Conan: World Class Hair

Sam Hart

2010-01-12 22:49:57

This may be the most frivolous meaningful post I'll ever make...

When I was a kid, I fondly remember watching Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show with my dad. Carson's antics would always crack my dad up, and when my dad laughed everyone laughed. Carson's "Tonight Show" was one of a handful of "must watch" shows for me and my father which included Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, where my father would always make funny and inappropriate comments about whatever animal that was the subject of the episode, and The Carol Burnett Show. I can honestly say watching these shows with my father are some of my fondest memories of my early childhood.

As a teenager and later an adult I also grew to love Late Night with David Letterman, and it became a semi-nightly ritual to watch Carson followed by Letterman. When it came time for Carson to retire, I was anxious for Letterman to man the helm and subsequently pissed off when Leno took over. I'll admit that I stopped watching or caring about The Tonight Show at that point as I never really liked Leno's brand of humor and found him too often playing it safe, which I felt was a disservice to the legacy that Carson built up.

When Conan O'Brien took over Late Night, I'll admit I had an irrational prejudice against him because of the entire Leno/Letterman controversy. However, as the years went by, I found I was more and more interested in Conan's shtick than I had expected and eventually became a fan.

Then, this last year, it was announced that Leno would be leaving The Tonight Show and that Conan would step up as the new host. Leno was even quoted as saying he regretted the Leno/Letterman fiasco and wanted this transition to be as smooth as possible. He said:

"..A lot of good friendships were permanently damaged... Quite frankly, I don’t want to see anybody go through that again."

The way in which this transition was managed seemed very mindful of the problems from '92/93, and it gave me a lot more respect for Leno and his team than I previously had. It also made me interested in The Tonight Show again... I even dug the "Super Mario Brothers" set.

Well, Leno wasn't exactly leaving. Instead he was looking to make a new primetime show, which I felt was all well and good, and would serve his mediocre/safe humor quite nicely. So we got "The Jay Leno Show", and "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien". All was well in the world.

Or not....

Apparently, Leno's new show had pretty lackluster ratings. They weren't terrible exactly, but they weren't at all what NBC wanted (or apparently needed) for their precious primetime slot. In fact, they were so lackluster that it apparently caused a pretty sizable panic in the various sundry offices and boardrooms associated with NBC and The Jay Leno Show.

So, what happened next? Did Leno concede that this experiment was something of a failure and re-tool his shtick to attract more viewers? Did he accept that this failure may mean he should just take his millions and bow out of the business?

Nope. He decided he wanted his old slot back. He didn't want The Tonight Show, exactly, he just wanted his old time back. Move the Leno Show back to where The Tonight Show has lived for decades, and push The Tonight Show back. Oh, and move Late Night back too. Basically, jumble up the late-night formula to accommodate Leno's enormous... ahem... ego.

So, yeah... say you regret the Leno/Letterman fiasco and how "good friendships were permanently damaged" from it... Say you "don’t want to see anybody go through that again"... And yet do something even more dickish by trying an experiment, failing that experiment, then demanding your old slot again.

Dick move, Leno.

Well, apparently, Conan thinks it's bullshit too, and is willing to basically quit over it. In a letter released today he writes:

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.’

Rock on, Conan.

He's absolutely right on this. Doing this will utterly destroy this show. But, then again, this destruction is not new. Really, NBC set themselves on this path in the 90s when they picked the safe Leno over the more controversial Letterman. After more than 15 years of Leno, the show was hardly in the same condition it was when Carson left it. So, really, Conan was inheriting damaged goods.

Furthermore, the late-night kingly duo of The Tonight Show and Late Night had been usurped by upstarts on other channels. I'll readily admit that I'd rather watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report over NBC's late-night line-up any day of the week. So maybe there's not much life left in The Tonight Show and it should be put out of its misery. Maybe The Tonight Show is TV's "Terri Schiavo" :-)

Anyway, Conan gets my respect for putting his foot down on this matter. I honestly don't think it's any sort of power-play on his part (really, what power does he have? He's only been helming The Tonight Show for 7 months, and his ratings have been as mediocre as Leno's). I really think he is just trying to prevent a pretty serious injustice against a show which has a great legacy and, frankly, deserves better than this.

His letter in its entirety:

People of Earth:

In the last few days, I’ve been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I’ve been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I’ve been absurdly lucky. That said, I’ve been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my bosses are demanding an immediate decision.

Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in June of 2009. Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004 I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.

But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.

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. 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. Also, 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.

So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction. Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet a time slot doesn’t matter. But with the Tonight Show, I believe nothing could matter more.

There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next. My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.

Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair; it’s always been that way.