Friday, January 15, 2010

My take on Leno-Conan.

A lot of readers have asked my opinion of the Leno-Conan debacle. You mean, besides fire Jeff Zucker? Anyway, here’s what I think:

Jay was stupid five years ago agreeing to surrender THE TONIGHT SHOW. None of this would have happened if he didn’t say, “Hey, fuck you. I’m beating Letterman. Go away. I’ll leave when I’M ready to leave.”

Jeff Zucker has ruined everything hes touched at NBC. Under his stewardship they’ve gone from the number one network to somewhere below OXYGEN. His claim to fame is what, “supersize” episodes of JOEY?

Moving Jay to 10 and putting Conan in THE TONIGHT was the worst television decision in history. There’s nothing else that even comes close.

Making it worse, Zucker makes this bold move and obviously had no Plan B should it fail (despite everyone including people in foreign lands who don’t watch TV predicting it would).

Conan’s public letter was fucking brilliant. It showed conviction and class. Oh, and I agree with him.

Zucker compounded the damage by threatening legal action to keep Conan off the air if he doesn’t fulfill his contract. A) Good luck getting that past a judge, and B) Do you really want to put a guy on the air for an hour a night who doesn’t want to be there? For 3 1/2 years? How does this man keep his job???

This is such a fluid story that it’s hard to predict what will happen. But for my money, I say keep Conan where he is, hosting THE TONIGHT SHOW at 11:30. If he didn’t earn it before, he did this week with that letter. I’m guessing Johnny would be proud.

And Jay unfortunately becomes the odd man out. He’ll wind up at another network, make a gazillion dollars, and do just fine.

And when all the dust settles – Craig Ferguson will be the new king of late night.

That’s how I feel now. Come see me in ten minutes when everything changes.


Anonymous said...

Craig rocks. Always has. End of.

te said...

If you haven't seen Jimmy Kimmel -- first, his own show (this runs 45 minutes and is brilliant)

Then, on Jay's (six minutes and deadly):

Philosopher Pete said...

I'ld like to get Larry Sanders take on this.

Unknown said...

This one has a lot of angles and besides Jeff Zucker being a complete putz in the eyes of just about every one with a working brain in town, it falls a lot of ways.

It doesn't matter who hosts-I won't watch. I'm one of those people with a desire to have a life of my own and being someone with a good idea (several) looking to get into the industry it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to watch a show like this on a daily basis. On the other hand, compared to god awful crap like Oprah, these shows are pure gold.

Conan was worth watching the first few nights to see what he would do and to his credit some of the jokes are actually pretty funny and he knows how to set up and present comedy material in a much smoother and interesting fashion than Jay Leno. Leno is from minute one predictable and the lines can pretty much be telegraphed before they're delivered-he offers less from a creative standpoint then Conan and less than Letterman-but everyone in town has known that for years, too.

Letterman is right-"you break it, you buy it." If Conan goes to Fox or HBO (probably the best fit), no matter where, it's still Conan and will at least have some edge to make it worth watching.

I relentlessly bash Tila Tequila on her MySpace blogs and have for months-and I think Jay is kind of going the Tila Tequila route-that is to say, all the good will, all the hard work, everything he's put into creating a marketplace of Leno fans is in danger of being suffocated by the public perception he's not playing fair and is rather soulless (it's interesting to note he has no children and his main interest is automobiles-he may be a bit of a social recluse, in reality-it's obvious Jay has always, always, always put Jay first-you can't really do that with kids.)-anyway, the point is he's in the process of blowing all the good will he's created (as opposed to Tila Tequila just blowing anybody and anything)-the more people here about Leno in this fiasco, I think the more they are likely to come away with a negative view of him. And I think they're right.

Jay has definitely proven that he's out for Jay time and again-the writers strike thing being just one recent example.

I don't think he has the pull to continue to do well anymore-I think he's blown it and it's all down hill from here on. I would think Jay is better off taking his money and simply enjoying the rest of his life as much as he can. If public perception is important as a real factor to him when he does his job, then he's already lost that battle.

CrackerJacker said...

I think I pretty much agree with everything you just said, Ken. I guess the key part of this for me is that Jay went to the new show, and not only did it fail in the ratings, it felt like he was incapable of understanding why it was unsuccessful, and therefore how he could "fix" it. Patton Oswalt said the other day that Leno seemed very much like a guy who had won...but had no idea why he wanted to win it.

Personally I'm a fan of Conan and Ferguson, the rest quite frankly do nothing for me, and the idea of putting Leno's tired schtick back on the Tonight Show if nothing else ignores the simple fact that audiences change, and grow older. Returning to Jay just seems such a backwards move, but I say that as someone who never really "got" Jay Leno.

Having said all that, I find it weird that instead of talking about acts or shows, the big story we're all talking about here is a contract dispute, and the moronic, arrogant mismanagement of such a huge company. I guess 2010 begins the way 2009 did, in that way.

MrCarlson said...

I loved Jimmy Kimmel for what he did. That took guts. And Jay just stood there, and took it on his gigantic chin. Punch, Punch, Punch Punch. It hurt over here, and I'm writing from far away. He wasn't even bright enough to have a smart comeback for the punches, he just stood there and took it. the most we got out of him was a "I got you".

Ken, thanks for writing this, I wholeheartedly agree, and as Kimmel said "Jay, Conan and I have kids. you just have cars. Leave our shows alone". (funny AND true, my kind of comedy).

Hope your eyes become as sharp as your comedy again, Ken. Thanks for writing this.

Unknown said...

Yeah Kimmel hit one of the points I did and he's right-my understanding is that everyone else realizes Jay is a tool (it's mostly politicking that got him the job over Letterman although it certainly didn't help Letterman's case to be a dick to his NBC bosses at times) and all the rest of them-Letterman, Stern, Conan, Ferguson, Fallon and on and on know it it so they treat Jay with less than total respect which is what you saw Kimmel do well in that segment. Of course there are other tools in town-Seacrest and Daly come to mind-and Seacrest's treatment of his long term agent? Well that alone tells me everything I ever need to know about him...

Anonymous said...

But Jay's primetime show isn't his to fix--it's NBC's.
Conan isn't right for the time slot, and was better later, and still in NYC. I don't care that he's got kids--that's ridiculous, and I wasn't impressed by the "I want to feed my family", esp. after his letter.
I don't see why Jay has to be the bad guy when NBC f*cked up.

emily said...


- Edsel
- New Coke
- Leno at 10

Rob said...

The one thing that pleases me most about the Leno-Conan fallout is more and more people are finally beginning to discover the awesomeness and class that is TV's Craig Ferguson.

As Wavy would say, "Whatado ev'rbody!"

Welcome to the best kept secret in late night that is "Craig Ferguson's Comedy Playground". Guess you were stuck in really shitty traffic trying to get to the party here because many of us have been living it up with the Scotsman at 12:35a for quite a while.

Kevin B said...


I agree that Jeff Zucker has done an amazing job of completely ruining NBC. However, your roasting of Zucker makes me wonder if you worry about future working relationships? Do you (and David) still actively look for TV writing jobs?

I guess this could go under Friday Questions.

D. McEwan said...

The days when I used to respect Jay, both personally and professionally, and I did indeed respect him highly, now seem a dim memory of almost three full decades past.

That he would even consider accepting taking The Tonight Show back shows a want of class and feeling. None of these guys are going to miss meals. Jay has made enough to keep anyone alive and in luxury for three lifetimes, and Conan can't exactly be living paycheck-to-paycheck. But Jay took the deal. He moved on. Then he put on the crapola show he'd been doing to good ratings at 11:30, scrambled it up into a lamer show, put it on at 10, and it failed. To Jay, this is everyone's failure but his, as though putting on a good show that would attract, rather than repel, viewers wasn't HIS responsibility. Can he truly not see how badly his show sucks? Does he really think we want to see his guests race cars around a track in the parking lot? Do his monologue jokes have to still be aimed at his parents' generation?

As another poster accurately stated, Jay has made it clear that he's all about him. He doesn't need more money, but his need to always be the victor is obvious, and pathological. I remember when Jay and Dave were close friends, back before either of them had shows. We all watched Dave promote Jay for years, and give him a regular forum to strut his stuff, back when he had stuff to strut. And we all saw how little it meant to Jay in the crunch. (Helen Kushnick wasn't an accident.) Frankly, what I've been enjoying most is seeing how much Dave is relishing the whole situation. He's just plain gleeful.

I am no fan of Jimmy Kimmill, and I have never, despite repeated attempts, ever managed to make it through an entire episode of his show, but I watched him show brass balls last night, calling Jay on all his crap to his face, and Jay just standing there, pretending it was all scripted and rehearsed. (Then why hadn't you any scripted comebacks, Jay?) I was shocked, and highly impressed.

I do enjoy Craig Ferguson, who is so weird just rambling that it's always a let-down when he brings on a guest, but I can't really take a regular diet of him.

As for Conan. He's showing class for a man so infuriated. I don't know that his show will ever quite work as desired at 11:30, but he could prove me wrong over the long haul, if he's allowed the long haul he was promised. He did at 12:30.

I have no idea what Jimmy Fallon is doing with this. I haven't watched his show. Does anyone? Does Jimmy?

But isn't it nice to have someting utterly trivial like this public squabble among millionaires, to talk about? All the other news is so depressing.

te said...

D --
If you haven't, watch that Kimmel episode I linked above.

Oh, hell. Here is is, again:

He does the whole show as Leno, complete with bandleader repartee, musical flourishes, etc. And Chevy Chase, his guest, has some late-night experience, as well.

Jennifer F. said...

Excellent, I've been waiting to see your take.

My random observation is that this this whole debacle seems to have brought a lot of Craig Ferguson fans out of the woodwork. He still isn't mentioned, or is given the barest of mentions, in most articles about late night that I've read, but this tends to bring howls of outrage in the comments sections.

Personally, I love Craig too, but I've been watching Conan since I was fourteen and will follow him wherever he ends up. If he and Craig end up head to head in timeslots again, I'm going to have to break down and finally get a Tivo.

However much it might have been Conan's dream to host the Tonight Show, I think it makes the most sense for him to leave now. He's disavowed NBC a little too publicly to come crawling back, even if they do give him what he wants. Worst possible scenario for him is to then host the show at 11:30 after this highly publicized battle and still not get the ratings they want. The he'd really be damaged goods. Better to leave now with the public sentiment behind him and go somewhere where he'd have more creative leeway.

bettyd said...

I usually enjoy Jay, but haven't watched more than a few of his 10PM shows. I am not what you would call "cutting edge", so he suits me fine.

However, I think NBC should just cancel him and that's it. They should NEVER have suggested he go back to 11:30 - that ship has sailed.

I wonder if there is some contract stuff saying that if he failed, he'd get back the old job. If that is true, then Conan should have known this. But it seems that NBC had no plan B, so you are all right that Zucket is an idiot.

Jay, for once show a bit of class and take the high road. Say thanks for all NBC has done for you and your garage. You still have your Vegas act on weekends, so please support Conan and move on.

D. McEwan said...

"te said...
D --

Oh, hell. Here is is, again:

He does the whole show as Leno, complete with bandleader repartee, musical flourishes, etc. And Chevy Chase, his guest, has some late-night experience, as well.

Thanks te, but I saw enough of it in clips a day or so back. Nothing at this late date is going to make a Kimmell fan of me. Oh Chevy has late night experience, indeed, he has nearly a whole month of late-night talk show experience, remembering the crash-and-burn-in-record-time talk how he had one September. (Was it 15 years ago?) It's been 35 years since Chevy was edgy, and while I am enjoying COMMUNITY (My friend Jane Morris had an hilarious 15 seconds on it last night), it's in spite of Chevy, not because of him. The name Chevy Chase hasn't been an inducement to watch something to me since well-before JohnBelushi died.

But thank you anyway.

piledhighanddeep said...

Just read that Zucker and Conan have bad blood that goes all the way back to Yale, believe it or not.

If Zucker is really punishing Conan because of stupid shit done 25-plus years ago in college, he deserves to have his name permanently changed to begin with an F.

Alan Coil said...

I'm Team Conan.

V. Salt said...

Conan's an insanely talented writer, but I don't think he's capable of attracting the audience NBC wants for their marquee late night show. This week's ratings are a spike, not an upward trend. People are tuning in to see if he'll talk smack about NBC or Leno. But the story's getting boring, and unless he gets fired soon the audience will start tuning out.

Do you really think the FOX show will happen? Because after NBC affiliates revolted and took back 10, the idea that FOX affiliates would willingly give up two hours to put yet another talk show on the air seems far-fetched. HBO or Showtime is more likely.

You're right about Ferguson. He's the best on network TV, by far. Loose.

As for Kimmel's tirade - give me a break. Of course having children changes your life. Your life. But the idea that your children and your life choices should effect someone else's career decisions is ludicrous. And millionaire late night hosts and their well-paid writing staff don't get to play the poverty card, especially in a recession.

Brian Scully said...

I still miss Johnny Carson. Both Leno and Conan have always looked like 8 year old kids wearing their dad's suits when they host the show. And while I feel that Conan showed enormous class in that letter, it was the first time I saw even a glimmer of the talent and power of Johnny Carson in him. And Leno has been a pathetic joke from the first day 20 odd years ago. He pushed Johnny out before he was ready to leave and he dumbed down The Tonight Show and ruined it... and he's just adding to that ruin with his desperate need to stay on TV. Johnny Carson left the stage and had the class and good sense to stay away. He had nothing else to prove and only added to his legend and legacy by the way he left. Leno isn't worthy to be Johnny's toilet paper.

Debby G said...

As author Jennifer Weiner said, it's hard to get too worked up over which white male millionaire and his all male writing staff gets to do The Tonight Show.

DwWashburn said...

I think Jay is really getting a raw deal in the press right now. Jay, as Jay always does, has been doing whatever is needed to try to make everyone happy. And yet somehow he is being vilified in print and media.

Conan is the younger here, and he sure is showing it. What he has done in the last two weeks is the equivalent of a four year old throwing a tantrum. Jay is right -- Conan has had seven months on air to work on this show plus the time he took off between shows. And yet his ratings are tanking and got worse every week until this controversy. He can't blame Jay for this. Yet he is taking shot after shot at Jay in his unwatched monolouge.

Another thing that Jay got right -- he said that Conan's ratings were up this week and then said "You're welcome." Even when he has the Tonight Show he can only get ratings via Jay.

I know very little about law or contracts but I think Conan should be kissing Jay's feet right now. Conan gets to leave a corpse filled sinking ship, he gets $40 million as a reward for destroying the Tonight Show, and he is the hero in the press.

It's a crazy world!!

Rob said...

Jay Leno's Tonight Show Outline

Monologue -- Run out, greet audience, tell several obvious and often cruel jokes. Repeat stupid punchlines three or four times each while laughing so that people realize it was supposed to be funny.

Band and sidekick -- Make it a point to find people that you have no chemistry with and who won't upstage you. It make take a bit of time pissing off people before you settle in on the right person to sit back and laugh at you without offering a single damned thing in return.

Bits -- Assemble comedy bits stolen from other funnier people. When people don't get that you've taken several bits from Howard Stern, steal his former intern.

Interviews -- Ignore what made Carson great by ignoring your guests. Make it clear that you're not really listening or engaging in conversation, but trying to get from point a to commercial.

Oh yeah, and if a football player savagely murders two people, never miss the opportunity to turn it into comedy gold night after night after night after night after night.

Rinse, repeat, and continue to laugh at yourself because nobody with a brain cell will be.

David said...

I'm starting to suspect DwWashburn might actually BE Jay Leno...

Buttermilk Sky said...

"Just read that Zucker and Conan have had bad blood that goes all the way back to Yale, believe it or not."

Not. Conan went to Harvard.

The only part of Leno I ever liked was the newspaper clippings people send in. Lazy man's TV.

Are we sure this isn't a huge publicity stunt for the number three (or is it four) network? And if you think Zucker is a schmucker, what must you think of Comcast, which just paid $30 billion for NBC?

Anonymous said...

Jeff Zucker? Definition #3 says it all.

Anonymous said...

This was a bad move, Ken. But was it really the worst ever? What about Uncle Miltie's 30-year contract that only lasted nine years? That was previously the dumbest decision ever made by a network.

VP81955 said...

Just read that Zucker and Conan have bad blood that goes all the way back to Yale, believe it or not.

Actually, both are alums of Harvard, a degree from which is sadly almost now a prerequisite for success in the entertainment industry. And as far as programming acumen is concerned, Zucker makes Fred Silverman's reign at NBC look like the work of genius.

Agree with the plaudits for Ferguson; there's something genuine about his approach (although I wish talk shows would follow what Jack Paar did and have guests who provide genuinely lively banter, not those hyping their latest film or CD). Ferguson looks to be the Letterman successor in waiting, and I'm sure Dave -- recalling the position he was in nearly two decades ago -- will make Craig's transition foolproof and seamless.

Anonymous said...

Conan's staff is pretty relentlessly NON-Harvard bred, starting with Andy (Columbia College of Chicago) Richter.

And "author Jennifer Weiner" is welcome to go back to writing for newspapers if she feels so much empathy with the non-millionaire classes.

bruce miller said...


Bob said...

In the 70's, David Lloyd got laughs doing the audience warmup for Mary Tyler Moore filmings. He was funny answering questions like "Why don't you have monitors for the audience?" "Because you're well behaved. You don't need monitors."

Fortunately, David Lloyd kept with what he was great at. Comedy writing.

Something to remember, Conan.

Alice said...

Also this move killed the TV show LIFE and I was sooo loving it :(

Anonymous said...

So when Leno got the Tonight Show, he had almost three years to get his ratings out of the gutter, had GREAT lead-ins like ER, and had the serendipitous moment of interviewing Hugh Grant right after his scandal.

Conan has had 7 months, the Jay Leno show as his lead-in, and is competing with a lot more alternatives.

But yeah, he's a complete failure because he couldn't get big ratings in spite of all this.

Troy said...

I agree with Brain Scully above... that there has never really been a worthy successor to Johnny Carson.

Letterman: Dave has been good, but has also steadily declined to a state of creative equilibrium which often features apathy. He'll no longer go out to do his own taped segments, and his monologue would often get boo-ed at an Open Mike night. In short, he is coasting on reputation.

Leno: It was over with the Dancing Itos, which proved how relentlessly Jay was willing to beat a middling joke. Further, after 20 years in the chair, he still can't orchestrate a compelling interview.

Conan: Smart, but has never gotten the hang of performing. He still seems stiff, especially when he robotically tells the audience during every monologue that "we have a great show tonight". Show, don't tell, Conan. He has, however, taken a great stand during this debacle.

Kimmel: Showed brass balls on his "10 at 10" segment with Jay. And, despite a much shorter track record, he is also probably the best interviewer of the bunch. Still, he too often seems handicapped by formula (monologue w/clips, wacky semi-recurring staff, etc.). I hope he gets a chance to hit his stride.

Ferguson: As smart as he appears to be, he has fallen into the trap of dumbing himself down to appeal to a wider audience. Whenever the laugh larder is empty, he turns up the volume and starts shouting, like a Continental Dane Cook. And bringing out your first guest 45 minutes into the broadcast no longer qualifies you as a "chat" show, Crayg.

Fallon: Not even paper-trained yet.

Carson Daly: Who?

Gosh, I wonder if this all has anything to do with the fact that talk shows seem to be about a dime a dozen nowadays?

Heeeeeeeeeere's... mediocrity!


Howard Hoffman said...

I'm not asking this to be snarky, Troy, but have you watched Ferguson? Your criticism seems pretty unfair.

I don't know when Ferguson ever waited 45 minutes before bringing out his first guest...he always has at least two a night.

I think his monologues are the only ones in late night that are truly monologues and not just jokes strung together. His stream-of-consciousness is much more fun to watch. And when he bombs, he actually lowers his tone and works the camera-as-viewer spectacularly.

Finally, even if it's bullshit, I like how he customarily rips up the card o'questions and makes genuine conversation with each and every guest.

That said, I think Patton Oswalt had the best take on this. Letterman grew up watching Carson and idolized what he did, while wondering how he could've taken it to the next level. Conan did the same watching Letterman. Leno, however, was simply hell bent on just hosting the show without any desire to innovate or bring anything to it. On top of that, Leno refused to give up and coming comics the same breaks Carson and Letterman generously gave him.

He continued that laziness at 10pm, and now he'll resume super-serving the flyover states while boring the hell out of the rest of the country.

My wild-ass speculation: Letterman will make an offer to Conan to create something in syndication with both their companies. They like each other a lot, and it'll be a coup for both of them.

Or they'll both buy Comcast/Universal/NBC just to fire Zucker.

Troy said...

In answer to Great Big Radio Guy:

I appreciate that you like Craig Ferguson, and I haven't completely dismissed him because, like you, I think he has significant talent...

...but I stand by my comments.

I check in on Craig occasionally. In fact, I DVR him when Letterman is in repeats (I need something to watch during dinner the next day).

First, the easy one: Yes, according to my DVR, Ferguson has been known to (rarely, but still) go almost 45 minutes before bringing out his first guest. As much as I, or anyone, may like Craig, this just seems like too MUCH Craig, 5 nights a week. One can only watch the Connery impression so many times.

Now, the harder one. I agree with you that Ferguson's monologues are the only TRUE monologues in late night. Further, when he's on, they can be quite good...

...but they used to be better. When? When he first started. At that time, he was, frankly, putting more effort into them. He picked a topic, stayed with it, and actually had some prepared material to back it up.

Yes, he still has writers and prepared material, but he too often seems to be relying on improvisation, and the aforementioned Clown Volume Effect when things go south.

I think he's a very smart guy. I read his novel. I attended a panel he was on at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. I've heard him speak without the "Volume at 11" crutch.

If he would bring this Craig Ferguson to his show (or, at least, more of him), the intelligent, thinking person's host, then he truly would be something unique...

...and a viable alternative in late night TV.