late night wars: a form of soap opera

Just about my entire reading of the “Late Night Wars” comes down to reading some entries of Mark Evanier’s blog… his background in Show Business brings things to the fro, and perspectives and opinions I don’t really share — but that’s the reason I read through his comments — they’re interesting and challenging to my (admittedlynever on target) perspective…

well… we lob some sentences which, I don’t know… amusing.

I’ m a little mystified at those who can’t grasp that an awful lot of America loves what this guy does and that he’s outlived 20+ years of predictions that his show couldn’t sustain the numbers it’s sustained.

There is a bit of snobbishness in “Jay Leno bashing” — I am a bit mystified when I read a commentary here or there from my alt weekly that don’t so much grasp him being on top as deny it.  (Can’t find the link, but oh well — it’s an off key joke they threw in asking why Leno is still on the air).  But, here to,  my sense is an awful lot of America doesn’t love what this guy does, so much as “like” — so goes the snobbish assessment that lines him to a homogonized lcd entertainment loaded to lull one from the late local news and into sleep.  [see too social media ‘like’ numbers on Leno as against his supposed replacement of Jimmy Fallon.]

Actually, I recall some commentary at the start of Leno’s run along the lines of “What happened to Leno?” — though, to be fair, the standard storyline of Leno’s run on the Tonight Show (and as relayed by the man himself) is that he never quite found his comfort zone until some “eureka” moment when he took his show for a visit in New York and then reconfigured his LA studio for better effect (also extending his monolouge).

And right there we have the interesting thing where… in the end the cultural memory (at least to his mocking detractors) of a Leno monolouge is of an endless series of Judge Ito jokes.  If Letterman (on CBS) ends up at self deprecating lines on his Oscar performance and the contrived Oprah feud — well, at least he’s in the “joke is the joke” arena.

Things fall into place with this:

One of the gripes NBC execs had about Conan O’Brien on his Tonight Show was that he was booking folks like Norm MacDonald and Kevin Nealon as lead-off guests because he thought a funny segment would result…to the exclusion of someone hotter and probably younger who had a huge movie opening in two days. There were also NBC execs who thought the segments with MacDonald and Nealon weren’t all that funny but the real objection was that the show could have had just about anybody and was bypassing guests who might have brought in higher numbers. I’m told that CBS thinks Letterman does a little too much of that as well.

Not coincidentally, Letterman and Conan O’brien both came out of long runs in the 12:30 slot, where they could get away with (and, indeed had to get away with) this a bit more.  But this also slides us away from that “LCD” thrust of a Leno against a Letterman and Conan.  These days, I shift through the Conan O’brien show and Letterman show (on the Internet days later) for the Norm MacDonald segment … or the Chris Elliott segment… and what guest of the type does Leno bring us?
And right here we have that odd cultural imprint item.  It was a Tim Riley who put it this way — with one exception (and we all know that is), what moment does anyone remember from Jay Leno’s long tenure of Jay Leno’s run?  My joke from that is that a “Best of Tonight Show with Jay Leno” would consist of Leno asking Hugh Grant “What the Hell were you thinking?” on a continual loop.  (The clip used to hilarious effect by Letterman during his ‘last point of late night wars crank fest’ — Leno replacing Jack Paar asking the question to a laughing Richard Nixon.)  [Actually a second item would be Madonna’s “mock saintly” appearance — but that was a joke going back to her infamous appearance on Letterman.  Also we can’t ever have a Carson wedding of Tiny Tim again, can we?]

I frankly never really understand this, about the second time I’ve read Evanier put it this way.  I understand the vested interest that guys like Letterman and Kimmel had in trashing the guy who was beating them in the ratings — and I lost a load of respect for Dave for stooping to that.

This has long been part of Dave’s schtik, (I recall once a sketch ending with a “dumb Letterman character” on the couch with the remote control saying ‘Ugh.  I wonder if Leno is doing Headlines’.  It is interesting because once upon a time Letterman would bleep out any mention of Leno on his show — in about the same way Leno did with Carson).  Frankly… has been one of the only funny things with Letterman in the past few years.
… Interestingly, Conan O’brien stuck to NBC during his final two weeks (arguably the highlight of his career output) on The Tonight Show.
Even with Letterman’s crankiness, even he doesn’t seem to take it seriously — lest he wouldn’t bring Leno onto his Superbowl ad — and the bit fell right back into the self-depracating line about being beaten in the ratings.
For his part, Leno was castigated by Oprah — unfairly, I would say, for bringing in a joke about Letterman’s infedility.


Now admittedly, Leno is only in First Place by a hair or two lately. He’s a bit ahead in Total Viewers and holding his own against Jimmy Kimmel in the 18-49 bracket. In the latter category, he’s again topping all expectations though, also admittedly, he has a lot more viewers at the 49 end of that demographic than around the 18. It would not be unscientific to presume he will start losing in that capacity before long…except for the fact that for something like two decades now, every single prediction that Leno’s Tonight Show numbers would plunge has been dead wrong.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that the recent dumping of total viewers of late night talk shows will continue its basic trend, and the “more viewers at the 40 end than 18” will continue the dropping apace with Leno against Kimmel.  Also none of my fortunes will be tied to this; I have no fortune to wager.  Frankly, I ponder what the medium of “television” will even be in fifty years, and think that the stricture of tv programming formats that have existed from its inception may well finally be crumbled… late night talk format sliding the way of the soap opera… and more power to that.

This paragraph (which I failed to excerpt in its entirety) strikes me as over-wrought, plugging every detraction point as equal for a dramatic effect to posit Jay Leno as “Mr. Underappreciated”.  In the early 1990s, an NBC executive would be wise to place his bet on Leno over Letterman (the latter, incidentally, had a huge schtik about making fun of the network’s parent company).  Which turned out the case, even if momentarily it didn’t appear to be the case.  Dumping Leno for Letterman, once Leno was in place, was never an option — just as Conan picking up a 12:00 “Tonight Show” bid was never an option.  After that, NBC made a mistake in trying to save Conan, and I suppose one can point out to Jay Leno’s detractors at the 10:00 flame-out that that show failed only in terms of prime-time ratings (more watched than any of the late night talk shows) — but the last decision then and now in wondering what to do about Leno and a would be replacement with an encroaching change in tv landscape is understandable, even if they turn out to make a mistake.

Leave a Reply