Late Night Wars

Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, David Letterman and You

Leno reads the headlines.
Leno reads the headlines. (photo: Flickr/sgtgary)

Television’s “late night wars” are a big, too big, topic of conversation nowadays, and there are two questions I’d like to ask.

1. Why should anybody care? and

2. Come on. Admit it. Did anyone expect Conan O’Brien to be a good fit for the Tonight Show?

Do the two questions seem contradictory? They’re not.

First, the background: “The Tonight Show” went to Conan O’Brien, by contractural arrangement, seven months ago. NBC moved Leno to an earlier time slot with a random variety show that apparently didn’t do so well. O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” didn’t do so well either. Now NBC wants Leno back in the time slot he started at, and after trying to find a weasel way to do it without changing O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” contract will probably have to pay off O’Brien and give Leno the “Tonight Show” back, making Conan O’Brien the George Lazenby of late-night TV.

A few observations.

First, why should anybody care?

NOT because of the Tonight Show’s storied longstanding tradition. In TV, all that means is that the Tonight Show is almost at the level as “Guiding Light” and the “Hallmark Hall of Fame.”

NOT because of its content: Cheesy, inappropriate jokes and skits setting up irrelevant interviews promoting what media companies want you to buy.

No. It’s worth caring a little about because late-night TV is perfectly situated to perform what TV was originally made for: To while away a few moments at the end of the day when there’s (finally!) nothing else on your to-do list.

And late night TV is a good barometer of where the culture is, or where it will be. The attitude you find on late-night TV today is likely to be the attitude you’ll face next Thanksgiving or Christmas at family get togethers.

Any late-night comedian will:

• Make biting, mean and wounding jokes about George W. Bush and friends, and then to look bi-partisan make superficial, gentle and understanding jokes about Barack Obama (or, more likely, some lesser Democratic politician).

• Treat pro-family politicians’ and activists’ gaffes as defining and troubling and “progressive” politicians’ and activists’ gaffes as forgivable and fun.

• Say “Whatever” to sexual indiscretions by cool people (David Letterman, Hugh Grant, etc.) and go nuclear over the every indiscretion of the non-cool.

But given that all late-night comedians are caricatures of political correctness cleverly disguised as wisecracking commentators, there are a few differentiating characteristics between Leno and O’Brien.

• Jay Leno tended to be less crude. Conan O’Brien always seemed like the guy so hungry for a laugh he will settle for shocked laughs in a heartbeat.  He is the hypertalented guy who is always going for the crotch. He is to comedy performance what Michael Jackson was to pop performance.

• Jay Leno tended to be less cynical. In Leno’s signature bits he shared errors in headlines and classified ads, etc. O’Brien signature bit was Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. In other words, the butt of Leno’s humor is human foible, and the butt of O’Brien’s is humanity.

• Jay Leno seems like the affable, gentle-hearted guy everybody wanted to be friends with in high school. O’Brien seemed like the overeager, slightly obsessed guy who wanted to be everybody’s friend in high school.

My own preference would be to return to the old days of late-night TV where it truly was a place to while away some time. Remember back when Johnny Carson (who certainly had his share of inappropriate jokes, yes) would feature guests who weren’t doing much of anything but just happened to be good at chatting on the Tonight Show? People like Charles Nelson Reilly, Phyllis Diller, Dom DeLuise, Zsa Zsa Gabor and etc.

Nowadays the interviews are often cringe-worthy as these poor celebrities who happen to be in a hit movie try to connect in a format that is unkind to most people.