From Bill Carter, the writer of two books about “late night wars” (one in the early 1990s and the other a couple years ago), in a “this and that” tv article:
When Mr. Leno took over from Johnny Carson in 1992, his producer wanted Mr. Carson to hand off a microphone to Mr. Leno in a kind of symbolic passing of the torch, but Mr. Carson wanted no part of it. Mr. Leno did not appear in any of the final weeks of Mr. Carson’s “Tonight” show, so Mr. Fallon’s visit will be a clear contrast to that more contentious transition.
There were, of course, two “passing of the torch” moments between the Carson not doing one for Leno because he was a Letterman man and the up coming Leno to Fallon. Leno brought on Conan, where Conan put on a comedy clip which managed to forecast his up-coming problem. (It was a focus group with an elderly audience, the joke being… er… ha ha… the older audience doesn’t get Conan). And then there was seven months later Conan back to Leno, which… well… that passing of the torch played out on every late night talk show, as well as the daytime talk show Oprah.
But NBC has by now removed the Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show with Conan Obrien from its historical record, ala the old Soviet Union.
There is an alternate universe where Conan wouldn’t have been so hung up on the concept of hosting something called “The Tonight Show” for some abstract lineage of mostly Carson but also Paar and Allen, and only begrudgingly Leno… and in this universe he would have signed up with Fox in 2001 or 2004. Instead of signing up to wait for five years. I suspect the ratings would end up where they were with his Tonight Show stint, which … I have no idea if that would satisfy the network such that that show would be on the air right now. As it were, Conan had that attachment, and the irony here is… his audience doesn’t have that sentimental attachment. Why would they? Their main point of reference for “The Tonight Show” is Jay Leno, not Johnny Carson (and a Leno sharing the stage in a bifrocated entertainment world, as opposed to Johnny being at the center.)
Reading the Bill Carter book — necessarily a pastiche of everyone’s publicly held private views so it’s hard to gauge whether NBC actually viewed Conan at midnight as a going concern as they claimed — it thus becomes difficult to see if, despite the optics of a demotion, Conan still would’ve been better off doing that than the one step up from his parting Tonight Show Comment of “if we have to do a show at a 711 Parking lot, we’ll make it work” of… TBS. But you understand what Conan was thinking here, just as I understand his perspective of “give my Tonight Show time like you did my predecessor, and I have no idea of what you want with ‘broaden’, and by the way my prime-time lead in sucks”… after all, he came from a history of starting Late Night with two years at the knife’s edge of cancellation, besieged by critics, and with nothing to do but to put his head down and bulldoze ahead.
I guess NBC got what it wanted. Jimmy Fallon fits their role of “Tonight Show” host better than Conan. Broad based entertainment, a more youthful Leno is Fallon, and one who knows his social networks. Still, NBC would’ve been better off just buying off Conan’s contract and then moving Leno to 11:30… which is more or less what they ended up doing in terms of dollars and cents. Why Leno decided 4 more years was enough, or why NBC decided they needed to act now… well…
It is a game of diminishing returns. My takeaway from Carter’s book comes near the end, with an NBC exec commenting on not caring that Leno now had worse numbers than Letterman did when Leno was beating him before, because… who cares? Leno is still on top here. It’s an odd situation these days where, for instance, I have never watched an entire episode of Jimmy Kimmel, but… have seen any number of “Lie Witness News” items. (Which, incidentally, is more related to Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking” bit than he would ever admit.)
Mr. Greenblatt also made several other announcements, including the guest list for the final show of Jay Leno’s tenure as host of the “Tonight” show on Feb. 6. Billy Crystal, who was Mr. Leno’s first guest on his first show in 1992, will return, joined by Garth Brooks.
In the final weeks the guests will include Betty White on Feb. 3, Matthew McConaughey on Feb. 4 and Sandra Bullock on Feb. 5.
Billy Crystal spent much of that first interview trying to tee Leno up to graciously say the name “Johnny Carson”. I recall Garth Brooks as a guest Leno touted for the first week of Letterman’s CBS show… something for a Middle America who could care less about the media circus of the moment. I suppose Brooks is also kind of Leno’s variation of Johnny Carson’s Bette Midler — a bit of a throw-back entertainment wise… we’ll see what Fallon throws out two decades hence. Though, by this point everyone will just be doing their own talk shows and sharing it with a dozen people each.
Sooner or later: a blog post on why Leno was the bad guy, even if not really in a business sense…