Conan better keep Jay on the team

O’Brien may deliver the right demographic, but mass audiences prefer the unhip Leno

Conan better keep Jay on the teamOn his first episode of The Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien joked that Jay Leno would be coming back to NBC “in two days.” Well, not quite that soon, but starting in the fall, O’Brien’s Tonight predecessor will have a nightly talk show at 10 p.m. This was seen as a sign of NBC executives’ lack of confidence in O’Brien, but they may be doing O’Brien a favour. O’Brien’s first Tonight episode beat David Letterman in the ratings; if Leno had gotten a competing talk-show on another network, he might have beaten Conan, just as he beat everyone else. O’Brien told his audience that Leno is a friend and that “I’m looking forward to him being our lead-in.” It’s better to have him as a lead-in than competition, because audiences prefer the unhip, familiar, comfortable—in short, Jay Leno.

Even Leno’s network didn’t expect him to be this popular for this long. Sue Trowbridge, who runs The Late Night TV Page (a Web resource for finding out the upcoming guests on talk shows), points out that NBC announced O’Brien as Leno’s successor in 2004 “far enough ahead of time that maybe Leno thought that would be a good time to step down.” But “five years passed, and he’s still number one and still enjoying it.” It wasn’t hard to see why NBC might have expected his popularity to decrease: Leno is a dinosaur in a talk-show landscape dominated by people with a hip, ironic take on the format.

Most hosts have followed the example of David Letterman, who specializes in making fun of the conventions of talk shows. O’Brien, who started as a writer rather than a performer, has gone beyond even Letterman in conveying the impression that he isn’t a traditional host; many of his routines are based on the self-deprecating idea that he isn’t good at his job. The higher-profile Tonight Show just gives him the chance to put himself down even more, or let others do it: his first guest, Will Ferrell, started by saying that “no one” thought Conan could possibly host this show. But none of the hipster talk shows were high-rated enough for President Barack Obama to appear on them; that honour went to Leno’s almost irony-free hour of TV.

Instead of winking at the audience or doing self-parody bits like O’Brien, Leno sees it as his job to make straightforward, audience-friendly jokes. Unlike O’Brien, who still pretends to be uncomfortable as a performer, Leno told a conference call that he sees himself as primarily “a nightclub comedian who got a talk show.” His favourite part of The Tonight Show was the opening monologue; Trowbridge says viewers find it “a nice, comforting thing to listen to before they go to bed.” And unlike the more sharply political jokes offered by Jon Stewart and (occasionally) Letterman, Leno is “very middle-of-the-road,” Trowbridge explains. “He’s proud of the fact that if he makes a joke about a Republican, he’ll make a joke about a Democrat.” He’s the most old-fashioned comic on television, someone whose formula—light, topical jokes, good-natured ribbing of celebrities—could come from a Bob Hope special.

O’Brien comes from a different comedy background. In his first Tonight Show, he kept the monologue very short; where Jay would have made topical jokes, O’Brien did a sketch where he ran across the country to get to the studio, revealed that he had stolen the “D” out of the famous Hollywood sign, and bantered with long-time sidekick Andy Richter over their love of the term “Choco Taco.” This surreal humour appeals most strongly to the young, often college-aged viewers who stayed up late to watch his old show. With the broader public, Leno was more popular than O’Brien or Letterman for the same reason that Two and a Half Men is the most popular sitcom: a straightforward joke reaches more people than an obscure, self-referential joke.

But that’s why the new talk-show arrangement at NBC might actually work out for the best. Trowbridge says that because younger viewers are still considered more desirable by the people who buy commercial time, NBC will be happy with O’Brien “if they’re getting smaller overall ratings but they get the overall 18 to 49 demographic.” Leno’s Tonight Show may have been the last survivor of an era where late-night TV was supposed to be mass entertainment. Soon, the network will have O’Brien’s Tonight for one group of viewers, and The Jay Leno Show for another, and the two groups can safely ignore each other. “My father, who is in his ’70s, is a big Leno fan,” Trowbridge says. “I can guarantee he won’t be watching Conan.”