By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, Jan. 11, 2010 — It’s a tale of two personalities — one of them the winner and one of them the loser.
Jay Leno’s the winner, of course. He’s about to reclaim the 11:35 p.m. start time he prefers for his nightly show on NBC. And while the show is being billed so far as a half-hour idea, it will likely morph into an hour, and will likely be “The Tonight Show” by the time it premieres after the Winter Olympics because, really, how in the world can Conan stay at NBC after how the network has treated him.
Thus, life goes on for Jay Leno, who is one of these guys who is either very, very lucky or very, very skilled at coming out on top. This is the second time he’s won this kind of thing — the last time, in ’92, the odds favored David Letterman taking over for Johnny Carson. But Leno — the old-fashioned, blue-collar “tell joke, get check” comedian — worked harder to win over affiliates and NBC execs and wound up the winner.
He reminds me of that “Seinfeld” episode, in which bad things happen to Elaine, good things happen to George, and Jerry remarks that no matter what happens around him, his life remains level and well-adjusted. Leno’s the same way — while TV execs scramble around worrying and tearing out their hair trying to navigate their way out of an impossibly complicated situation they made for themselves, he can be found with his head under a car hood (seemingly) waiting patiently for the moment when someone will call him up and inform him he’s getting “The Tonight Show” back. He makes it seem as if he doesn’t care, although he does care, a lot. Still, in his sometimes goofy way, Jay Leno is the coolest cat in the room.
While Jay wins, Conan loses. It didn’t have to come out this way. NBC could just as well have decided to dump Leno’s 10 p.m. show and then dump Leno. So what if he goes somewhere else? There’s no guarantee he’d do as well. In addition, his options are pretty limited — ABC is the only network that might have made sense for him, but their guy is Jimmy Kimmel and he’s doing pretty well; anyway, that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.
In some ways, NBC’s original plan was sound. They were right: In a few years, they would have had to find a new host anyway as Leno aged. What they should have done was just keep Conan on “Tonight” because at some point, CBS will lose Letterman (in 5, 10 years? It doesn’t matter — time flies pretty quickly). And then, Conan would have been the veteran late-night star everyone would have turned to and he would have been No. 1.
Hey, I’m not even a huge fan of Conan’s “Tonight Show,” but he’s getting a very raw deal. Sure, he might be enriched by this rumored payoff of $45 million (the reported “penalty” supposedly included in his contract with NBC if the network reneges on “The Tonight Show”), and who wouldn’t love to receive $45 million?
Still, the reality is this: Conan’s getting canceled after just seven months. His career, which did nothing but rise for nearly 20 years, is suddenly in jeopardy. NBC is trying to make it seem like he hasn’t been canceled; he’s just being moved by a half-hour. But really, what else can you conclude but that Conan didn’t work out as host of the traditional “Tonight Show”? That happens to be a “first” — no one in the show’s storied history has ever failed at it, but that’s exactly what NBC is saying here.
Now, instead of representing the future of late-night TV, Conan joins the list of the late-night also-rans — Chevy Chase, Rick Dees, Pat Sajak and seemingly scores of others. Sure, you can argue that his long tenure as host of “Late Night” should earn Conan a higher perch in the hierarchy than Chevy Chase. And you would be right. At the same time, however, moving to Fox to host a new, untested late-night show represents a demotion. It’s a consolation prize and a weak one at that, since Fox has no history in late-night except for its failures with Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase back in the ancient ’80s and ’90s. And there’s no guarantee the Fox affiliates even want a late-night show. Moreover, even in fourth place, NBC is the classier of the two networks. Conan’s comedy is more like the comedy of “30 Rock” and “SNL” than the gross-out humor of “Family Guy.”
In the end, this misadventure seriously damages Conan’s reputation. And whether you like his comedy or not, he — along with all the loyal members of his team who all relocated to California from New York — did not deserve this. They’re a great group of people — Conan too. The screwing he’s getting from the company to which he has been loyal for so long, is just breathtaking.
Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com