Archive for April, 2014

Curated: TV Howl’s Late-Night Columns: 2010-14

April 10, 2014

Multi-talented Colbert is right man for the job

Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman as host of CBS's "Late Show" next year.

Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman as host of CBS’s “Late Show” next year.

NEW YORK, April 10, 2014 — It takes more than just stand-up comedy talent to qualify as a late-night host these days.

That’s the lesson of the announcement today that Stephen Colbert has been anointed David Letterman’s successor as host of “Late Show” on CBS.  With Letterman announcing just last week his intention to retire next year, CBS moved quickly to sign Colbert to a five-year contract — representing an extraordinary amount of faith in Colbert’s potential for not only maintaining CBS’s position in the late-night competition at 11:35, but also improving it.

For that role, Colbert, 49, emerges as the best man for the job.  Why?  Because he is multi-talented, which is suddenly a requirement for hosting a late-night show — a trend driven mainly by Jimmy Fallon.

Colbert might not possess Fallon’s talent for mimicry and celebrity impressions, but Colbert is an accomplished professional in all the other aspects of show business — particularly singing, dancing and acting.  He’s a shrewd showman who writes best-selling books, created a highly profitable show (“The Colbert Report”) built around a fictional character he developed and plays personally, and seems to create excitement and draw crowds wherever he goes.

With his abundance of theatrical talent (he’s formally trained in all the basics, from Northwestern), Colbert is more than a match for the multifaceted Fallon where it now counts the most — in the production of comedy-performance bits so arresting that they stand up to multiple viewings on video and social-media Web sites in the hours and days after they air for the first time on TV.

This is where Colbert’s “Late Show” and Fallon’s “Tonight Show” will battle it out most.  As for the time period’s other competitor, “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” CBS’s hiring of Colbert gives Kimmel an opportunity to stand out from the others.  As Kimmel has long emphasized, he is more a “broadcaster” than a “comedian” — a recognition that he possesses none of  the basic performing skills of his competitors.  Still, his bits are wildly creative and they play well (and often better than Fallon’s) in the all-important video after-markets.

Two more things on this hiring of Colbert:

1) Some are concerned that Colbert won’t be able to make the transition from the “Stephen Colbert” character he plays on Comedy Central to the real Colbert.  That happens to be a non-issue.  He’ll do fine as the “real” guy behind the “Late Show” desk.

2) What about Conan? Thank you to all of the hundreds of you who visited TVHowl over the past week to read my post from a year ago suggesting that Conan O’Brien would be a great choice to replace Letterman when the time comes for Letterman to call it a day.  Alas — it is not to be.  The Conan story is an interesting one: There was a time when he really was the late-night heir-apparent — if not “The Tonight Show” (we all know what happened there) then the “Letterman” show.  Unfortunately, if this was still an ambition of Conan’s, to break into the network fray at 11:35 p.m., then this once-every-20-years generational shift in late-night TV seems to have passed him by.


An aging generation mourns loss of Jay, Dave 

END OF AN ERA: For millions of us, late-night television will always be represented by these two -- David Letterman and Jay Leno (inset) who battled it out for 20 years. Photos: NBC, CBS

END OF AN ERA: For millions of us, late-night television will always be represented by these two — David Letterman and Jay Leno (inset) — who battled it out for 20 years. Photos: NBC, CBS

NEW YORK, April 4, 2014 — What about us?

We are the ones who have lost our late-night TV.

We are the group for whom the Golden Age of late-night television is not necessarily represented by Johnny Carson (though we may have watched him in his final years).  And we are the ones who don’t feel much warmth for the new hyper-active generation of late-night hosts — the Jimmys and the rest of them.

We are the habitual watchers of late-night TV for whom the 20-year reign of David Letterman and Jay Leno will always represent the heart and soul of this most-intimate of TV time periods.  And now, that era — when, for the most part, there were only two stars in late-night who anybody cared about — is over.

The phrase “end of an era” is a cliche I usually try and avoid using, but when Letterman announced Thursday night that he’s packing it in, it felt sincerely like an era was coming to a close.

It’s an aspect of Letterman’s retirement announcement that’s being largely neglected in much of the commentary you might be reading today that analyzes the late-night landscape as Letterman prepares to leave: It’s the end of the Leno-Letterman era — an era as distinct and important to the history of television as the Carson era was in its time, and the current multi-splintered era of late-night television is now.

It was the era of “The Two.”  It began on  August 30, 1993 — the day David Letterman’s new “Late Show” debuted at 11:30 on CBS.  Jay Leno had already been hosting “The Tonight Show” on NBC since May 1992, when he took over for Carson.

From that August day in 1993 until Jan. 8, 2013 — the day ABC shifted “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to the 11:35 p.m. time period — Jay and Dave, for all intents and purposes, had the time period to themselves.  And for millions of us, toggling between the two of them between 11:35 p.m. and 12:35 a.m. while preparing to go to sleep became a nightly habit for the better part of 20 years.

And now, with Leno gone since February and Letterman set to say farewell next year, late-night television will officially pass into its new and present era — the one most of the commentators are writing about today: The era of the two Jimmys, Conan, Arsenio, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler and the rest.

The problem for me and for millions like me: The present era of late-night TV holds much less allure for us.  We can’t seem to warm to the relentless comedy capers of Fallon, Kimmel and the rest — as they strive more for views on YouTube than for ratings on their shows.  With this new generation of late-night hosts, the shows are more cacophonous, if not obnoxious.

Hey, I admit it: I’m 54, and the hijinks of younger people are less and less interesting or entertaining to me as I grow older.  To anyone who is not necessarily turned off by the current generation of late-night stars, I say: Enjoy them.

But for me and, I suspect, millions like me, our habitual watching of late-night television is slowly coming to an end, right along with the closing of the Letterman-Leno era.


The rights and wrongs of Fallon’s debut

Jimmy Fallon in his debut as host of "The Tonight Show" Monday night. (Photo: NBC)

Jimmy Fallon in his debut as host of “The Tonight Show” Monday night. (Photo: NBC)

NEW YORK, Feb. 18, 2014 — Jimmy Fallon and his handlers got a great deal of it right in producing his debut show as host of “The Tonight Show” Monday night.

The set was beautiful — a classy interior that reflected the iconic architecture of midtown Manhattan where the newly relocated “Tonight Show” is now situated.

The show made the most of its new New York  home when it featured a sunset performance by U2 on the roof of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.  It was as if to say to doubters who pooh-poohed the show’s move from California (doubters such as yours truly): Here’s why we moved from boring suburban Burbank to the very center of New York City,  OK?

And, as if to dispel the notion that New York would not be as fertile a location as southern California for accessing A-list guests (again, yours truly is guilty as charged with promoting this perception), a parade of A-listers came on one at a time to participate in an elaborate comedy bit “welcoming” Jimmy to “The Tonight Show” — from Robert De Niro to Lady Gaga.

They’re both closely associated with New York City, but at least one of the other stars was not — Kim Kardashian — who’s a southern California celebrity if there ever was one.  She’s also the only one of the celebs seen Monday night on “Tonight” who was also seen on Jay Leno’s final show earlier this month, providing (perhaps inadvertently) the only discernible link between the two shows.

In fact, Fallon’s “Tonight Show” was so shiny and new and full of upbeat energy that it was easy to forget that Leno was last seen a mere 12 days earlier.   While watching the debut of the Fallon “Tonight Show” Monday night, it seemed as if Leno had been gone a lot longer, and his “Tonight Show” a relic of the distant past, rather than a show that ran for the better part of 22 years and ended only on Feb. 6.

One nice touch: Positioning the U2 rooftop performance in the middle of the show,something late-night shows never do traditionally.  Placing the musical guests at the end of the show — as all of the shows do — is so customary that slotting the U2 number earlier in the show was a downright revolutionary thing to do.  I found myself thinking: Hey, are they allowed to do that?  It turns out that they are.

The only weakness of the show was, again, Fallon’s comportment with his guests.  With both Will Smith and U2, Fallon played the role of the wide-eyed, grinning, giggling fan who just can’t believe that these stars are sitting there in the same room with him.

It’s an attitude he ought to lose: The top-tier hosts in late-night have never affected that pose.  David Letterman, Jay Leno, even Jimmy Kimmel — they always come across as if they regard these celebrities as their equals, not as sacred idols whose presence on their shows constitutes some sort of miracle.

That was the style established by Johnny Carson, whose mantle Jimmy Fallon now wears, for better or worse.  Get used to it.


Children’s hour: Fallon takes over ‘Tonight’

MANCHILD IN THE PROMISED LAND: Jimmy Fallon drenches Tom Cruise with water on NBC's "Late Night."

MANCHILD IN THE PROMISED LAND: Jimmy Fallon drenches Tom Cruise with water on NBC’s “Late Night.”


NEW YORK, Feb. 14, 2014 — No one in their right mind would describe Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” as sophisticated, but it’s sure going to seem that way when it is compared to what we’re in for when Jimmy Fallon takes over.

Fallon’s “Tonight Show” takeover, which starts Monday night, represents a high-profile triumph for the forces of immaturity.  He is the embodiment of the Peter Pan mentality that seems to have  gripped a generation of young men for whom childlike pranks and games are the most important things in life.

RACER'S EDGE: Josh Duhamel (right) in an ice-chest go-cart race with Jimmy Fallon.

RACER’S EDGE: Josh Duhamel (right) in an ice-chest go-cart race with Jimmy Fallon.

Not satisfied with simply talking to his guests, Fallon is like a hyperactive child with ants in his pants who always seems on the verge of leaping from his chair.  Maybe that’s because he simply can’t wait for the fun-and-games portion of the show, when he will force some hapless guest to race him down a back hallway in a go-cart, join him in an egg-smashing contest, or get drenched with a Super Soaker.

Since Fallon has insisted repeatedly — without apparent embarrassment — that he plans to basically do the show he’s been doing when he assumes his “starring” role on “The Tonight Show,” then we can assume he plans on turning “The Tonight Show” into some kind of late-night version of “Double Dare.”

Warning to anyone sitting in Fallon’s “Tonight Show” guest chair: You might get slimed.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with having fun on a late-night show.  But the key to success in late-night, among other things, has traditionally been the host’s — and his support personnel’s — skill in balancing their show’s more manic portions with the quieter segments, which, generally speaking, are the celebrity-guest portions.

EGGHEADS: Tom Cruise and Fallon have an egg war.

EGGHEADS: Tom Cruise and Fallon have an egg war.

One could argue that the celebrity interview portions of the late-night shows are often the dullest parts of the shows, but that all depends on the guest and the interviewing skills of the host.

David Letterman happens to be good  at this, and Jimmy Kimmel does a fair job as well.

No one will ever accuse Jay Leno of possessing interviewing skills on par with Barbara Walters, but Leno made his celebrity guests feel relaxed and comfortable and the segments seemed tailor-made for the half-hour after midnight when a great chunk of his viewing audience was closing in on bedtime.

One of Fallon’s problems is that he seems incapable of carrying on a conversation with a guest that consists of anything more than Fallon fawning all over him (or her).  As a result, he relies heavily on back-hallway footraces to relieve him of the apparent torture of talking to somebody.

The last thing any late-night viewer needs is to be suddenly jolted into full wakefulness by a grown man — Fallon — suddenly breaking into a water balloon war with Tom Cruise.  Sure, this stuff seemed to go over well with Fallon’s audience at 12:37 a.m. perhaps because they were on the younger side and not particularly put off by Fallon’s “Romper Room” mentality.

But “The Tonight Show” is not “Romper Room.”  Traditionally, “The Tonight Show” has been a show by and for grownups — not old people, just mature ones.  I suppose it’s asking too much to hope that Fallon, who’s 39 for heaven’s sake, will grow up by Monday night.


Annals of Leno: 4 biggest ways NBC insulted Jay

Jay-Leno z

END OF AN ERA: Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” 1992-2014.

NEW YORK, Jan. 29, 2014 — In these final days of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” NBC’s indifference to Leno has been breathtaking.

Here’s a guy who maintained the network’s dominance in the one time period left where this once-mighty network could still lay claim to a top ranking in the Nielsen ratings, and yet, you get the feeling that NBC can’t wait until he vacates the premises.

The way he’s being treated, you would think he was personally offensive or something — like an unwanted guest with body odor.

Here are four ways NBC has insulted a man who is, arguably, the network’s top star:

1) They gave Jimmy Fallon “starring” billing: This is an important point.   In show business, billing is everything.  So when Fallon was awarded “starring” billing in the new “Tonight Show” title (as in, “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”), you had to wonder why NBC never gave Leno “starring” billing (his show was always “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”).  The last person to have “starring” in the show’s title was Johnny Carson.  Tradition seemed to hold that one might earn “starring” billing after a number of years in the job — which means Leno should have earned it long ago.  But he never got it.

2) They’re moving “The Tonight Show” to New York: This idea is still puzzling since such a move would seem to instantly handicap the new “Tonight Show” in its pursuit of guests — the majority of whom can be found in California.  The reasons for the move probably have more to do with a personal preference on the part of Fallon or, more to the point, his boss Lorne Michaels, for living on the East Coast.  Whatever.  The point here is: The move is another slap at Leno, implying that, somehow, the West Coast “Tonight Show” became so tattered and woebegone when he hosted it that drastic measures such as moving the show to New York simply had to be undertaken in order to rejuvenate and save the show (which happens to be No. 1 in late-night).

3) They are largely ignoring Leno’s final shows: There is none of the buildup — in the form of promo spots or general excitement — that came in the days leading up to Carson’s farewell in 1992.  And even though Leno’s “Tonight Show” has far fewer viewers than Carson’s did at that time, Leno still deserves attention in these final days — if only to drive up the ratings for his final shows for the sake of earning more money from advertisers.  Instead, when you watch these final shows, you get the feeling Leno and his staff are just kind of winging it on their own — producing various “best-of” segments, and booking guests with long ties to the show and to Leno.  In fact, these farewell shows have been quite good — and once again, the only people who appreciate them are the people who have watched Leno all along.

But not NBC, of course.  Instead, Leno is getting showcased everywhere else — including a profile and interview on “60 Minutes” on CBS, an appearance on his friend Ellen DeGeneres’ afternoon talk show, and last Friday, a one-hour special about his life and career on CNN.  But on NBC?  So far, nothing.

4) They booted him from the show in the first place: As written many times previously (at least by me), NBC never really had to remove Leno, since he was leading all the competition in both total viewers and the 18-49 demo the networks crave.  Instead, the network programming execs could have simply focused on everything else that’s wrong on the network — from mornings to prime time.  But hey, what do I know …

To his credit, Leno isn’t revealing how he really feels about the way NBC has treated him.  In the “60 Minutes” interview, he adopted a hard-headed, business-like approach to the situation.  Simply put, the money NBC pays him (which he himself agreed to reduce voluntarily not long ago in order to save some jobs on the “Tonight Show” staff) makes the insults easier to swallow.  Said he, “Look, show business pays you a lot of money, because eventually you’re gonna get screwed. …  That’s the way it works.  That’s the way these things are.”


Aftermath: 4 million Leno viewers up for grabs


Jay Leno (right) and Jimmy Fallon in a publicity shot created by NBC last year.

NEW YORK, Jan. 29, 2014 — It’s the big question underlying the Jay Leno-Jimmy Fallon switch on “The Tonight Show”: WWTTSFMVD?

That ungainly (and none too clever) acronym means this: What will “The Tonight Show’s” 4 million viewers do?

Four million is the Leno show’s nightly average (most recently for the week of Jan. 13-17).  An hour later, NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” averages around 2 million per night (2.1 million that same week).   Which means: To equal Leno’s average in total viewers: Fallon will need to add about 2 million viewers a night — almost twice the audience he now draws at 12:35 a.m.

He’ll need fewer than that 2 million to beat David Letterman on CBS and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC at 11:35 though.  Kimmel averages around 2.5 million viewers a night.  Letterman had a nightly average of 2.9 million during the week of Jan. 13-17.

But that’s the battle for “total viewers,” which doesn’t mean much when it comes to selling lucrative commercial minutes in late-night.  The more crucial battleground is the demo race — viewers 18-49 — the so-called “younger” viewers networks crave.

Guess who always wins that battle? Jay Leno — the “old” guy NBC is jettisoning for the “young” guy Fallon.  Leno, 63, had a 0.9 rating in 18-49s during the week of Jan. 13-17.  He beat Letterman, 66, and Kimmel, 46, who tied at 0.6.  At 12:35, Fallon, 39, had a 0.7 rating in the demo — which means he could win the demo race against Letterman and Kimmel at 11:35.

In a nutshell, that’s the reason NBC is moving Fallon to “The Tonight Show” in the earlier time period — because the network believes he can maintain, or possibly improve on, Leno’s dominance in the demo.  Of course, one could argue that the network could just as well have kept Leno there, since he was winning the demo already.  But as far as arguments go, that ship has sailed.

The question remains: What will these 4 million viewers do?  It’s not an easy question to answer:

1) A number of them could go to Letterman: If you subscribe to the theory that older viewers (the ones not in the key target demo anyway) will likely seek out Leno’s only remaining age-group peer in late-night television, then Letterman could experience a sudden spike in viewership.  In fact, it could be enough for Dave to reclaim the top spot in total viewers for the first time since 1995.

2) On the other hand, Leno’s fans chose Jay for years over Letterman: Though they’re close in age, Leno and Letterman are far different, with distinct styles and audiences.  They are so different that the last thing a long-time Leno fan might do is suddenly adopt a nightly Letterman habit.  It’s just as unlikely that Fallon or Kimmel will emerge as credible substitutes for Leno either.  It could come to pass that at least some of these 4 million viewers — perhaps the older ones — might give up on late-night TV altogether.

3) Some of the 4 million will stick around, though, and seek out a new show to watch every night.  And it’s entirely possible they’ll bypass Letterman in favor of Fallon and/or Kimmel.  Still, for the diehard Leno fan of a certain age, the younger, manic comedy of Fallon will take some getting used-to.  (Really — sometimes watching Fallon is like watching a hyperactive child.)   As for Kimmel, he has a comedic point-of-view that’s all his own, and he has been famously outspoken about his personal distaste for Leno — which could prevent some Leno fans from adopting a Kimmel habit.  One possible scenario: The Leno audience will get split primarily between Fallon and Letterman, leaving Kimmel pretty much where he is now, with 2.5 million viewers nightly.


NBC’s bold move: Fix a show that wasn’t broken


NEW YORK, April 4, 2013 — They didn’t have to do anything.

That’s what’s so mysterious about NBC’s decision to push Jay Leno out the door to pave the way for Jimmy Fallon to take over “The Tonight Show.”

Lost in all the hysteria in the 24 hours since the announcement (not to mention all the tumult behind the scenes and on stage over the last several weeks) was this simple fact: “The Tonight Show” was fine, and NBC could have kept Leno around for years and it still would have been fine.

Instead, you have a network and its executives behaving as if “The Tonight Show” was an old wooden house that was burning to the ground, and they’re a group of firemen who have been called upon in a dire emergency to save it.

So they applied the most drastic measures possible — awarding the show to another younger guy who, like Conan O’Brien before him, acquits himself well every night on the network’s other late-night show, but who, like Conan, is no sure thing in the earlier time period.

And as if that wasn’t enough to extinguish the “blazing inferno” that is late-night’s highest-rated show, the network decides to move the show to New York from Los Angeles — the city where it reigned supreme in its time period for most of its 42 years there.

Certainly, the real conflagration burning down the house at NBC is its prime-time lineup — which for years now has featured show after show after show that no one wants to watch.  Meanwhile, with Jay Leno as host, “The Tonight Show” has been a show people want to watch for 22 years.  What’s wrong with this picture?

Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon is being portrayed by NBC as the man who will “save” “The Tonight Show” — a show that didn’t need saving.

So why’d they do it?  A couple of theories on that — all wrong-headed:

1) Jay, who will be 63 this month, was getting too old, and if he continued as host and aged on the air, younger viewers would abandon him for Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. 

This happens to be hogwash.  Leno has been aging on the air for 20 years and has long held his own with the younger viewers NBC craves.  The thing about this “aging” issue: When a TV personality becomes “too old” to continue, it becomes fairly obvious to everyone.  Clearly, Leno’s voice still booms and, to all appearances, he seems to maintain a hale and hearty constitution.  Who knows: Maybe as he approached 70, he would have seemed “too old” to host a late-night show.  Or maybe he would have become even more beloved.  Who knows?  We’ll never know now.

Moreover, it’s doubtful that Fallon, at least in his first year or more, will equal Leno’s ratings in total viewers (that is, people of any and all ages), even if he draws a respectable number of younger viewers.  Thus, with Fallon, NBC will draw fewer viewers overall, but it might get a bump up in the 18-49 demo.  That’s wrong-headed for a very basic reason: At its core, network TV is supposed to be about growing audiences, not accepting lower ones, for whatever the reason.

2) If Fallon wasn’t guaranteed “The Tonight Show” in this round of contract negotiations (which apparently wrapped the day before NBC’s announcement this week), then he’d leave for another network. 

Maybe he’d even replace Letterman on CBS in a few years and would then be competing with NBC.  Or maybe not.  The real question is: Who cares?  This reason is always trotted out by some at times like these, as if a talent like Fallon is so irreplaceable that the network’s very future hangs in the balance.  It’s just not true.  Or, at the very least, one has no way of knowing if it will be true or not.   Thus, there’s no rational reason to base decision-making on that kind of “what if.”

And by the way, there’s no guarantee that Fallon will do any better in the ratings on “The Tonight Show” than he’s doing on “Late Night.”   Nor is there any evidence he would beat the pants off NBC if he wound up elsewhere.  Here’s a prediction: When Fallon takes over “The Tonight Show,” that show’s traditional viewers will flock to Letterman and Dave will emerge as the top-rated personality in late-night.

3) “The Tonight Show” needed fixing: On the contrary, “The Tonight Show” is a well-oiled machine, functioning in all ways as it is supposed to — writers and producers creating funny, topical monologues for the host, dreaming up comedy bits, and booking A-list celebrities for Leno to chat with and musical guests to end each evening.  It’s not rocket science, but nor is it easy to do. And yet, NBC has decided the time is ripe to completely dismantle and uproot this thing.

And by the way, part of the show’s success stems from its location in southern California, where it is well-established as a must-visit destination for every TV, movie and music star in the area — which happens to be most of them.  Moving this show to New York, where it will be just another NBC late-night show originating from 30 Rock, just feels like the wrong move.

The bottom line is: What if NBC had just done nothing, and instead focused its attention on the dayparts that are really in trouble — such as prime time and mornings?  Here’s another prediction: The world would not end.   And NBC would have had something to brag about — a nearly unbroken record of dominance in late-night.    And now?  Who knows?


Fallon in 2011: I’ll take over when Jay’s ready 

Jimmy Fallon ponders the possibility of replacing Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show."

Jimmy Fallon ponders the possibility of replacing Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”

NEW YORK, May 29, 2013 — Jimmy Fallon said two years ago he’d “love” to host “The Tonight Show,” but only when Jay Leno “is ready” to hand over the reins.

Fallon said it on Ellen DeGeneres’  talk show in March 2011.  It was a time, much like the present day, when stories were circulating that NBC was grooming Fallon to take over “The Tonight Show.”

“If they offered that to you, would you go into that time slot?” Ellen asked Fallon, who first gave a less-than-serious answer.

“Letterman did [NBC’s “Late Night”] and then he went to CBS,” Fallon said.  “Then Conan did [it] and he’s at TBS.  So I think if there’s a lesson to be learned, if you do this, you’re guaranteed not to host ‘The Tonight Show’!”

Turning serious, Fallon said, “Of course, I’d love to do it whenever Jay’s ready, if Jay wants to retire.”

Why bring this up? Simply because it can be instructive sometimes to comb through the archives for instances where history repeats itself.  As far as I can tell, that round of stories about Fallon replacing Leno originated in December 2010 with a New York Post story that reported Fallon was even then being eyed to take over for Jay.

Granted, the stories back then were less specific than the stories circulating now that say Fallon’s “Tonight Show” takeover is, for all intents and purposes, a done deal — with Fallon set to replace Leno in summer 2014, after Jay gets a final “farewell” season starting in September.

In addition, it’s always interesting to go back to past statements — like the ones Fallon made that day on “Ellen” — to assess their relevance in light of more recent events.  Certainly, Fallon’s assertion then that he would “love” taking over “The Tonight Show” only if and when Leno is ready to retire may have been wholly sincere.

But the fact is, all the recent stories about NBC’s Fallon-Leno replacement plan (which the network has yet to confirm) indicate that Leno is not “ready” nor is he thinking about retirement.  Instead, NBC is expected to force the issue by not renewing his contract when it expires next year.

And in response, Leno’s been defiantly fighting back as only he knows how — by skewering his network with monologue jokes almost nightly for the better part of three weeks.

So, how does Fallon feel today about taking over “The Tonight Show” at a time when Leno, by all appearances, does not seem “ready” to retire?  Fallon has made no comment this time around like the ones he made on “Ellen” two years ago.


Leno jokes: ‘Young’ Jay will replace ‘old’ Dave 

David Letterman (left) is three years older than Jay Leno.

David Letterman (left) is three years older than Jay Leno.

NEW YORK, March 28, 2013 — Jay Leno returned to joking about NBC in his “Tonight Show” monologue Wednesday night, but he reserved his best comedic “comment” on his situation for the show’s second segment.

It was the nightly comedy bit that always comes after the monologue segment.  Wednesday’s was called “What’s Trending Tomorrow” — a parody of what’s trending “today” on social media, with Jay pushing the subject forward to “tomorrow.”

The item about late-night TV was a great joke, and possibly the most direct comment Leno has made — comedically, of course — about the rumors swirling around him that he’ll be replaced next year.  While most of the jibes he’s delivered since March 11 about the late-night situation and NBC’s struggle for prime-time ratings have fallen just short of including the key details, this was the first time he has mentioned the name of the man who will likely replace him, Jimmy Fallon.  Leno also mentioned David Letterman, who was a key part of the punchline.

In the bit, Jay said: “Trending right now … Jay Leno beset by rumors he’s being replaced by a younger host [a picture of Jimmy Fallon was then shown on a screen behind Jay].  Trending tomorrow … David Letterman also being replaced by a younger host …  [then a photo of Leno himself was shown].  Yeah!  Yeah! There you go!” Leno said.  “I like that one!  That was a fun one.”

He was right — it was a fun one.  For the record, Fallon is 38, Leno is 62 and Letterman is 65 (Leno and Letterman will be 63 and 66, respectively, next month).

Leno opened his Wednesday monologue with an NBC joke — the first one he delivered since last Friday (after abstaining from the NBC jibes on Monday and Tuesday of this week).

“Folks, oh, my God, listen to this,” Leno said.  “Monday night the [NBC] prime-time shows ‘The Voice’ and ‘Revolution’ moved NBC into the No. 2 position.  You know what that means?  No. 2 — between Easter and Passover, this is truly the season of miracles!  We’re No. 2!  We’re No. 2!  Amazing! …  And I’ve been saying that for the last week, that NBC is a big No. 2!  Haven’t I been saying that?  Congratulations!”

A few minutes later, Jay delivered a second NBC joke, this one referring to the sanctity of contracts: “Speaking of T-Mobile,” he said (following a joke about a prison inmate who tried to smuggle a cellphone into a California prison for Charlie Manson), “they announced yesterday they are doing away with contracts.  So apparently they got the idea from NBC!  I’m not sure how that works!”

Of course, no rumor has yet suggested that NBC seeks to break or otherwise “do away” with Leno’s contract.  The reports have said only that he’s not likely to get a new contract when his current one expires in 2014 — which is when he would then be replaced by Fallon.


Move ‘The Tonight Show’ to NYC? Fuhgettaboutit

LA 3

Tale of two cities: NBC’s Burbank headquarters (top), home of Jay Leno; and (bottom) NBC Studios in New York, home base for Jimmy Fallon.

NEW YORK, March 22, 2013 — Moving “The Tonight Show” to New York would be a huge mistake.

Why?  Because it will instantly rob the show of the one advantage it has been able to count on for decades as the No. 1 show in late-night: First dibs on Los Angeles-based guests.  And since L.A. is where 90 percent of the nation’s top movie, TV and music stars live and work, it stands to reason that a show like “The Tonight Show” would want to preserve that access.

But no.  Reports this week have NBC ramping up the construction of a new studio within its 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York that would be the new home of “The Tonight Show” hosted by Jimmy Fallon.  The move would uproot the show from southern California, where it has reigned as the top-rated show in late-night for the better part of 41 years.

Even worse, NBC would be voluntarily ceding its hard-won top position in the L.A. booking wars to the one guy whose move to an earlier time period has given NBC and its executives so much angst in the first place, Jimmy Kimmel.

When or if “The Tonight Show” moves to New York, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” will instantly become the first choice for L.A.-based celebrities and their publicity handlers — easily out-booking Craig Ferguson on CBS and Conan O’Brien on TBS.  Meanwhile, in New York, the new Fallon “Tonight Show” will be competing for guests — always a more-limited pool of them in New York, compared to L.A. — with David Letterman.

And unless Fallon can maintain “The Tonight Show’s” top position in the ratings, Letterman will be first in line for top celebrities when they’re in New York.  Can you imagine?  Guests will appear on “Letterman” on CBS, and then, the next evening, they’ll be on Fallon’s “Tonight Show” — signaling to anyone who watches late-night TV that NBC is no longer in the driver’s seat.

In fact, that scenario is what happens now with A-list guests in New York — they go on “Letterman” first and then show up the next day on Fallon’s “Late Night.”  So how will “The Tonight Show” benefit from playing second fiddle to Letterman?  The answer: It won’t.

So why is NBC considering this move in the first place?  I suspect it has to do with issues of internal management combined with a dash of wishful thinking.

Network executives might feel the consolidation of NBC’s three big late-night shows — “Tonight,” “Late Night” and “Saturday Night Live”– under one roof will somehow bring all three shows into some kind of hoped-for creative uniformity based somewhat on the successful “SNL” model.  Fallon’s “Late Night” is heavy on “SNL”-type sketch comedy and it is assumed that it will continue in that vein with probable new host Seth Meyers.  The aim would then be to transform “The Tonight Show” into the same kind of show — all under overseer Lorne Michaels, of course.

Michaels would probably relish the opportunity to assume control of “The Tonight Show.”  He may even feel he deserves it, because of all he has contributed to NBC’s success in late-night over the years.  He wouldn’t be entirely wrong there, and NBC might be willing to reward his loyalty,  hard work, and talent for generating profits with this new trophy.  In addition, NBC might feel that the “SNL” approach is only possible in New York for some reason.

Moreover, the last time they moved a New York guy to L.A. — Conan — it didn’t work out.  So maybe they’re reluctant to send another New York guy to the West Coast.  Or maybe Fallon is dead set against moving to California (although I doubt this).  Whatever is going on behind the scenes at 30 Rock, none of it seems compelling enough to propel moving “The Tonight Show” to New York.

The wishful thinking part is this: That when it comes to booking guests, so many of them come to New York on their publicity tours for new projects that there are more than enough A-level celebrities running around midtown at any given time that there’s no longer a shortage of them these days for the New York-based late-night shows.

Why is that thinking “wishful”?  Because it’s not true.  Despite all the talk shows here, and all the celebs that parachute in to make the talk-show rounds, there are never enough to go around — which creates “slack” times when talk shows struggle for top guests.

This is a truism that cannot be wished away.  It’s also a truism that one of the advantages “The Tonight Show” has enjoyed for 41 years has been its position at the pinnacle of the Hollywood establishment — first with Carson and then with Leno, who’s a Hollywood/Beverly Hills insider if there ever was one.

The reasons NBC has for moving “The Tonight Show” to New York City would seem to have everything to do with internal network politics, and nearly nothing to do with benefiting the show and ensuring its future as TV’s top-rated late-night show.

Of course, will someone please explain to me why NBC is monkeying around with this show in the first place, when so many other issues — most notably, prime time and mornings — would seem to demand the majority of the company’s attention at this time?

In the final analysis, moving the show back to New York after 41 years of success and warm-weather comfort in southern California makes about as much sense as bringing the Dodgers back to Brooklyn.


Complete timeline of Jay Leno’s war with NBC


Jay Leno (Photo: NBC)


NEW YORK, March 20, 2013 — While other Web sites are just beginning now to cover the story of Jay Leno’s war on NBC, I’ve been following it ever since it first began on March 11.

That was the day — a Monday — that Leno and “The Tonight Show” returned from a week off.  As a result, it was Leno’s first opportunity to comment on a story that broke 10 days earlier, at the very beginning of the show’s one-week hiatus — that NBC was close to having a plan in place to replace Leno with Jimmy Fallon in summer 2014.

The story from The Hollywood Reporter broke on the evening of Friday, March 1, after that evening’s “Tonight Show” had been taped and the show’s writers and producers had decamped for their one-week break.

Leno made no public comments about the story during the week the show was dark — March 4-8 — but on that very first night back on March 11, he expressed his displeasure with the story as only he can — in his “Tonight Show” monologue.  It’s a familiar pattern with Leno: He doesn’t comment directly on the situation in his jokes and comments, but the message isn’t lost on his audience, who knows exactly what he’s talking about — and Jay knows it.

Since no one else has covered this story as completely as I have, here’s a complete timeline of Leno’s jokes and comments about NBC since March 11, through Friday, March 22.

Monday, March 11

Two monologue jokes dealt directly with the replacement story (but without mentioning the story specifically), starting with: “You all look surprised to see me!  I’m shocked!”  (He was reacting to the standing ovation he received from the studio audience when he came on stage.)

Then, later in the monologue, he said: “According to a survey, 12 percent of workers admit to having sex at work. Now, I myself have never had sex at work. I’ve been screwed by my employer, but I have never, never, never had sex!”

A third monologue joke poked fun at NBC’s ongoing struggle in the prime-time ratings race, which has it ranked fifth among all major networks — ranking behind even Spanish-language Univision.  “Right before he died, [late Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez did have some last words,” Jay said. “He said he was just happy he lived long enough to see Univision beat NBC!”

Tuesday, March 12

This monologue had two jokes that were even more pointed than the ones Leno delivered the evening before: “You know, we were on vacation last week,” he said, opening Tuesday’s monologue (after taking the stage for a second consecutive standing ovation).  “And when I came back yesterday, NBC had really beefed up security. Yet, despite that, I was still able to get on the lot!”

The second joke that evening, this one having to do with the resignation of Pope Benedict: “And of course rumors are flying at the Vatican,” Leno said. “The latest one, according to the Italian press, is that Pope Benedict did not retire. They say he was forced out by NBC!”

Friday, March 15

For some reason, Leno let the subject rest on March 13 and 14.  But on  Friday, March 15, he was back at it, for reasons related first to the day’s date, and also to one of the evening’s guests, fellow late-night host Craig Ferguson of CBS.  Here’s the monologue joke Leno delivered that evening: “You know what today is?” Today [March 15] is the Ides of March. This is when Julius Caesar was stabbed in the back by the people he trusted. Not a good day to be working at NBC!”

Then, later, Leno and Ferguson (who hosts “Late Late Show” on CBS) had this exchange, in which Leno expressed his frustration with NBC executives:

“I don’t know what your relationship is like with NBC,” Ferguson said, after Leno asked Craig how it’s going at CBS.

“I have a very good relationship with CBS and I know you have a very good relationship with NBC,” said Ferguson, who obviously knew that wasn’t true. “But I do like the feeling of being able to go and do standup [comedy] just in case anything goes wrong and I have to earn a living outside of the world of [late-night TV] …”

“That’s true because when you do this show you don’t really know how you’re doing,” Leno said.  “You get notes like this [Jay picks up a blue note card and reads], um, ‘You’re not doing well with immature boys between 11 and 14, so if you could do something … ’ So you don’t really know!”

By contrast, Leno said of his outside standup work, “When you go out on the road, they laugh, you get your check, you move on. You don’t get the network notes.”

“Yeah, you’re autonomous,” Ferguson said.

Then, on the evening of March 15, at around the same time that “The Tonight Show” was being taped on the West Coast, the New York Times posted a story on its Web site that said Leno had clashed recently with the head of NBC programming, Robert Greenblatt, who was reportedly unhappy with the many jokes Leno had been doing the last few weeks about NBC’s ratings woes.

Monday, March 18

So, on Monday, March 18, the day after St. Patrick’s Day, came a monologue joke that played like a reaction to the Greenblatt story: “You know the whole legend of St. Patrick, right?  St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland — and then they came to the United States and became NBC executives. It’s a fascinating story!”

Tuesday, March 19

Then, on Tuesday, March 19, came this joke referring to NBC’s ratings struggle: “Did you hear about this?  A 28-year-old woman from Serbia has a rare brain condition where she sees everything upside down.  The good news? She’s now been given a job at the White House as President Obama’s economic adviser!”

And here’s the part about NBC: “Isn’t that crazy? It’s unbelievable. She sees everything upside down. In fact, she thinks NBC is at the top of the ratings!”

Then, in a comedy bit titled “Midseason Replacements” — in which Leno presented brief “trailers” for fictional midseason shows — Leno made another reference to NBC’s low ratings.  It was just after he showed a “clip” from a show called “Mourning Wood,” about a man named Wood whose wife had just died:  “I think NBC’s got a hit on its hands with that one.  I think that’s gonna be our turnaround show!”

Wednesday, March 20

In this monologue joke, Leno likened NBC to the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era: “This is kind of scary.  Scientists say they’re getting closer and closer to being able to do ‘Jurassic Park’-style cloning of extinct species.  Imagine that? Things that were once thought to be extinct could now be brought back from the dead, so there’s hope for NBC!  It could turn around!”

Thursday, March 21

Leno opened his monologue with this joke: “You all excited about March Madness?  You into March Madness?  People talk about who’s in, who’s out, who’s gonna be eliminated …  and that’s just here at NBC!  Wow, I have never been in the paper this much!  It’s fantastic!”

Friday, March 22

Jay dropped two NBC jokes into the middle of his monologue.  In fact, when he began reciting the set-up for this first one, I sensed an NBC joke on the way as soon as he began talking about a knife blade stuck in a man’s back: “Doctors in Canada were shocked after pulling a three-inch knife blade from the back of a 32 year-old man,” Leno said.  “The knife had been in there for three years.  Imagine that, the guy had a knife in his back for three years.  He must have worked at NBC too!  I couldn’t believe that!  I was stunned by that!”

In his second joke, Jay acknowledged that he had dinner with NBC executives Thursday night (including Robert Greenblatt, according to reports — the network programming boss who complained about Jay’s NBC jokes) in an effort to smooth out their differences:  “Now, have you heard about this alleged feud that I’m having with NBC?  I think it’s going to be OK.  This is real: I had dinner last night with a bunch of NBC executives.  To make it up to me, what they did, they are sending my wife and I on an all-expenses paid Carnival Cruise!  How about that?  So it looks like it’s going to be OK!  Fantastic!”

Wednesday, March 27

After taking a break from the NBC jokes for two days — Monday, March 25, and Tuesday, March 26 — Leno returned to the subject Wednesday night with two monologue jokes plus an additional joke included in the evening’s comedy segment.

The first monologue joke: “Folks, oh, my God, listen to this,” Leno said.  “Monday night the [NBC] prime-time shows ‘The Voice’ and ‘Revolution’ moved NBC into the No. 2 position.  You know what that means?  No. 2 — between Easter and Passover, this is truly the season of miracles!  We’re No. 2!  We’re No. 2!  Amazing! …  And I’ve been saying that for the last week, that NBC is a big No. 2!  Haven’t I been saying that?  Congratulations!”

The second monologue joke, delivered a few minutes later: “Speaking of T-Mobile,” he said (following a joke about a prison inmate who tried to smuggle a cellphone into a California prison for Charlie Manson), “they announced yesterday they are doing away with contracts.  So apparently they got the idea from NBC!  I’m not sure how that works!”

Here’s the bit he did in the evening’s comedy segment in which he joked that David Letterman is even older than him.  The bit was called “What’s Trending Tomorrow,” and it was a parody of what’s trending “today” on social media, with Jay pushing the subject forward to “tomorrow”: “Trending right now,” Leno said.  “Jay Leno beset by rumors he’s being replaced by a younger host [a picture of Jimmy Fallon was then shown on a screen behind Jay].  Trending tomorrow … David Letterman also being replaced by a younger host …  [then a photo of Leno himself was shown]!  Yeah!  Yeah! There you go!” Leno said.  “I like that one!  that was a fun one.”

Thursday, March 28

Only one joke on this show — a monologue joke that referred to the way Jay perceives he’s being covered in the media: “Paleontologists in Germany say a 30-foot dinosaur called the ankylosaurus probably had a six-foot long penis.  A six-foot long penis.  Now I understand what the critics are talking about when they call me a dinosaur!  This is what they …  It was actually a compliment!”

Monday, April 1

Two monologue jokes, starting with: “Before we get started,” Leno said, “let me say that NBC and I have reached a peaceful, amicable agreement that will be beneficial to both sides … April Fools! It will never happen!”

Then, later: “Well, during his meeting with [new Pontiff] Pope Francis last week, Pope Benedict, the outgoing Pope, said that he would spend his retirement hidden from the world … unless of course he gets a better offer from the Fox Network! Then he might move!”

And the show ended with that much talked-about duet between Leno and Jimmy Fallon — sung to the tune of “Tonight” from “West Side Story.”


Huge trap that could snare Kimmel: His big mouth

Jimmy Kimmel with sidekick Guillermo Diaz on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." (Photo: ABC)

Jimmy Kimmel with sidekick Guillermo Diaz on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” (Photo: ABC)


NEW YORK, Jan. 8, 2013 — Nobody likes a big mouth.

And suddenly, Jimmy Kimmel has grown the biggest mouth in show business.

And he’s been shooting it off at just the wrong time too — just when he’s on the verge of a high-profile switch to an earlier time slot where he (and more importantly, ABC) hopes to win new fans.

For some reason, Kimmel has adopted a bizarre strategy for his assault on the 11:35 p.m. hour that consists of two parts that are diametrically opposed.

One part seems to be: Attack Jay Leno without mercy.

And the other part is: Kiss up to David Letterman — also without mercy.

The problem is: Both tactics are tanking.

Kimmel’s attacks on Leno — who has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from a standup-comedy style that Kimmel apparently doesn’t care for — make Kimmel seem like a jerk.  It’s doubtful his attacks will persuade anyone to ditch the “Leno” show in favor of “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

And his kissing up to Letterman has only succeeded in making Letterman squirm every time he encounters him.

Ever since last summer, Kimmel’s been on an anti-Leno tear, starting with the f-bomb he dropped in August at the mere mention of Leno’s name during a public appearance in New York.  Then there have been all the subsequent instances — particularly in recent weeks — when Kimmel seemed to go out of his way to tell interviewers that he dislikes Leno, disrespects Leno’s comedy, and derisively compares Leno to “Jason,” the unkillable psycho-killer from the “Friday the 13th” movies.

CLASS-LESS ACT: Cheeky Jimmy Kimmel, on the cover of Rolling Stone, positions himself to compete with Leno and Letterman.

On the cover of Rolling Stone, cheeky Jimmy Kimmel positions himself to compete with Leno and Letterman.

In his most recent attack, in the cover-story interview he gave Rolling Stone magazine, Kimmel inexplicably accused Leno of “selling out,” and boldly declared that Leno hasn’t “been a good stand-up in 20 years.”  Selling out?  The only things Leno seems to sell out are clubs, casino venues, theaters and playhouses across the United States.   As for Leno’s abilities as a stand-up, the 3.3 million people who watch his monologues every night on “The Tonight Show” — as well as those who buy all the tickets to see him perform — would seem to disagree with Kimmel.

As a matter of fact, Kimmel’s boyhood (and, apparently, adulthood) idol David Letterman disagrees with Kimmel too.  Letterman told Oprah Winfrey in the interview that just aired last weekend on OWN that Jay Leno is “the funniest guy” that Letterman has ever known.  “Just flat out,” Letterman stated unequivocally in the Oprah interview, “if you go to see [Leno] do his night club act, [he’s] just the funniest, the smartest — wonderful observations — and very appealing as a comic.”

What does Letterman think of Kimmel?  “He’s a nice kid,” Letterman answered condescendingly when Charlie Rose asked him about Kimmel in the interview they did last month.  A “nice kid”?  If that wasn’t an outright dismissive assessment of Kimmel, then it was at least a sign that Letterman hasn’t spent more than 30 seconds thinking about Kimmel in his entire life.

Letterman acknowledged that “nice kid” Kimmel has been nice to him.  “[He’s] been very gracious to me to the point where it’s made me self-conscious,” Letterman told Rose.

Indeed, Kimmel’s gushing over Letterman made Dave visibly uncomfortable when Letterman was Kimmel’s guest on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in October in Brooklyn.  Then, when Kimmel saluted Letterman at “The Kennedy Center Honors” in Washington last month — with his stories about his adolescent worship of Letterman — a CBS camera caught Dave grimacing.

As for Kimmel’s intense dislike of Leno, the world is still waiting to hear a credible answer to a key question: Why?  I asked Kimmel that question in a conference call last month and you know what his answer was?  He didn’t like the way Jay won “The Tonight Show” back in ’92, beating out Kimmel’s idol — Letterman — for the job.

Here’s what Kimmel said that day: “For me, when the book ‘The Late Shift’ came out [New York Times reporter Bill Carter’s 1994 book about Leno and Letterman’s battle to succeed Johnny Carson], I realized that Jay had schemed to take something from someone that I admired.  I mean, that’s what did it for me, I guess.”

To which I wish I would have said: Jimmy, you’ve got to be kidding me.  What do you care about the battle over the “Carson” show when even Jay and Dave have put it behind them?  It’s old news.

The bottom line is this: The “Kimmel” show still lags far behind Jay and Dave in the ratings.  For the fourth quarter of 2012, the average nightly viewership for each of them was: Leno, 3.5 million; Letterman, 3.1 million; and Kimmel, 1.9 million.

On Tuesday night, Kimmel joins the 11:35 battle against two guys who have been doing it a lot longer than he has.  At its very foundation, the battle is about likability.  But Kimmel — with his attacks on Leno and his sophomoric brown-nosing of Letterman — is looking very unlikable at the very moment when he desperately needs to be liked.


Kimmel vs. Fallon: A tale of two Jimmies

Jimmy Fallon

NEW YORK, April 20, 2011 — Someday, all late-night hosts will be named Jimmy.  But until then, we’ll settle for the two we have now – Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, who just happen to be doing the brightest shows in late-night.

And we can’t help but be fascinated that both of these guys are named Jimmy, which is pretty incredible when you consider that there aren’t that many late-night hosts to begin with.

How many?  Let’s count ’em off: Dave, Jay, Conan, Craig (Ferguson), George (Lopez), Jimmy (Fallon) and Jimmy (Kimmel).  That’s seven male late-night personalities hosting “traditional” late-night shows (which is why we’re leaving out Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert) and two of them are named Jimmy.  Or, to put it another way, nearly 29 percent (more than a quarter, almost a third!) of all male late-night hosts are named Jimmy.

Moreover, the two Jimmies compete against each other, but only for 25 minutes – which means that, when you’re deciding between the two, it comes down to choosing (roughly) the first half of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” on NBC (12:35-1:35 a.m./11:35-12:35c) over the second half of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on ABC (midnight-1 a.m./11c-midnight).

Jimmy Kimmel

Adding to the vexation: The two Jimmies are eerily similar and yet, at the same time, they’re so so different!

Did you know that both Jimmies were born in Brooklyn?

Kimmel, a Scorpio born on Nov. 13, 1967, is 43.  He and his family moved to Las Vegas when he was nine.  Fallon, a Virgo, is 36.  He was born on Sept. 19, 1974.  He and his family moved to the town of Saugerties in upstate New York when he was little.  And get this: The fathers of both Jimmies worked for IBM (according to Wikipedia).  Coincidence?!  Probably.

Of course, both Jimmies grew up to become late-night talk-show hosts.  And, while Kimmel’s been at it longer, both Jimmies got their late-night gigs at around the same age.  Kimmel was 35 when he got his show in 2003 after ABC enticed him away from “The Man Show” on Comedy Central.  Fallon became host of NBC’s “Late Night” at age 34 in March 2009 after Conan O’Brien left to take over “The Tonight Show.”

Here in the present day, the two Jimmies are scoring very similar ratings.  In the most recent late-night ratings report – for the week of April 4-8, Kimmel had a slight lead, attracting an average of 1.789 million viewers each night, compared to Fallon’s average of 1.675 million.  One reason Kimmel was out ahead: His lead-in, “Nightline,” beat Fallon’s lead-in, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” that week in the nightly total-viewer count.

But that’s where the similarities seem to end.  Kimmel’s rise in show business differed markedly from Fallon’s.  Before co-hosting “The Man Show” with Adam Carolla, Kimmel was Ben Stein’s sidekick on the old Comedy Central quiz show “Win Ben Stein’s Money.”  Fallon, of course, came up via “Saturday Night Live,” where he appeared from 1998 to 2004, then left NBC to star in a string of movies.

The two Jimmies have both coasts covered.  Kimmel’s doing “Jimmy Kimmel Live” from the heart of Hollywood.  His greatest talent – other than affecting a relaxed, unruffled and slightly disheveled demeanor every night – is his ability for making A-list friends in Hollywood and then recruiting them to participate in his most elaborate bits (“The Handsome Mens Club,” “Hottie Body Hump Club,” “The King’s Speech” spoof he did on Oscar night with Mike Tyson, and many others).

Fallon’s hosting NBC’s “Late Night” from the heart of Manhattan – at NBC’s storied headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.  He possesses basic performing skills that Kimmel lacks – most notably Fallon’s musical ability and a talent for impersonation (though possessing these skills has never been a requirement for hosting a late-night show).  It’s a matter of individual taste, but we happen to think Fallon’s extremely likable.  And we love the bits he and his writers have developed – “Thank You Notes,” “Robert Pattinson Is Bothered” and many others.  And we love Fallon’s band, The Roots.

So who’s the best Jimmy in late-night?  We reported, now you decide!


End of an era as late-night TV grows on cable

NEW YORK, April 12, 2010 — It’s the end of the world as we know it.

TBS’ decision, announced today, to mount two back-to-back late-night shows on weekday evenings means we’ve reached another one of those watershed moments in the evolution of cable TV’s long effort to even the playing field with the old broadcast networks.

Have you heard? Conan’s going to cable.

Once upon a time it would have been unthinkable:  Two hours of original late-night talk and comedy on a basic cable channel — a two-hour block of programming that for years was something only a broadcast network could afford to do.

Not anymore.

By signing former NBC star Conan O’Brien and pairing him with George Lopez, TBS is signaling that the era of late-night dominance by the likes of NBC and CBS is over.  TBS is saying: We can do it too — we have the distribution, the money (via advertising and subscriber revenue), the audience numbers, the channel positions and the know-how to do what the old guard can do.

Imagine it: Here’s this cable network that traffics almost exclusively in reruns of old sitcoms, running hour upon hour of them — “The Office,” “Family Guy” and “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” some “Seinfeld” and heaven knows what else.

And yet, despite this cable channel’s paucity of original anything, its analysis of the TV landscape has revealed that the time is right to take on the biggest, most established TV networks in late-night TV, and not with half-hour satires such as “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report,” or with a single hour either.  No — TBS plans on taking on CBS and NBC with two hours of traditional television: Personality-hosted late-night shows with monologues and celebrity guests — the kinds of shows seen since the dawn of time only on the so-called “big” networks (and only on CBS since 1993).

Over the years, the cable networks grew and the broadcast networks shrank.  Now, in the wake of Conan O’Brien — a network TV stalwart — deciding to stake his future on cable, you might say they’re all pretty much the same.


Leno fan’s desperate plea: Show us the funny!

JAY IT AIN’T SO! Something’s missing from Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” monologues lately — comedy!

NEW YORK, March 19, 2010 — As the unappointed representative of millions of Jay Leno fans, I have to ask NBC: What have you done with our Jay?

Hey, I know no one elected me spokesman for the entire Leno nation, but I’m certain I’m not the only die-hard Leno fan who’s been watching him since his (rightful) return to “The Tonight Show” and wondering if somewhere between losing “The Tonight Show” the first time and then flopping earlier this season at 10 p.m., Jay and his writers have forgotten how to write a funny monologue.

And they’d better relearn how to write one — fast.  Ever since Jay returned to “Tonight” on March 1, I’ve detected that something was off, but I did not pinpoint the problem until this week.  And lo and behold: It’s the monologue, for 17 years the most important and easily the most popular portion of Leno’s “Tonight Show.”

The Leno monologue must be seen as the principal driver of Leno’s dominance of late-night TV at least from 1995 (when he first passed Letterman) to 2009, when Conan O’Brien replaced him.  Here was this mainstream comedian, one of the best-liked personalities on television, whose sole talent lies in the swift delivery of jokes, one after another, with set-ups and hilarious punchlines.  To take advantage of this talent, the Leno monologue became the longest in late-night — 10, 12 or 15 minutes long — and the monologue’s effectiveness would determine whether viewers would stick around for subsequent segments or drift elsewhere.

Well, lately, I find myself drifting elsewhere as Jay offers this weakened version of a monologue that was formerly one of the most dependable things you could look forward to watching on TV night after night after night.

You can tell Leno’s monologue has weakened by listening to the reaction of his studio audience.  Lately, laughter is more often than not supplanted by applause, the reaction by which comedy audiences register their recognition of the situation a comedian has set up or observed.  Such applause — known to comedians as “mercy applause” — shows the audience  politely “appreciates” the attempt at humor and even likes the comedian personally — in this case, Jay — though they don’t find his observations particularly clever, illuminating, surprising or funny.

With a weaker monologue, Leno’s new show is a weaker “Tonight Show” than it was in the era before the insertion of Conan O’Brien interrupted Leno’s flow.  This situation likely explains why Leno has not yet won back the ratings he once enjoyed at 11:35 p.m.  In addition, the studio in which Leno is performing — the one left over from the failed 10 p.m. experiment — lacks the intimacy of his former surroundings on “Tonight.”  This studio was always too big, the stage and audience bleachers so wide that Leno seems a mile away from portions of his audience (and also from his band and Kevin Eubanks, Leno’s nominal sidekick who is now situated so far away that he hardly seems part of the show).  In fact, a similar studio and set arrangement was a problem for Jay in the first years after he took over “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson.  When NBC designed a more intimate scenario for him, he blossomed.

Job one for Leno and NBC in these first weeks back on “Tonight”: Fix this monologue situation soon or “The Tonight Show” will be permanently damaged.


Andy Richter on NBC and Leno: Yes, I’m angry

Candid Andy: Andy Richter spoke out about NBC and “The Tonight Show” this morning on “Live! with Regis and Kelly.”

NEW YORK, March 9, 2010 — Andy Richter emerged this morning as the first member of Team Conan to speak out publicly since NBC canned his pal Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show.”

Richter’s opportunity came on “Live! with Regis and Kelly,” where Richter was subbing for Regis Philbin, who was on vacation.

Kelly Ripa dove right into the topic of NBC’s late-night debacle at the top of “Live” this morning.

“It’s a big thrill for us to have you here,” Ripa told Richter.  “I feel like you are the ‘get’ of the century right now.”

In reply, Richter, O’Brien’s sidekick and announcer on the ill-fated Conan “Tonight Show,” confirmed this was his first appearance on TV and first chance to speak out on the subject since the show ceased production in January.

“And I actually can be on TV,” Richter noted, “Conan can’t . . . In fact, I’m not even sure I can say his name.  I may be getting him in trouble for just saying his name.”

“Does that mean you didn’t get the big money [referring to the multimillion-dollar severance package reportedly negotiated by Conan’s reps when he exited NBC]?” Ripa asked.

“Conan is putting a lot of his own money out there,” Richter said, explaining that most of the Conan “Tonight Show” staff did not receive generous severance packages.  “[Conan] formed a little corporation just to pay people,” he said.  “All these people moved from New York to California to be on the show and a lot of the people, they’re robbed of their contacts and so even in a downtime like this they don’t have the contacts that they would have here on the East Coast to go get work elsewhere.  . . . Now they’re in Los Angeles with lots of skills in a television town and not really knowing a lot of people there.”

Richter revealed that he’s OK financially, at least for now, because he’s “still actually under contract at NBC for a while — not on the air, but I’m still an employee.”

“So what do they have you do now — cleaning up the office and stuff?” Ripa asked.

“No, in fact it was ‘We need your ID!’ It was like that, yeah,” he said, describing the way he and other show staffers got the heave-ho.  “We had a week or so to pack up and clear out.”

Not surprisingly, Richter said he was as surprised as anyone else on the Conan “Tonight Show” that NBC had decided to halt the program.  Indeed, he felt he was set for life.  “I thought, ‘I’m on “The Tonight Show”!’ That’s as good as it gets in show business.  I’m a tenured professor of show business now!”

Getting to the heart of the matter, Ripa asked him, “Do you have any ill feelings toward NBC and Jay [Leno]? Not that you’re going to be honest . . .”

But Richter was honest.  Said he, “Um, yes!  Yes, I do.  Why wouldn’t I?  NBC, definitely . . .  Everybody said they were going to do something and then they didn’t.  They all said years ago, ‘We’re going to do something’ and then they didn’t.”

Ripa asked him if the difficulty of producing a new “Tonight Show,” starring Conan and his team, was compounded by NBC’s decision to place, essentially, another late-night-style show — “The Jay Leno Show” — at 10 p.m. weeknights.

“It was very difficult,” Richter said.  “I don’t think it was a good plan.  There was a lot of planning that was done that was very short-sighted.”

Ripa also asked Richter about the rumors that a Conan stage show was being organized for a summer tour.  “It’s a possibility, a distinct possibility,” Richter said.


Five ways to fix NBC: All Jay Leno, all the time!


Jay Leno: From Most Valuable Player to Only Valuable Player.

NEW YORK, Jan. 29, 2010 — Not that anyone from NBC has called and asked, but in case they do, I have five helpful suggestions to get NBC on its feet again — and each of these ideas have one thing in common: Jay Leno!

1) Jay Leno at 10 p.m. and 11:35 p.m.: Hey, why not?  Aspects of the 10 p.m. plan still make sense, if NBC is still hellbent on saving money on prime-time shows.  And Leno is their guy.  Got a problem at 10?  Call Jay Leno.  Need him to come back and stop the bleeding on “Tonight”?  Just call Jay.  He’s such a workhorse, he’ll do anything to help NBC, even host two shows every night!

2) The NBC Nightly News with . . . Jay Leno! Sure, serious news guy Brian Williams can still have his oh-so important newscast every evening — but only if he agrees to move the newscast a half-hour later, so Jay can do a half-hour “newscast” of his own — a fun-filled half-hour of topical monologue jokes and hilarious pretaped comedy bits derived from the day’s biggest news stories.  Tell Brian he can still handle the serious side of the news, if only to keep him from going to another network.  Hey, everyone knows the nation gets its real news from Jay Leno anyway — this just makes it official!

3)  Jays of Our Lives: Freshen up this aging afternoon soap opera with a new character, a television personality embroiled in his own long-running soap opera — Jay Leno as himself!  In this new storyline, which could run for five years or more, Jay plays a successful comedian who manages to maintain the highest ratings in late-night as host of the show that represents the pinnacle of achievement in the comedy business.  Everything’s going well until NBC decides to replace him in five years with a brash newcomer.  Get ready for a bumpy ride!

4) The Today Show with Jay Leno: Why not launch a fifth hour of “Today” starting at 11 a.m. and let Jay do for mornings what he did for late-night — keeping NBC No. 1 (until the network decides idiotically to yank him from mornings too).  In this fun-filled hour, Jay delivers his first topical monologue of the day, riffing on the morning’s headlines and parodying the newsmaker interviews seen on the first two hours of “Today.”  If you liked Jay feuding with David Letterman in late-night, just wait ’til he and Barbara Walters go at it at 11 o’clock in the morning!

5) The Jay Leno Channel (JLC):  It’s no secret — NBC is staking its future on cable television and this new all-Jay-all-the-time cable network fits right in with NBC’s strategy of relying solely on Jay Leno to keep the company afloat.  Package scores of his old monologues into “Best of” retrospectives, play every old movie in which Jay appears — from “Major League II” to “Space Cowboys” — have Jay host everything from cooking shows (“Iron Chef” hosted by “Iron Jay”?) to late-night infomercials.  He’s the hardest-working man on NBC’s payroll and now, this new destination on cable ensures that NBC gets its money’s worth from its most loyal — and valuable — soldier.  Who else?  Jay Leno!


Conan, standard bearer for ‘youth,’ is an aging 46

Conan O’Brien: Wish him luck.

NEW YORK, Jan. 25, 2010 — Neil Young first recorded “Long May You Run” 34 years ago, in 1976.

He performed the song last Friday on Conan O’Brien’s final “Tonight Show.”

It’s a great song, but a pretty old one, the equivalent of performing a song from 1944 on “The Tonight Show” of 1976.  In 1976, Conan was 13.

In liner notes on the 1977 compilation album “Decade,” Young wrote that “Long May You Run” was a song about a car and a woman.

“‘Long May You Run’: A song written for my first car and my last lady,” Young wrote. “As Dylan says, ‘Now that the past is gone’ [from Dylan’s “Wedding Song”].”

Search for information on the Web about the car and the story behind it and you will find endless debates about which car (two hearses — one a Buick, the other a Pontiac — are in contention), whether the song’s subject is a car or a motorcycle, and what the lyrics mean, the usual inconclusive Google search.

However, it is clear the song was not written about a late-night talk-show host, though some of its lyrics were adaptable to the situation in which Young performed it on Conan O’Brien’s final “Tonight Show” last Friday (the lyrics include, “We’ve been through some things together, with trunks of memories still to come. We found things to do in stormy weather, long may you run.”).

The song is a classic example of what used to be known as “album rock,” but today, if categorized for radio play, it would be classified as “classic rock,” basically, an oldie, but not as old as the more traditional “oldie” — more likely a Top-40 pop song from the 1950s or ’60s.

Will Ferrell singing “Free Bird” on Conan’s last “Tonight” show.

The same can be said for “Free Bird,” the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic first recorded 37 years ago, in 1973.

Conan’s last “Tonight Show” closed with “Free Bird,” sung by Will Ferrell, backed up by The Tonight Show Band, and assisted on guitars by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top (another icon of classic rock), Beck and, impressively, Conan himself.

When Young finished singing “Long May You Run” and Conan came over to greet him, Young, 64 and as much a “classic” as anyone, told Conan he came on the show to support him because of all that Conan had done over the years for the exposure of new music.

You might not have heard it; Young said it rather softly and it was partially drowned out by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction to Young’s performance (and, apparently, you can’t try and hear what Young said now, since it looks as if NBC has barred video of the performance from being posted on YouTube though it could be found there throughout the weekend).

Conan’s emphasis on emerging music acts has been his pattern over the years, particularly on “Late Night,” where music bookings tended toward artists on the way up who hadn’t quite gotten there.

And yet, when it came time to load up on the sentiment on his final “Tonight Show,” Conan revealed a personal preference for the classics, which would tend to separate him from the younger fans who showed their love for him in the waning weeks of his “Tonight Show.”

The fact is: Conan O’Brien is 46 years old. It’s a funny age for show business, especially for the way show business, or the television version of show business, is now constituted.

At 46, he’s a little old to be considered “young.” Though he’s not yet 50, he is too old to comb his hair into a point at the center of his scalp, or wear a backward cap, or go self-consciously unshaven, or wear intentionally faded jeans with an untucked shirt.

This is the outfit worn by “young” TV personalities and movie stars these days — on MTV, on the talk shows when they appear as guests, or in commercials for computers, cellphones, fast-food chains and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Moreover, at age 46, how much longer can Conan get away with the kind of sophomoric comedy that’s better suited for younger personalities?

At some point, Conan’s going to have to reinvent himself as a more mature performer capable of evolving a persona that will be seen as hip enough to continue drawing younger fans, while, at the same time, retaining his many other fans who will inevitably age along with him.

David Letterman, 63, enjoys a reputation for accomplishing this feat — the aging crank who nevertheless possesses a subversiveness that is supposedly still attractive to younger viewers.  However, reputations are often inaccurate.

The truth was: Jay Leno, now 59, had better younger demographics than Letterman when Leno hosted “The Tonight Show.”

And Leno’s younger demos weren’t that much worse than Conan’s.

I can remember seeing Leno perform in Atlantic City a few years back, and most of his audience was composed of extremely worshipful college kids, among whom he apparently has a huge following, whether erudite critics in New York and L.A. care to accept it or not.

Ultimately, a great scenario for Conan — given the caveat that nothing at all is certain in show business in general or late-night television in particular — is that, in a few years, he may be in a position to take over for Letterman.

The odd thing is, he might then be competing with an aging Leno, and he, Conan, just might beat him.


Fired, but still on? You’ve got to be kidding me!

Enough already: NBC should have muzzled Conan, but instead, they’ve allowed him to hammer them night after night.

NEW YORK, Jan. 22, 2010 — Where, oh, where are the broadcasting executives of yesteryear, the ones who would never tolerate wayward air talent who would use their airwaves to brutally lambast their own stations or networks?

If they had the opportunity to watch Conan O’Brien blasting NBC left and right these last two weeks on “The Tonight Show,” those execs — the ones from an era long ago, who weren’t afraid to exercise their power, and who regarded air talent as children in need of adult supervision (and discipline) — wouldn’t recognize their business today.

Sure, Conan’s nightly battle of wits with NBC has fueled a sharp (and much-needed) uptick in the ratings for “Tonight” these last two weeks or so.  But at what cost?  The accumulation of hard-edged humor, emanating from their own stages and skewering NBC management night after night, has only succeeded in planting an image in the public brain of a giant communications company in chaos, whose managers are so ineffective that a guy they fired is allowed to continue appearing on their air, spending their money and impugning their reputations.

Hey, it’s not that I have sympathy for TV executives.  Indeed, I’m having as much fun as everyone else watching them get splattered with mud every night.  It’s just that I keep returning to the same thought: What is wrong with this picture?

I can still vividly recall the time nearly 20 years ago when one of CBS’s highest-ranking execs, a division president,  schooled me in the ways of managing broadcast talent over lunch in his private dining room at CBS headquarters.  I had asked him what he thought of Howard Stern, who was then in the first years of his growing notoriety as the nation’s foremost practitioner of what would come to be labeled “shock radio.”

“Children,” this executive said dismissively, frowning between bites of his lunch.  “Air talent – they’re all children.  And that’s how you have to treat them.  Like children.”

And I can remember when fired air personalities were really fired.  Once upon a time, tradition held that, once they were fired, air talent was barred from the facilities, lest they engage in malicious mischief detrimental to the company.  This custom was most notable in the radio business, owing to a handful of occasions when fired disc jockeys returned to work, locked themselves in their studios and would then play a record such as “Feelings” or “You Light Up My Life” as many consecutive times as they could before private security or the police were able to dislodge them.

What is the problem with these NBC executives who are permitting Conan O’Brien to whine and complain every night on their network and on their dime?  And why are they letting him have a “farewell” broadcast?  Maybe NBC management felt that, if they abruptly shut down production on O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” last week, when he informed them he would not accept a “Tonight Show” starting at 12:05 a.m., that they and their company would take some sort of bath in the media and in the court of public opinion.

But it would have been no worse than what has happened as a result of allowing O’Brien to continue.  And at least the people running NBC would look like they possessed backbones, and were really in charge of their company, if they’d shown Conan the door instead of seeming to grant him carte blanche to wage a public war on them at their expense.

As things stand now, tonight’s farewell show will likely be the highest-rated of O’Brien’s entire, short-lived tenure on “The Tonight Show,” which possibly sets him up nicely to become established on a competing network by next fall.


How Edd Hall wound up in Dave’s anti-Jay promo


He’s Edd Hall.

NEW YORK, Jan. 20, 2010 — Jay Leno’s former announcer, Edd Hall, insists he’s not carrying any grudges against Leno and NBC.

But he doesn’t exactly feel warm toward them either, Hall indicated in his first interview today (1/20/10) since he lent his voice to a David Letterman comedy bit that skewered Leno on Letterman’s “Late Show” Tuesday night.

In the bit — a 30-second parody promo spot ballyhooing Leno’s return to “The Tonight Show” — Hall’s exuberant announcer’s voice was heard reciting copy that accused Leno of stealing comedy bits from Letterman and Howard Stern.

“Hey, late-night fans!” Hall announced, as videotape and still pictures of Leno and “Tonight Show” bandleader Kevin Eubanks were shown on screen.  “In just a few short weeks, Jay Leno will be back where he belongs as host of ‘The Tonight Show,’ and all your favorite elements of Jay’s ‘Tonight Show’ will be back!  The phony handshakes!  The guy with the guitar [Eubanks] who laughs at everything!  The bit [Leno] stole from Letterman’s ‘Late Night’ show!  [Headlines from small-town newspapers are shown.]  The bit [Leno] stole from Howard Stern!  [‘Jay Walking’ image is shown.]  The announcer he stole from Howard Stern!  [Photo of John Melendez is shown.]”

The bit ended with Hall voicing the words for which he became famous when he was Leno’s announcer for Leno’s first 12 years on “Tonight”: “And me, I’m Edd Hall!”

In a phone interview from California today, Hall pointed out that he started his career as an NBC page in New York in 1979 and several years later, wound up working for “Late Night with David Letterman” as a graphics producer and occasional announcer for comedy bits, which is how he came to be hired for “The Tonight Show” when Leno took the show over from Johnny Carson.

Hall said he maintains close ties with friends in both the Leno and Letterman camps, though his sentiments seem to lean closer to the Letterman side these days.

“I like both of these guys,” Hall said.  “But look, NBC has made plenty of, shall we say, unusual decisions regarding late-night, and frankly, replacing me with John Melendez was one of them, so . . . I don’t feel the allegiance to Jay that I once did and I never left on bad terms with Letterman.”

Hall said he received a phone call from a Letterman producer at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday (Pacific time) to ask Hall if he would record a voiceover for that night’s show in about an hour.  Hall said yes, recording the voiceover locally (the rest of Tuesday night’s promo bit was produced in New York).

“It wasn’t a conscious decision to, you know, ‘Ooh, I’m gonna get Jay tonight with this one’,” Hall said.  “I had no problem with it.  It’s comedy.”

He reported that no one from the Leno show has contacted him to ask why he agreed to play a minor, but supporting role in Letterman’s stepped-up attacks against Leno.

“I have not [heard from Leno],” Hall said, struggling to explain his relationship with Leno and his producers and writers.  “[It’s] not that I left on any bad terms, but . . . they haven’t called me to do comedy bits.”

Hall said he’s done a number of such bits for Letterman’s people over the last few years, although this one, which was pretty pointed in its criticism of Leno and aired in the midst of the current storm roiling late-night TV, has attracted more attention for Hall than any of the others.  He revealed that he even did another one recently that is also related to the ongoing drama in late-night that has not aired yet.  He doesn’t know if it ever will.

“The thing is with these monologue bits is that they record about 15 or 20 of them and two air,” Hall explained.  “I’ve done a lot of them for them before that haven’t aired.”

The one that has not yet aired got Hall prepared for the second one.  Said he, “The idea was that they wanted a ‘Tonight Show’ announcer to do it, and so I knew what this was all about.”


Comedy Darwinism: Survival of the funniest

KINGS OF COMEDY: Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno on the premiere episode of NBC’s ill-fated “Jay Leno Show” last September.


NEW YORK, Jan. 19, 2010 — The most revealing commentary on the whole NBC/Leno/Conan mess came from Jerry Seinfeld.

It revealed all you needed to know about show business.

Seinfeld, who is so wealthy and successful that he can be as honest as he feels like, laid it on the line: Conan O’Brien wasn’t good enough, so he got yanked.

“What did the network do to him?” Seinfeld shot back when a reporter at the Winter TV Press Tour in Pasadena earlier this month probed for Jerry’s opinion on whether NBC wasn’t being fair to O’Brien.

“I don’t think anyone’s preventing people from watching Conan,” said Seinfeld, demolishing the complaint from Conan’s camp that poor lead-ins from local news and Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. show hurt the ratings for Conan’s “Tonight Show.”

“Once they give you the cameras, it’s on you,” Seinfeld said.  “I can’t blame NBC for having to move things around. I hope Conan stays — I think he’s terrific. But there’s no rules in show business, there’s no refs.”

The lesson learned?  Show business is a dog-eat-dog world.  And at the top of one segment of show business — the comedy business — there is only room for a few.  And those few are more likely to respect those who came up the hard way than those, like Conan, who didn’t.

Seinfeld happens to be one of the ones who paid his dues; Jay Leno is another, which might help explain why these two are friends, or at least as close to being “friends” as two people can be in their business, assuming they never wind up competing for the same thing, which hasn’t happened to them yet.

Conan O’Brien, a Harvard-educated comedy writer from “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live,” didn’t come up the hard way in the manner of Leno and Seinfeld.  They worked for years in malodorous comedy clubs — the places Seinfeld once characterized (in his 2002 documentary film, “Comedian”) as the “smelly gyms” of show business.

O’Brien didn’t rise through the ranks — he leapt over them when he was plucked from obscurity by Lorne Michaels to take over NBC’s “Late Night” when David Letterman left, one of the most unlikely and improbable lucky breaks ever recorded in the history of show business.

In the Darwinistic world of the comedy business, lucky breaks such as the one awarded Conan are an alien concept, which is why comedians such as Seinfeld and Leno will never admit a lucky break recipient such as Conan O’Brien into their exclusive circle.

In fact, if comedy has a hierarchy, Leno and Seinfeld are the business’ top dogs, measured especially by the yardstick that matters most, which is earning power.  They live in a rarefied world in which they two may be the only two residents.  Even Letterman, who paid his dues in the comedy clubs so many years ago, today eschews the live performances from which Seinfeld and Leno still make their bread and butter.

Seinfeld, swimming in residual money from the eternal rerun plays of his eponymous sitcom, and Leno, who makes so much money from live performances that he claims to bank his six-figure weekly paychecks from NBC and then never touches the money, are two peas in a unique pod.

Seinfeld was Leno’s first guest on “The Jay Leno Show” last September.  Seinfeld wore a tux, as if to say: Here at the pinnacle of show business, here is how we dress; it’s OK for the rest of you peons to go casual.  But not me.  (Leno wore his usual business suit and tie.)

Leno appeared in Seinfeld’s “Comedian” documentary and Seinfeld was Leno’s first phone call in 2004 when NBC proposed that he relinquish “The Tonight Show” to Conan O’Brien in 2009.  Seinfeld, playing the role of comedy godfather, apparently advised Leno to say yes.

“I called up my buddy, Jerry Seinfeld,” Leno said on “The Tonight Show” on Sept. 27, 2004, explaining why he agreed with NBC’s plan to replace him in five years with O’Brien — the news of which had broken earlier that day.

“I said, ‘Jerry what do you think?’ . . .  Jerry quit his show when it was the most popular, and I’m proud to say [“The Tonight Show’] show has been No. 1 and we’ll keep it No. 1 and then in ’09 I’ll say, ‘Conan, take it over, it’s yours,’ ’cause, you know, you can do these things until they carry you out on a stretcher or you can get out when you know you’re still doing good,” Leno said, the words seeming to pour out of him.

Carried out on a stretcher?  Dragged off by a team of wild horses was how Letterman put it back then when he commented on the transition plan two days later on his own show, “Late Show” on CBS.

“[Leno has] quit ‘The Tonight Show’,” Letterman said, setting up a joke.  “Jay Leno is leaving ‘The Tonight Show’ . . . He’s going to be gone in five years.  You know what this does?  It saves NBC the cost of a team of wild horses, that’s what that does!”

Now that Leno’s returning to “The Tonight Show,” NBC might have to reserve that team of wild horses after all.


New entry in the pantheon of network screwups

NBC late-night fiasco ranks high on select list of historic TV miscues


NEW YORK, Jan. 15, 2010 — More than one commentator has compared the NBC late-night fiasco to the ill-fated launch of “new” Coke in 1985 — an apt comparison since, in both instances, a huge corporation went overboard hyping a new product, only to have to backtrack later when the great new idea didn’t work.

So how does NBC’s Conan/Leno fiasco stack up against other infamous TV screwups?  When the smoke clears and TV historians are able to put this story into perspective, they just might conclude that it was, in fact, the greatest disaster in the history of  network television.

To help them out, I present this list of contenders for the network screwup crown:

I. “Dolly” (Sept. 27, 1987 – May 2, 1988): Dolly Parton’s Sunday-night (later Saturday-night) variety show represented ABC’s plan to revive the time-honored variety category.  The show never caught on but lasted an entire season anyway, mainly because ABC poured so much money into it, most notably paying Parton a non-refundable $44 million for two seasons — in advance.

II. “The Chevy Chase Show” (Sept. 7– Oct. 15, 1993): Legend has it that Dolly Parton suggested Chevy Chase to host Fox’s newest attempt to launch a late-night show after she turned it down.  Her suggestion led to the most notorious failure in late-night history (until recently).  With much fanfare, Fox bought and renovated a theater on Hollywood Boulevard for Chase, renaming it “The Chevy Chase Theater.”  Chase never looked comfortable or even the least bit happy hosting the show and he later admitted that he hated it.

III. “Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell” (Sept. 20, 1975-Jan. 17, 1976): Incredibly, if it weren’t for this failed effort on the part of ABC to capitalize on Howard Cosell’s notoriety by giving him an Ed Sullivan-esque prime-time variety show (originating from the Ed Sullivan Theater), the other “Saturday Night Live” on NBC might never have gotten its famous name (since Cosell’s show had it first) or its Not Ready for Primetime Players (Cosell’s cast, which included Bill Murray, Brian-Doyle Murray and Christopher Guest, was called the Prime Time Players).  Those of us old enough to remember this show can still recall the mountains of hype that would greet each episode, such as the show’s premiere, for which an appearance by the Bay City Rollers was billed as the second coming of the Beatles.  NBC’s “SNL” was called only “Saturday Night” until the cancellation of Cosell’s show allowed NBC to add “Live” to its show’s title.

IV: “Life with Lucy” (Sept. 20-Nov. 15, 1986): Lucille Ball was 75 years-old when she attempted this last, ill-advised comedy series on ABC.  I can still remember one episode in which the elderly Lucy was made to swing comically from a chandelier, a spectacle that instantly told me this show would soon be toast.  It was an embarrassing finale to a legendary career in television.

V: “Coupling” (Sept. 25–Oct. 23, 2003): This series would be forgotten as just another network TV failure — of which there are plenty every season.  But rarely, if ever, has a show sunk so quickly after coming to the air with as much hype as NBC attached to the launch of this remake of a sexually explicit sitcom from the United Kingdom.   The American version’s swift disappearance in fall 2003 after just four weeks (even “The Chevy Chase Show” lasted five) was breathtaking: In the end, 11 episodes of the American version were produced and only four aired.


NBC’s broken promise: We’ll give Jay a full year


Promises, promises: Jay Leno and Jeff Zucker



NEW YORK, Jan. 14, 2010 — It all seems now as if I dreamed it.

But I did not — I WAS there, in a small suite in a tiny boutique hotel no one had ever heard of before, about a half-block from Times Square, seated with a group of about a dozen journalists for an informal news conference with Jay Leno and his boss at NBC, Jeff Zucker.

Again and again, at this news conference hastily convened during network television’s upfront week last May, reporters asked Zucker: What is your network’s commitment to the new prime-time show Jay will be hosting weeknights at 10 o’clock?  The reporters asked this question repeatedly, in any number of various ways, and Zucker never wavered in his answer: The new “Jay Leno Show” would stay on the air for its first year at least, a 46-week run, without regard for ratings.  This was also the assurance the network gave Jay, repeatedly, including on that day, since Jay was there too.

In his many answers to essentially the same question, Zucker indicated that such a commitment was really the only way to handle a concept that was so new and different — basically a hybrid of a late-night talk show and an old-fashioned variety show, but airing five nights a week.

For NBC to learn if the concept would work, this show would have to run at least a year, Zucker explained, because the whole plan was based on the network’s belief that Leno’s show, with 230 new episodes produced per year, with no repeats outside of Leno’s six vacation weeks, would, at various times of year such as the summer, out-compete the other networks whose shows in the 10 p.m. time period would each only have 22 episodes.

To NBC, that seemed to mean that the Leno show would be well-positioned to win the time period in those many, many weeks when the competition was in reruns, or was using the 10-11 p.m. hour to try out various replacement shows.

And Zucker insisted that ratings, at least for that first 46 weeks, would not be a reason to yank the show.  However, that is exactly what has happened — low ratings are the reason NBC is shelving Leno’s 10 p.m. show, leading to the spectacle now on view in which the network tries to cram Leno and Conan both into late-night and, as a result of this bungled effort, might now lose one or both of them.

Zucker might have been sincere last May (and all the other times he repeated the same mantra in the months leading up to the debut of “The Jay Leno Show” last September).  Maybe the ratings really didn’t matter to him.  But apparently, the ratings do matter to NBC’s affiliates — a situation Zucker and the rest of his executive team seem not to have ever considered.  In hindsight, maybe they should have considered the possibility that affiliates would become disaffected if their late newscasts took a hit from Leno’s low lead-in numbers.

But affiliate displeasure of this magnitude is so unprecedented in network television that you can hardly blame the NBC execs for failing to plan for the possibility of an all-out affiliate rebellion in the event that Leno flopped.

On the other hand, their own company owns and operates a substantial station group whose managers might have sent a memo up to corporate at some point in the late-night planning process to ask if they should be worried about the health of their 11 o’clock newscasts.


Analyzing Conan’s letter: A deliberate jab at Jay?

Conan O’Brien: Fightin’ words

NEW YORK, Jan. 12, 2010 — Conan O’Brien’s open letter issued today to “People of Earth” contains a sentence that could be interpreted as a veiled dig at Jay Leno for placidly going along with NBC’s plan to move him back to 11:35 p.m. and thereby disrupt a traditional late-night lineup that has been in place for decades.

The line in question comes in the fourth paragraph of the letter, according to a copy of the letter reproduced on  “Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move ‘The Tonight Show’ to 12:05 to accommodate ‘The Jay Leno Show’ at 11:35,” Conan wrote.  “For 60 years, ‘The Tonight Show’ has aired immediately following the late local news.  I sincerely believe that delaying ‘The Tonight Show’ into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.  ‘The Tonight Show’ at 12:05 simply isn’t ‘The Tonight Show’,” Conan wrote.

And here’s the kicker: Writes Conan, “If I accept this move, I will be knocking the ‘Late Night’ show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot.  That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.”

Now, Conan doesn’t write the following, but he certainly could have, just after that sentence:  “And by extension, Jay Leno’s refusal to reject NBC’s plan to wedge a half-hour version of his own show between affiliates’ local newscasts and the proposed 12:05 a.m. start of ‘The Tonight Show’ means that Leno is a party to the network’s potential destruction of the revered ‘Tonight Show’ franchise.”

Or, to put it another way, in the very same language in which Conan voices his support for Jimmy Fallon and NBC’s “Late Night,” Conan could be implying: “If Jay Leno accepts this move, he will be knocking ‘The Tonight Show,’ which I inherited from him and he inherited from Johnny Carson, out of its long-held time slot.  That would hurt the NBC franchise I love — ‘The Tonight Show’ — and would be unfair to me.”

If Conan’s intention was to imply that Leno is not doing the right thing by acquiescing to NBC’s plan for a half-hour “Jay Leno Show” at 11:35, then Conan might have a fair point, self-serving though it may be.  Let’s face it, Conan has been host of “Tonight” for only seven months — too short a time to tell if he’s capable of restoring the show to its traditional No. 1 position in late-night.  Remember, it’s Leno, and his 10 p.m. show, who’s  getting cancelled due to ratings that have been so low that affiliates were in open revolt.  And when was the last time that ever happened?  A show has to be a pretty dismal failure for affiliates to get up in arms that way.

Maybe Leno should simply be asked to stand down, come what may.  And maybe NBC should simply honor its commitment to Conan.  The problem is: NBC execs have created a situation in which it’s probably too late to do either of these things.


No matter how you slice it, Conan got screwed

Conan’s the loser in this latest late-night story, though he doesn’t deserve to be. Jay Leno wins — again.

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.


Late-night twists and turns: NBC gets the bends

Chin music: Jay Leno laughs all the way to the bank while NBC squirms.

NEW YORK, Jan. 8, 2010 — A couple of things struck me in the last 24 hours or so as this story about NBC giving up on its Jay Leno experiment has gained steam.

First: You have to love a story that invites you to sit back and watch while a TV network and its executives contort themselves into pretzels in order to find their way out of the convoluted mess they made for themselves.

Just look at the plans being floated in all the press accounts today, based mainly on interviews with unnamed sources — all of them panicky execs putting out all kinds of scenarios that have NBC bending over backward to somehow accommodate both Jay and Conan.  This plan to run a half-hour “Jay Leno Show” at 11:35 p.m., followed by Conan’s “Tonight Show” at 12:05 is shrewdly calculated to please no one — not Jay (OK, maybe a little), not Conan (especially him), not Jimmy Fallon (whose show will then start a few hours before sunup), and not viewers.   Don’t you just love the TV business?

Second: Remember why NBC set this whole Jay-Conan thing in motion in 2004 in the first place?  The network said then it wanted to set the stage for a smooth transition on “The Tonight Show” that would prevent the outbreak of the kind of chaos that accompanied Johnny Carson’s retirement in 1992.

Well, nice try, NBC.  Despite your best efforts (or actually, because of them), the tumult in late-night, while different in its particulars this time around, is really on par with ’92-’93.  You have a network trying to juggle its top talent and keep them (if for no better reason than to prevent them from defecting to competing networks) — a task somewhat akin to a slow-witted kindergartner’s attempts to hammer a square block into a round hole.  And the whole thing — shifting Leno to and fro, moving Conan to 11:35 and then pushing him back a half-hour later — is wreaking havoc on the very people that matter most, the viewers, who have had to relearn their late-night viewing habits and will now have to relearn them again.

And third: What does this new drama say about the state of network television?  So-called “experts” have been telling us for several years that network television and its old-fashioned business model — you know the one: A network of affiliated stations covering 98 percent of the country all carrying the programming of a single over-the-air program provider — had at least one foot in the grave and at least a few toes of its second foot.

Then what happens?  A group of network affiliates — local stations that still “broadcast” the old-fashioned way and represent the very vanguard of what you might refer to as old TV media — still have enough juice to bring a network — NBC — to its knees and force changes that the network never dreamed it would have to make, at least not this soon and certainly not at the behest of a bunch of affiliates.


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