Friday, January 22, 2010

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien
June 1, 2009 - January 22, 2010

Dear Internet,

I'm not worried about Conan O'Brien. He and his staff will come out of this "fracas" with a hefty severance and a better gig at a vertebrate network.

The big tragedy is that - at least until Jay Leno's second tenure ends - I feel I can never watch The Tonight Show again. It sounds a bit hyperbolic, but at this moment it's how I feel.

The late night talk show circuit has never consistently been appointment television. You tune in when you want some white noise to fall asleep to or when there's a guest you want to see or when there's a big media story (like a presidential election or a host-swapping nightmare). For most of my lifetime, when I did sit down to watch network talk shows at 11:30, the choice was easy: Letterman, then Conan. Late Show, then Late Night.

But if I'm watching the talk shows and Leno has the more interesting guest or the better band playing, I'd switch over. Generally, Leno's Tonight Show fell somewhere between middling and cringe-inducing. There was no irksome pain quite like watching Leno interview an artist whose work I admire and treating them like a tabloid punchline or a sounding board for his lame, lame jokes. I'd still tune in, every once in a while.

The Tonight Show, even with Jay Leno as host, was still a sacred institution. For all the reasons that Conan outlined in his initial rejoinder to NBC's proposed time slot shift, it was a cultural benchmark, a rock-steady franchise, a lighthouse. A rare relic of a time long past that remained relevant almost in spite of itself.

Where I formerly would've occasionally sat through the sourness of Leno's style for the sake of the guest, I don't think I'll be able to anymore. Furthermore, with the astounding celebrity support Conan has been receiving, I wonder if Leno will even be able to get guests worth tuning in for (especially once The Conan O'Brien Show begins airing on Fox in October).

I'm not interested in getting into the conversation about why Jay Leno is so terrible - there are smarter and funnier pundits who have already said all that needs to be said. What's done is done. The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, which whenever I watched it (and I might've watched more often if I'd known) consistently delivered the snarky, silly spectacle we've all come to expect, is dead. And with it, even as O'Brien tried to save it, dies the franchise. The Tonight Show will be back on the air in March, but I can never watch it.

Farewell, Coco. We'll see you when we see you.

As for the zombified Tonight Show with Jay Leno: I will wait patiently for the Big Jaw to get replaced again and put down for good so I can allow that program and its legacy back into my heart.


  1. The Tonight Show will continue to get big guests by virtue of its location. Conan needs to stay in LA in order to give it any real competition, and he might not want to. I'm with you re: tuning Leno out forever, though.

  2. It's difficult to imagine THE TONIGHT SHOW not being a venue for A-Listers to plug their new projects.

    But then again, it's difficult to imagine the TONIGHT SHOW brand worth any less than it is now.

    You're right, though. If he intends to pick up the same format on a different network, he'll stay in Los Angeles (poor guy). If he goes back to New York in the same timeslot, he has to go up against Letterman for the guests.