Everything there is to say has undoubtedly been said about the Conan/Leno debacle. Conan’s last night behind The Tonight Show desk was funny, sweet, and quite joyful, all things considered. The montage of highlights, complete with Cheap Trick’s “Surrender”, was a clever, poignant call back to how Conan began his all too brief tenure. Like the song says, he might be giving up his time on NBC, but he’s not giving himself away in the name of fickle, fearful executives. Steve Carell, almost in Michael Scott mode, was a smart choice to conduct the exit interview. Tom Hanks recalled where it all started for Conan as a writer on SNL. Neil Young made another inspired musical contribution with “Long May You Run” (while it won’t be with the Peacock, let’s hope that prophecy comes to pass). Finally there was Will Ferrell in Lynyrd Skynyrd mode with a cover of “Free Bird.” Conan himself joined in on the guitar, and the energy from the studio infiltrated my increasingly cluttered apartment. Before picking up the ax, Conan delivered a completely sincere speech about his gratitude for the chances NBC had taken on him (not the easiest thing to do under the circumstances). He applauded his fans and closed with his personal philosophy that cynicism leads nowhere, that perseverance and decency are ultimately rewarded.
In short, Conan went out with class. Jay Leno and Jeff Zucker do not know the meaning of the word. I can’t imagine a scenario where no one watches Jay come March 1 and Conan somehow returns to The Tonight Show. Another network is likely to scoop up Conan and Co., but having to wait until September equals lost momentum. Still, Leno can no longer hide behind his supposed good guy persona, and Conan, well on the road to cult hero status, will emerge the victor. Now that might not equal massive ratings, which is all NBC can comprehend. But there’s a little thing called legacy that transcends time and numbers. Conan is one for kindness and optimism, but he’s also one for principles. Without those, a man or woman stands for very little. Wherever Conan lands, I’ll be watching. And as for Leno? My mother could be his first guest. I’m never watching again. On principle.
Weighing in on the late night fiasco, my first impulse is to blame Jay Leno for fucking things up yet again. Over on CBS, Letterman is positively giddy. Not only does he get to bash the network that screwed him over (you can tell he’s still bitter) but this time he gets to revel in Leno’s perceived role as the villain. Last night Dave proposed a scenario where all the major players involved come on his show to duke it out, and in the end everyone who wants a show will get a show. How I would love to see Jay, Conan, Jimmy Fallon, Jeff Zucker, and Carson Daly (sitting in Dave’s suggested folding chair) come together for a twisted roundtable. Right now even Daly would garner more sympathy than Leno and Zucker, and one can only hope that they would be dragged out of the Ed Sullivan theater by a pitchfork bearing mob leaving Conan and Dave to divide the late night kingdom accordingly.
Over on Conan, they’re letting it all hang out. Andy Richter commented that it’s the most fun he’s ever had in the midst of a scandal, and Conan proceeded to deliver an inspiring message to any kids in the audience: you can have and be whatever want in this life provided that Jay Leno doesn’t want the exact same thing. Jack McBrayer came onstage in character as 30 Rock page Kenneth. He led a tour group and earnestly noted that Conan’s studio would make a good storage space for NBC. Conan asked him if he could continue the tour at a later time. “But it’s the 5 o’clock tour.” It makes no sense to do it at a later time. McBrayer/Kenneth also reminded everyone that most of Conan’s crew uprooted their families from NYC to LA in anticipation of jobs that would last longer than 7 months (bandleader Max Weinberg moved his secret family as well). It was a funny bit, but it drove home the point that NBC is doing more than dicking over one individual in O’Brien. It wasn’t as if the staff, writers, and musicians were moving across country on a lark or to give an untried show a whirl. This is (or was) The Tonight Show for crying out loud, an American institution that keeps an anointed host for years. Now the critics will say that NBC is giving Conan the 12:05 option, but how are they giving him any kind of a chance to build his own audience if they keep the albatross that is Leno around his neck in the preceding timeslot? Conan has a right to be furious, and NBC better watch it. If they don’t budge and Conan jumps to FOX (a rumor that gains more steam by the hour), they’re going to lose viewers. I suppose that somewhere Leno has some diehard fans, but the casual late night viewer will either go with Dave if they want something familiar or switch to “Team Coco” because Leno and NBC are now cast as bullies that no one wants to support. Ricky Gervais rocked as Conan’s guest. He plugged the Golden Globes and his new HBO series then asked Conan what he planned to do. Did he think that NBC had already pulled the plug and they were only doing the show for themselves? I wouldn’t put it past NBC at this point.
The Tonight Show and Conan and heck even Leno (maybe) deserve better. The show should remain where it has always thrived, Conan should get a chance to make it his own, and if NBC wants to keep Leno, then give him a 90 minute variety show or something once a week and not a pale copy of what his Tonight Show once was. It soils Leno’s tenure, pathetic as it was, behind the desk and prevents Conan from reinventing the show for a new audience. Perhaps this all works out well for everyone involved, but NBC likely comes out the loser, which is kind of tragic if you consider what the network once was. And Dave loves every minute of it.