I Never Want These Late Night Wars To End



In a time of mostly depressing news, it feels good to have a fascinating but essentially trivial story playing out before us on our TV screens every night, complete with jokes and music. The news in Late Shift 2: Freddy’s Revenge is coming so fast that it’s hard to keep up with it all (in a pre-YouTube/streaming era, it would be impossible; nobody watched Leno’s show last night, so without the internet, we’d never have seen the instant-classic Kimmel moment). But here’s some more stuff from last night:

– The Kimmel thing deserves its fame as a brilliantly awkward moment, as well as the first (probably last) moment when the complacency of Leno’s show was shaken up. All the shows have gotten more interesting because of this fight, with the exception of Leno’s, because Leno has mostly stuck to a few very careful, bland jokes that deliberately fudge the issue of what happened. (Most people with actual lives don’t follow this closely, so it makes sense for Leno to let his audience think that he’s been “fired” and is a great big victim. What made Kimmel’s bit so devastating was that it was the first time anyone on Leno’s show has acknowledged the way the outside world sees the situation. Some have compared it to Stephen Colbert telling the White House press corps that the rest of the world sees them as mere stenographers; it’s a really trivial version of that, but yeah. It’s bringing an alternate viewpoint into a hermetically sealed world.

I feel like at least one of Kimmel’s jokes was scripted or planned in advance; the “NBC ordered your show off the air” bit fits in with what Leno has been saying, and Leno fed him a straight line for that. Some of the others, though, the ones about him shiving Conan (portraying Leno as a victimizer rather than a victim), Leno clearly did not expect. And the sad thing, as others have pointed out, is that he has no comebacks. Leno is an experienced, talented standup comedian, and all successful comedians know how to deal with heckling, which was essentially what Kimmel was doing here. Either Leno has been in his bubble for so long that his comedy reflexes are shot, or he has such a wall of separation between his TV work and his standup that he doesn’t know how to deal with this situation on network TV.


– Dick Ebersol, longtime NBC executive and better Saturday Night Live producer than post-1985 Lorne Michaels, struck back hard at Conan O’Brien, blaming the whole fiasco on O’Brien’s “astounding failure” and his unwillingness to take notes about adapting his act to the 11:30 slot. He calls other comedians “chicken-hearted and gutless” for blaming this on Leno, and bluntly said that in giving the show to Conan, “We bet on the wrong guy.” Ebersol is a friend of Jeff Zucker’s, and his comments have been widely seen as a proxy for Zucker. (Which would make him the “Hud-Zucker Proxy.” Yes, that is a bad pun and obscure reference rolled into one, thank you.) Blaming O’Brien for a situation that began with Leno’s failure at 10:00 is a little nuts, as is his statement that Conan had failed after seven months when Leno spent his first year and a half getting beat by Letterman. (Sorry, as pointed out in comments, I had the chronology wrong there. Letterman started his CBS show a year after Leno took over The Tonight Show. Here’s an ironic-in-retrospect article about speculation that NBC would replace the low-rated Leno with Letterman.) But it demonstrates the resentment that NBC executives are probably feeling, perhaps even a little nervousness about the possibility that this could damage Leno if the “blame Jay” movement ever catches on.

Mike Hale traces this whole situation to the real culprit: the foolish 2004 decision to force Leno out and promise the show to O’Brien in 2009. That is where the whole mess really began. It also probably explains Leno’s sense of victimization; he was forced to leave his show to accommodate his less popular younger colleague. The network had to beg him to stay because, to their surprise, he continued to get great ratings at 11:35. So from his point of view, he probably owes nothing to NBC (which had no faith in him five years ago) or O’Brien (who asked for, and got, his job). I’m not defending the victim act, if only because it makes for really dull television, but all the bad decisions that have come in the last two years are traceable to that one big bad decision in 2004.

– Finally, the culture-war subtext of Late Shift 2: Mission To Moscow is increasingly becoming text. This Letterman video last night explicitly casts the whole thing in culture-war terms. Again, the fun of Late Shift 2: City Under Siege is that it’s a fun, harmless version of the cultural and generational conflicts that are deadly serious in other areas.

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Update: Nathan Rabin has a good essay in the Wall Street Journal about why Leno, once a respected comic’s comic, is now almost universally hated by his fellow comedians. (Though of course they’ll want to continue going on his show once this is all over. Letterman has their respect, but The Tonight Show, even now, is probably better for their careers.) I personally find it interesting that Jerry Seinfeld was one of the few comedians to defend Leno and NBC; he did that mostly because he’s got a reality show coming up on the network, but there are a lot of Leno/Seinfeld parallels. As standup comics, they had a number of similarities, and they both have a strange combination of regular-guy observational style with a cold, almost contemptuous side. And both have a tendency to go for lowest-common denominator jokes when left to their own devices. You could say that Leno today is Seinfeld if he had never worked with Larry David.