Scenes from a television war

The Conan-Leno fight is clearly a generational one. I have yet to hear anyone in my online social network declare for “Team Leno”; I’m not sure that there is any such thing, or who would be part of it if there were. Consider this: Jay Leno was at one time one of the most respected standup comedians on Earth, and continues to perform live all over the continent and refine his live act. Conan O’Brien, a Harvard man who spent no more than ten seconds paying comic dues of any kind, has no traceable experience of standup. And yet every single standup comic I’ve heard or seen weigh in on the feud has backed Conan—even though he appears to be walking away from the Tonight Show, which has been the dominant economic force in their industry for more than 50 years. There’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.

At first I was tempted to wonder if blowback from the 2007-08 Writer’s Guild strike was playing a role here. Some comics were uncomfortable with Leno making a side deal to do struck work by writing his own monologues for the Tonight Show. But Leno was exonerated in WGA hearings, and besides, union hatred of blacklegs can’t account for the mass popular agitation against Leno. Moreover, from a strictly business standpoint, Conan started this whole fracas during his 2004 negotiations with NBC when he demanded that the countdown be started on Leno’s Tonight Show tenure. This game of musical chairs, with Conan, Leno, and Jimmy Fallon trying to squeeze together onto two bus seats, would never have existed if not for that maneouvre. Any such move against Johnny Carson would have been regarded as an appalling act of showbiz regicide.

In part, surely, this affray is being perceived as a replay of the Leno-Letterman war. (Wars, one notices, often come in pairs.) Back then, Leno’s cartoonish scheming coupled with his interruption of what was perceived as a natural monarchical succession, with Letterman as the rightful heir, to turn industry and popular sentiment against him. Over time, Leno proved that NBC had made the correct business decision. But like King John he couldn’t shake the bad reputation he had earned by stepping out of line. He made matters worse by giving the world a safe, sterile Tonight Show, without the slyness or the dimly anarchic aura of Carson’s version. Though, again, it must be to somebody’s taste. Leno seems a lot like Margaret Thatcher—you never heard any performer or intellectual in England say they didn’t loathe her with every cell of their body, and yet she kept on winning elections.

Letterman himself has seen a lot of his edge dulled in the meantime; I can’t be alone in having found his Late Night work seminal, but finding myself unable to watch him fawn over celebrities and extract cheap laughs from audiences now. Owing to events, however—9/11, the heart bypass, marriage, progeny, and even his philandering—he has somehow grown in American affections. Conan, who already loomed larger than Leno in the annals of American comedy before anybody thought of giving him a talk show, is certainly serving as a proxy or champion for Letterman in people’s imaginations. If the spirit of the revolt against Leno could be summed up in a single phrase, it might be “Not again!”