Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Late Night, Years Later

It was exactly a decade ago that Conan O’Brien was in the midst of his abbreviated run hosting the Tonight Show.  Released over a year after the fact, Bill Carter’s “The War For Late Night” chronicles the entire story behind how Conan inherited the show from (a more-than-slightly-unwilling) Jay Leno, only to have NBC give Leno his own nightly bomb of a primetime show, to the whole fiasco of Leno re-inheriting the Tonight Show over the irate objections of Team Coco.

Carter’s book is a fine page-turner, and I can even recall all three times I’ve read it.  The first time was just days after the initial release, as I eagerly pounced on the first copy available at my local library.  (In hindsight, it’s pretty unusual that they had a brand-new available for rent so quickly, but whatever, libraries are the best!)  The second reading took place about four years ago, when I saw the book available on a $5.99 rack at Chapters and decided what the hell, let’s put a few coins in Carter’s pocket.  It was the least I could do.

My third read took place just a few days ago, and while I found the book as entertaining as ever, it was interesting how my view of the situation has changed over time.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still solidly in Conan’s corner, though the third through, my analysis has shifted.

The first time, it was almost a horror story, from a Conan fan’s perspective.  The palace intrigue, the short-sightedness of the NBC executives, and the “man, why didn’t Conan have an 11:35 start time in his contract?!” all-timer of a negotiating gaffe looming over everything.  The dominant passage was really the opening chapter, detailing an NBC event for sponsors and affiliates that featured a stinker of a Jay Leno performance, painting Leno as an out-of-touch performer NBC was unwisely attaching itself to in just about the strongest possible way.

The second time, it was one of the passages in the last chapter that really stuck out to me.  It was a quote from Jerry Seinfeld, questioning one of Conan’s primary arguments throughout the whole dispute.  Conan was so honoured to be taking the mantle of The Tonight Show and felt the whole matter was an insult to the legacy of Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, and Jack Paar.  Seinfeld’s rebuttal was simply that the Tonight Show model Conan grew up loving was gone, since it was specifically Carson’s show.  The exact line was something like, “who even calls it the Tonight Show?  It’s always ‘did you see Leno last night?’ Or ‘hey, did you see what Letterman said in his monologue last night?’ Nobody ever calls it The Tonight Show, or Late Night, or The Late Late Show.  (If you read this in a Seinfeld vocal cadence, don’t worry, I did it too.) The point was that the actual name or timeslot of the show didn’t matter, as long as you had a show.

And it’s an argument that makes a lot of sense.  Paar’s show differed from Allen’s, which differed from Carson’s, which differed from Leno’s, which differed from O’Brien’s (and now, differed from Jimmy Fallon’s).  The only thing these “Tonight Shows” had in common was the general name, and billing as NBC’s headliner for late-night television.  Now, where I don’t agree with Seinfeld is that he felt Conan should’ve just stayed at NBC at 12:05 behind a new Jay Leno program, which I don’t agree with — who can blame Conan for feeling jerked around by the network at that point.  To put it in perspective, imagine how Seinfeld would’ve felt if NBC randomly moved his own show off Thursdays after a season and put it back on Wednesdays to lose to Home Improvement in the ratings.  One suspects Seinfeld wouldn’t have just cavalierly shrugged and figured, hey, we’re still on TV.

And my impression on the third read?  While my broad view of the situation didn’t much change, it did strike me how this all felt like it happened a million years ago, rather than just last decade.  Television, let alone late-night TV, has changed so overwhelmingly that all these arguments and disputes over who hosted the Tonight Show ended up being more or less irrelevant by 2019, since network TV itself seems more or less irrelevant by 2019.

YouTube was already a thing by 2010, as Carter addresses in his book how younger audiences were simply consuming late-night shows in highlight form online the next day — catching a sketch here or an interview there in videos, rather than staying up the night prior to actually watch the show start to finish.  Personally speaking, I don’t think I’ve watched any late-night show in its entirety since Craig Ferguson’s last episode.  I know what if there’s a funny bit from Conan, or Colbert, or Fallon, or Kimmel, or James Corden, or Seth Meyers, or Insert Random Show Host here, I can just watch it on YouTube.  Why bother watching an entire show with the same tired talk show format?

Fast-forward to 2019 and Letterman is gone, Leno is gone, Ferguson is gone, Jon Stewart is gone, and Conan remains in somewhat altered form.  He still officially has a talk show, though now it’s only a half-hour long, and I feel like Conan’s best outlets these days are his Conan Without Borders travel specials — which I feel have been watched by literally everyone I know who has a Netflix account — and his podcast, which has immediately become a big hit.  I don’t ever see Conan ever stopping his TV show (Conan O’Brien can’t stop, after all), but I can certainly see him making the podcast his most primary vehicle.  I can foresee a future where his podcast becomes essentially a zany cross between his own show and something like Comedy Bang Bang.

I’ll keep this post in mind when I re-read Carter’s book again in five years and recall with nostalgia about when people used to watch shows on televisions.

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