According to Variety and every other media outlet, including NBC, Leno may return to primetime. Yes, it’s on cable. Fortunately for Conan O’Brien, Leno’s potential new show will air on CNBC and will be about cars. Basically, CNBC has decided to ignore what could be considered its mission statement: to provide financial news. I guess they figure as long as they air Squawk Box no one’s going to mind Jay Leno’s car show after trading hours. (To be fair, CNBC has filled out their schedule with reruns of Late Night with Conan O’Brien in the past because a network wouldn’t last long if it only operated from 4am to 7pm.)
Yesterday, Joan Rivers died at the age of 81. Before she was E!’s go to fashion critic, she had a long history with talk shows (a lot of it is not good). We’re not going to go into the details of the falling out between Rivers and Johnny Carson. Instead, we’re choosing to remember them in happier times. In the following clip from The Tonight Show, Joan sits down with Johnny to discuss her book Enter Talking.
Wow. David Letterman announcing his upcoming retirement shocked me. It shouldn’t have. We all knew it was coming. No one was under the impression Letterman would be hosting The Late Show until he dies. He’d host it until Jay Leno was out of the collective consciousness or dropped dead. Once Leno said goodbye to The Tonight Show stage one last time, Letterman’s days were numbered. All he did today was confirm everyone’s assumption.
When all is said and done, Letterman will have hosted a late night talk show for 33 years: 11 as host of NBC’s Late Night, the last 22 will be with The Late Show and CBS. It’s hard to believe that 5 years ago few people expected Letterman to surpass his idol Johnny Carson’s reign in late night, which was an impressive 30 years. Now, we’re wondering how CBS will fill the hole in their lineup when Letterman leaves next year.
I’ve covered The Tonight Show a lot on Wait! What’s a Dial?. As the longest running late night talk show, it holds a special place in my heart. Regardless of what you think of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, those who came before them: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson were masters of the medium. Because Jimmy Fallon recently took over NBC’s signature late night talk show, here is a round up of the articles I have written about the hosts of The Tonight Show (with a video to make up for the lack of Jack Paar coverage).
If you’re over 30, you probably think of The Tonight Show as Johnny Carson’s show. However, Steve Allen was the first host of the show. He hosted it from 1954 to 1957.
As the first host of a national late night talk show, Steve Allen directly influenced David Letterman. Letterman has influenced Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, and Jimmy Fallon, so some of Allen’s attitude and antics can still be seen on current late night talk shows. For the rest of the article, see “TV Shows You Should Know: The Tonight Show Starring Steve Allen.”
The Tonight Show fits Jimmy Fallon like a glove. It’s a perfect match that I wasn’t expecting. For me, Jimmy Fallon’s version of Late Night didn’t capture that show’s essence. During their times on Late Night, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien were the guys who came on after the show your dad watches. They were slightly edgy and a little left of the mainstream without completely alienating it. Jimmy swims in the middle of the mainstream and wholeheartedly embraces it. It wasn’t a good match for Late Night, but it’s exactly what The Tonight Show‘s about.
Unlike Dave and Conan, Jimmy was able to move his old show lock, stock, and barrel an hour earlier. There was no changing to appease middle America, but he acts enough like an overgrown frat boy to appeal to the college crowd. If Jay Leno is vanilla, Jimmy is vanilla with sprinkles. He’s inoffensive fun. Parents won’t have a problem having their kids stay up late Friday nights watching The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, whereas they shudder at the thought of a certain self-pleasuring recurring character from Conan.
Let’s get this out of the way, I’m a Conan O’Brien and David Letterman fan. For all intents and purposes, the media tells me I should despise Jay Leno. I don’t. He’s not my favorite comedian. I find what he did to David Letterman distasteful, but it’s been over 20 years and the two men now talk to each other again. I also think he should have left NBC after they handed The Tonight Show to Conan. However, things get nasty when two people are battling over their dream job. For years ago Jay came out looking bad, yet so did Conan. The real loser was NBC.
Instead of hating Jay, I understand that he’s vanilla. Something bland that the remains of an aging mainstream America falls asleep watching. I am not his target audience. In spite of it all, I watched the last Tonight Show with Jay Leno expecting something more than a typical show. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. NBC’s making a big deal about the changing of the guard at The Tonight Show, but Jay went out with a whimper. It was an average show that focuses more on the past than normal, which is saying something for a show hosted by a guy still making Monica Lewinsky jokes in 2001.
In less than a month, Jimmy Fallon will host his first episode of The Tonight Show. While no one knows for sure what sketches will follow Jimmy to his new show, we do know that it’s time to say good-bye to The Tonight Show your parents and grandparents knew. The Tonight Show lost its prestige a long time ago, through a combination of botched handovers and the overcrowding of late night talk shows. It’s time to stop pretending that the spot after the 11 o’clock news is when everyone is watching and embrace the internet. Jimmy Fallon has proven he knows how to create synergy between his role as a late night talk show host and, in the realm of late night, a young web-savvy comedian.
Anyone who is younger than 35 thinks of The Tonight Show as another boring talk show. NBC needs to update it. The network failed miserably with Conan O’Brien because, while Conan understand his audience, he comes from a generation that still thinks of The Tonight Show as the gold standard. Jimmy never found that to be true, which will work for and against him.
Since it’s Thanksgiving, we figure you could use a break from trying not to burn your house down because Uncle Bob decided to fry the turkey this year. If you have 7 minutes to spare, enjoy this delightful clip of Johnny Carson and Doc Severinsen reading kids’ letters on how to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving.
It’s hard to believe that Conan O’Brien has had a late night talk show for 20 years. Granted, he’s had three of them: Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, and Conan, but that’s still no easy feat. He could have gone the way of Pat Sajak and Chevy Chase a long time ago. Actually, that was expected of him. Very few critics foresaw Conan having a long career and many, as demonstrated in this review from Entertainment Weekly, were unnecessarily harsh. It didn’t help that they were fueled by NBC’s decision to renew Conan’s Late Night contract on a weekly basis.
In hindsight, it is hard to watch Conan’s first night as host of Late Night, especially knowing the terrible treatment he received. Even hardcore Conan fans have to admit, on his first night, he was very green. To be fair, Conan did acknowledge it in a funny way and immediately addressed the fact that everyone kept hounding him with some variation of “better be as good as Letterman.” Conan had potential and viewers were willing to give him a chance, even though his bosses only kept renewing his contract because they had nothing else to throw on the air.
NBC Entertainment President Bob Greenblatt doesn’t know the definition of insanity. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Greenblatt told reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour that he hopes Jay Leno stays with NBC, after his run at The Tonight Show is over and Jimmy Fallon takes over as host. Clearly, the Peacock Network is conveniently ignoring the lessons it should have learned from situations with Conan O’Brien and, his Late Night predecessor, David Letterman. The golden rule at NBC should be: “Until Jay Leno no longer works here, don’t give The Tonight Show to the host of Late Night.”