is also no denying that once Conan took over The Tonight Show, his shows just weren’t as good as they were when he was on Late Night. I don’t know why an hour makes such a huge difference, but when you are on The Tonight Show, you are expected to stop being quirky and exciting and start becoming bland and vanilla. The irony is that what you did to earn yourself the hosting job of The Tonight Show is suddenly no longer useful when you actually do The Tonight Show. While Late Night typically has its own personality, The Tonight Show feels much more corporate.  Perhaps it is the prestige associated with The Tonight Show, though I would argue that is only a holdover from the Johnny Carson years. I don’t know that anyone under 40 really thinks of The Tonight Show the same way that older folks and the network does.

I watched first hand as Conan struggled to adapt what made him so great at 12:30 am for a 11:35 pm audience. What was irreverent and wickedly funny on the later show seemed out of place to many people on The Tonight Show. I don’t think it is any coincidence that some of the most brilliant episodes of Conan’s short tenure on The Tonight Show came in his final weeks, when he didn’t care about pleasing the network and was finally let off his leash. He KILLED IT those late few weeks. It was a pleasure to behold, but it was also sad because it showed how great he could have been if he had allowed to be himself. As much as I loathe Jay Leno – and that’s a lot – he allegedly used to be a pretty funny comedian. I’ve not seen much of his old stand up, but I’ve heard enough other comedians reference this that I have come to believe this was probably true. He apparently wasn’t the bland and corny personality that is his current The Tonight Show incarnation. I don’t know if taking over The Tonight Show is totally responsible for this transformation, but it certainly played a big part. When you have to play to the broadest of audiences, everything becomes very watered down. Moving to the earlier time slot seems to equate “selling out” to some extent; the worry about ratings means that you have to appeal to a lot more people and abandon what made you a star in the slightly later time slot.

I suspect that this all has to do with advertisers and that there is just much more network involvement in The Tonight Show than at Late Night. I think this is an outdated model; I am skeptical that many people are watching any of these shows live when they air. In the age of DVRs and the Internet, I would suspect that most of the consumption of late night programming is done the next day. While I may occasionally stay up to watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, I would never plan to stay up for any of the late night shows live. While the Comedy Central shows are topical and informative, there isn’t much on any of the other late night programs that can’t keep until the next day. Anything that people are talking about will be up on the web instantly, so you don’t feel like you are missing out on anything.

I fear that what I love about the current Jimmy Fallon show will be crushed under the pressure of The Tonight Show’s format and expectations. Watching Late Night With Jimmy Fallon is like being at a really cool party; it’s all just a lot of fun. Fallon isn’t particularly edgy, but compared to the blandness of The Tonight Show he is. I love that Fallon just looks like he is having a great time on his show and his enthusiasm is usually infectious when it comes to the guests. But, he also gets a certain type of guest; this is not to say that he doesn’t get big names, but a recent appearance by Tom Cruise seemed like a bit of an aberration. He gets good guests, but he doesn’t routinely get the apex of the Hollywood pyramid. Because so much of the charm of Jimmy’s show comes from the games, skits and musical bits, that automatically weeds out the stars that wouldn’t be game for such things. I just couldn’t picture Angelina Jolie playing Pictionary with audience members. Because there is much less pressure on Late Night, they can be somewhat self-selecting in who they have on.

However, The Tonight Show does have to have all of those kinds of stars. It is an important stop on the propaganda tour and is going to get a lot more A-listers who may not be as fun as the guests that they have on Late Night. While I don’t think that a Jimmy Fallon helmed The Tonight Show would eliminate the games and sketches completely, I am positive that they would become much more sporadic. Again, you need to make the guests comfortable and if they aren’t down with having a “water war,” so be it. I’m honestly surprised that Cruise went along with this, but I thought it also pulled the curtain back a bit on him. He usually seems so managed on these types of shows – even his “spontaneous” jumping on Oprah’s couch smacked of premeditation – and yet he didn’t seem completely on ease during this appearance. But he seemed more real in the process.

 

Without the games and other assorted shenanigans, this would put much more focus on the interviews on The Tonight Show. And as much as I love Jimmy, he still isn’t always a great interviewer. He’s fantastic with a lot of the guests that he has on Late Night; you are always guaranteed a great show when someone that he is friendly with drops by. And, again, the people that are predisposed to make an appearance on Late Night are generally pretty relaxed and ready to talk. But when someone like Cruise stops by, it illustrates that Jimmy still isn’t a master of the interview. The first few moments of Cruise’s time on the couch were kind of awkward; it was very clear that there were certain topics that they were to discuss, but Jimmy struggled to make it appear somewhat organic or to phrase the questions in such a way to get the proper response:

 

Jimmy isn’t terrible – he’s improved dramatically in the few years that he’s had Late Night and I’m sure that he’s continue to improve if he took over The Tonight Show. But I don’t think it is one of his strengths and it isn’t the reason I enjoy Late Night so much.

Of course, this entire transition hinges on Jay Leno actually going away and history has shown us that much like Halloween’s Michael Myers, Leno refuses to go quietly into that good night. I wouldn’t let something as routine as a contract expiring mean that Leno is ready to go and he has allegedly proven himself to be quite shady and devious in his desire to hold on to The Tonight Show. According to the book The Late Shift, Leno hid in closet to eavesdrop on a corporate conference call about his future on The Tonight Show. Those are not the actions of a man who is good at letting things go. I wouldn’t underestimate his ability to try and worm his way back into the spotlight if he wasn’t ready to turn the show over to Jimmy or another candidate. And as a recent three episode arc on Louie illustrated, this public posturing about 2014 may all be the network’s attempt to lower Leno’s asking price for a contract extension.  If NBC can prove that they have a viable candidate and that they are willing to go in a new direction, they may be hoping that Leno will be willing to ask for less money to stay on. In other words, the threat of Fallon taking over The Tonight Show may be simply a pawn in the larger chess game. The network may have no actual intentions of moving Fallon to the earlier slot unless Leno walks away.  And all bets are off that Leno will actually do that.

So this could be a lot of hand wringing on my part for nothing. But having watched this happen to Conan, I am worried for my “pal” Jimmy. I think he deserves success and I am rooting for him to do well, but I also don’t want to see the machine that is The Tonight Show kill everything about him and his show that is fun and funny. I like him where he is – having a good time and throwing the best party in late night. I do not want to see him forced to talk with the Kardashians like they are actual ‘talent’ that must be taken seriously. If he could ascend The Tonight Show throne without having to change much I’d be thrilled. But history indicates that simply won’t happen. I think Jimmy Kimmel will have a much easier move to 11:35 in January; he’s not replacing another talk show and he’s not taking the reins of a pre-existing and esteemed show. He’s bringing the show he created to an earlier time. He has no one to be compared to at ABC. He’s not taking the Carson’s seat. The Tonight Show may be more legendary, but it also comes with a lot of baggage (including actual baggage – The Tonight Show has typically been filmed in LA for easier access to guests. I don’t see Fallon as an LA guy).

There are much bigger things to be worried about in the world today. But I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t a part of me that thought this rumor was cause for concern. I only want the best for Jimmy, but I don’t know that The Tonight Show is it.

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