Much of the coverage of the rumor that Jay Leno will be replaced in 2014 by Jimmy Fallon, seemingly confirmed by the all-knowing, all-seeing Bill Carter of the New York Times, has centered on the “Groundhog Day” aspect. Didn’t they try to replace Jay with a younger host just a few years ago? And didn’t it work out badly?
Well, this time may be quite different.
First, a confession: I’m a long-time fan of David Letterman, a long-time fan of Conan O’Brien, a fan of Jimmy Fallon, and I haven’t cared for Leno ever since he got “The Tonight Show” and lost the edgy humor he used to have as a guest on “Late Night with David Letterman” on NBC. I find him bland, uncreative and unfunny. It was his hardball manager, the late Helen Kushnick, who was responsible for some behind-the-scenes maneuvering that helped contribute to Johnny Carson’s retirement and which unfairly denied Dave the right to compete for the job that even Johnny thought was rightfully his. But Leno bears some responsibility.
That doesn’t mean I’m not a tiny sympathetic to Leno. My brother loaned me Carter’s book “The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early And Television Went Crazy” over the holidays, and I still have it. Leno was forced in 2004 into agreeing to the 2009 handoff to Conan O’Brien, and it’s easy to understand why he would feel somewhat miffed about having to give up the job while still number one in the ratings. He probably feels the same way in 2013. And Carter’s book reveals that it was the NBC executives, as much as Leno, who orchestrated bringing Leno back to “The Tonight Show.”
But, as I said, I think things may work out differently this time. Here are a few reasons why:
* Jimmy Fallon is not Conan O’Brien. As funny as I think Conan is, it’s clear that O’Brien, a former editor of the Harvard Lampoon, is in some ways an acquired taste. To his artistic credit, and his professional harm, he made little attempt to make his comedy more mainstream or accessible when he moved from “Late Night” to “The Tonight Show.” Good for him, and for viewers like me who like him. But in retrospect, and after reading Carter’s book, I think Conan’s argument that he’d have eventually been able to bring up “The Tonight Show”’s ratings isn’t that compelling. It may be that Conan is always going to play to a certain niche audience, even if I’m part of the niche.
Fallon, on the other hand, has a style of humor that is naturally more accessible. I still think he’s funny, and creative, and with a lot more imagination than Leno, but I think his personality plays better to a broad audience. (Capital One probably wouldn’t be using him for commercials otherwise.)
* Lorne Michaels will be involved. When David Letterman left NBC, the network turned the “Late Night” franchise over to the creator and executive producer of “Saturday Night Live,” and it was he who personally recruited O’Brien (over a lot of network skepticism) and then did the same for Fallon. Conan elected not to have Lorne’s production company involved when he moved west to host “The Tonight Show.” I probably wouldn’t have either, but in retrospect leaving Lorne behind may have hurt Conan in the long run. Carter’s book shows just how toxic the relationship between Conan and some of the NBC executives became, and in an alternate timeline Lorne might have been an important mediator between the two – holding the network execs at bay and finding ways for Conan to be more accessible without compromising his comedic vision. Fallon will have Lorne Michaels running interference for him with the NBC executives, and that counts for a lot. Also, Fallon will reportedly do “The Tonight Show” from New York, as in the days of Steve Allen, Jack Paar and the first decade of Johnny Carson. That will keep him under Lorne’s watchful eye.
* The landscape has changed. Although Jay Leno is beating “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” even in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic, Kimmel’s move this year to direct, head-to-head competition with Jay and Dave has been relatively successful, and NBC executives reportedly feel that he’ll eventually draw away more and more of the younger viewers unless they strike back by putting a younger-skewing host into play. Dave probably has a few more years at CBS, and I’m not sure CBS would be willing to try a much-younger host in that time slot right now anyway. (I suspect that when Dave hangs it up, they’ll just give @CraigyFerg the job.)
Yes, Johnny Majors may be a great coach, but he’s near the end of his career, and we have to think about the future, and we’re afraid we’re going to lose Phil Fulmer, who is obviously our guy for the future, so we’re going to unceremoniously push Johnny aside and get Phil into the head coach’s office before we lose him to someone else.
I’m just blithering, of course, and restating points made more elegantly by others elsewhere. But as a fan of all but one of the late night hosts, I thought I needed to jump into the fray.