‘Starring’, not ‘with’

I have noticed something that I’m surprised no TV writers have picked up on.

There were several stories over the weekend about NBC’s first on-air promo for Jimmy Fallon’s version of “The Tonight Show.” It’s a classy, well-done promo, invoking the long history of the “Tonight Show” brand, and I was pleased to see that NBC didn’t just ignore Conan O’Brien’s brief tenure.

It wasn’t until today that I noticed something about the show’s new logo.

The full name of the program for most of the 60s, all of the 70s and 80s, and into the 90s was “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” When Jay Leno took over, it became “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” and I remember some commentary at the time that this was an appropriate change in terminology — no one would ever be the commanding star of late night the way that Johnny was. A few years ago, we had “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien,” and then went back to “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Both of CBS’s late-night entries use “with” as well.

But — at least in that promo and the promotional art — the version of the show which will premiere next month will be “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

first-promo-for-the-tonight-show-starring-jimmy-fallon-new-era-begins

“Starring.”

I’m not saying it’s really all that big of a deal (and I’m eagerly looking forward to Fallon’s tenure, regardless), I’m just saying I’m surprised nobody’s noticed it.

Jaypocalypse 2

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.

When Leno went early

When my brother and sister-in-law and their kids were in over Christmas, my brother loaned me his copy of The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, by Bill Carter of the New York Times. Carter’s earlier book, The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night, established him as the definitive voice on this topic; I never read that one, but I saw the HBO movie – derided by some of its subjects, but with a blisteringly-funny performance by Kathy Bates as Jay Leno’s longtime manager Helen Kushnick.

Anyway, the new book documents the Conan O’Brien – Jay Leno brouhaha that came to a head in 2010. NBC, trying to hold on to Conan O’Brien during a surge in his popularity in 2004, negotiated a deal under which O’Brien would renew his contract, in return for which Leno would give up “The Tonight Show” in five years’ time, a process which NBC hoped would be similar to the long, amiable handoff from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams at NBC’s nightly newscast. But Leno – a workaholic who resented being pushed out of his job at the peak of his (to me inexplicable) popularity – made noises in 2009 about jumping to another network instead of retiring as first announced. So, NBC tried clumsily to hold on to both stars, giving Conan “The Tonight Show” as it was obligated to do but putting Jay into prime time in a disastrous experiment called “The Jay Leno Show.” Conan’s show struggled, which Conan and his supporters blamed on the weak lead-in from Leno’s program but which NBC executives blamed on Conan’s refusal to tweak his younger, irreverent comedy style for an earlier time slot and a broader audience.

The network thought both shows would find their audiences in time, but NBC’s affiliate stations, suffering financially from Jay’s weak lead-in to their late newscasts, demanded immediate action, and the network agreed to cancel “The Jay Leno Show” and proposed trying to shoehorn both men into late-night. This caused Conan, amid a wave of publicity painting him as the victim, to negotiate an exit from his contract.

I’m a fan of Conan and David Letterman, among others, and I’m about as far from a Leno fan as one can get. But I can appreciate Jay’s frustration at being seemingly pushed out of his job for no reason, especially as Carter portrays the situation. Carter presents the story in an extremely balanced and remarkably-detailed way, with details of the behind-the-scenes wrangling on all sides. He doesn’t present anyone as the hero or the villain, but gives each of the major players fair and compassionate treatment.

I especially loved his account of Conan writing his famous “People of Earth” statement, a public relations masterstroke in which he described his reasons for not wanting to host “The Tonight Show” a half  hour later.

It’s definitely an absorbing read, and a timely one, with Jimmy Kimmel’s move to an earlier time slot this week shaking up the late night landscape yet again. Leno is still at the top of the ratings, but he’s getting older, and the networks and advertisers crave younger viewers for financial reasons. That was part of the idea behind trying to put Conan in – as the host of the future. ABC probably knows that Kimmel won’t beat Jay any time soon, but it’s positioning him as the host of the future and hoping he’ll do better in the younger demographics than Leno and Letterman, both of whom will end up leaving eventually.

You may recall that I had a standing invitation to attend a taping of Kimmel’s show, complete with VIP treatment, until family members screwed up the deal by moving away from Southern California. Still, those same family members loaned me this really interesting book, so I guess that counts for something.

Same joke

It is not unusual for two of the late-night talk shows to make the same or a very similar monologue joke about a current event. (Sometimes, “InfoMania” on Current TV will highlight this, with a feature called “Same Joke.”)

But tonight, “Conan” and “Late Show With David Letterman” had, not a verbal joke, but a piece of produced visual comedy in common. Both hosts made jokes about Newt Gingrich’s supposed Tiffany debt and then said they were surprised at his appearance on CBS’s “Face The Nation .”

And then, both Conan and Letterman showed a clip of Gingrich on “Face The Nation,” with gaudy jewelry superimposed on his face. In Conan’s case, the most prominent piece was a crown; on Letterman it was a tiara. But the production technique, the source material and the joke itself were identical.

The clips aren’t online yet, but I’ll have to look for them tomorrow and post them side-by-side. I don’t think it’s anything but coincidence, but it’s quite a coincidence.

Pep Boys, Andy? Really?

One of the funniest parts of the Emmy Awards in the past has been the announcement of the writing nominees for the late night comedy shows. Each year, the shows come up with some amusing way of listing their writing staffs. One year recently, for example, the writers for “The Colbert Report” were introduced, standing side by side on a New York City sidewalk. At the end, an angry Stephen Colbert walked in and gestured at the writers, and the camera widened out to show that they were lined up in front of the Ed Sullivan Theater, home of a different New York-based talk show.
Unfortunately, those writing awards were moved from the main Emmy telecast to the untelevised Creative Arts Emmy awards held last weekend. But the staff of the former “Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” brought the funny anyway, with a nod to the fact that soon after their Emmy-nominated episodes were broadcast, they were, um, unemployed:

Conan and the Kings

Last year, for the first and only time, I had access to the T-G’s press tickets for one day of Bonnaroo. But I chickened out at the last minute. It’s not that I wasn’t curious about going, it’s that I didn’t want to go by myself, and the day I’d been stuck with didn’t really have anyone I was really and truly passionate about seeing.

This year, the T-G let Bonnaroo slip through the cracks and didn’t apply for press credentials. If we had, I would have dearly loved to have been there Friday, for two reasons: Conan O’Brien, who brought his “Legally Prohibited From Being On Television” stage show, and Kings of Leon, who were the Friday headliners and, by all accounts, delivered a phenomenal performance. I used to have “Use Somebody” as my ringtone, and I’d have loved to have seen my fellow PKs live and in person.

SPIN magazine reported it thusly: “The Kings, who started at Bonnaroo in a small tent in 2004, now rule the compound. Jay-Z and Stevie Wonder may be playing today, but this is the Kings’ castle. ”

For that matter, I would have loved to see Steve Martin in his bluegrass set.

Lopez Tonight

I will have to watch “Lopez Tonight” (for, I admit, the first time) this evening to see George Lopez’s reaction to Conan O’Brien’s announcement today.

Conan’s new TBS show will push “Lopez Tonight” back by an hour. According to Bill Carter of the New York Times, this was originally a deal-breaker for Conan. Conan had been on the wrong end of such an arrangement at NBC, which is why he left, and he — understandably, and to his credit — did not want to do to George Lopez what NBC and Jay Leno had done to him.

But then, Lopez personally called Conan and asked him to accept the arrangement. Lopez probably feels that a 12 Eastern / 11 Central show with Conan as his lead-in will turn out better in the long run than an 11 Eastern / 10 Central show with TBS’s sitcom reruns as a lead-in. I think he’s right, and I think having the two talk shows back to back will be good for both of them.

As I said, I haven’t seen George Lopez’s talk show before, although I’ve seen his standup comedy, and I think he probably likes an atmosphere like TBS where he gets comparatively little interference from network executives and can do his own style of comedy. I think Conan will thrive at TBS for just those same reasons. Conan’s last two weeks at “The Tonight Show” were some of the funniest shows he’s ever done, and it’s because he didn’t have anyone to impress and could just relax and do the show he wanted to do. TBS may give him less of a budget (I wonder if Andy or Max will be there), but I believe he’ll have much more free rein than he did at NBC or than he would have at FOX.

FOX, it is true, has a more free-wheeling approach in general than the three traditional networks, but the network was reported to be bristling at the cost of launching a new late-night talk show and was going to have to please a lot of unhappy affiliate stations from whom it would be forcibly taking an hour of late-night air time. I think FOX would have breathed down Conan’s neck in the same way that NBC did.

Even though Craig Ferguson is on a broadcast network, CBS, he has made the same kind of tradeoff Conan is making. Craig’s show is — as he likes to remind us — run on a low budget, I imagine lower than Conan’s will be at TBS. But the network lets him do his own thing.

Live from New York, redux

I’m an idiot.

In my earlier post about how and whether SNL would address the late night talk show controversy, I didn’t give a moment’s thought to tonight’s SNL host, Sigourney Weaver.

I had known in the past, but long since forgotten, that she was the daughter of an NBC executive from the 1950s, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver.

During his tenure at NBC, Weaver is responsible for creating two shows that became NBC’s flagships and are still on the air today.

One of them is the “Today” show.

The other one …. well, let’s just say the other show Pat Weaver created has been in the news this week.

SNL addressed the late night controversy in the cold open, an amusing but relatively-toothless sketch with Jay, Conan and Dave as guests on “Larry King Live.” (Cast member emeritus Darrell Hammond played Jay, Bill Hader played Conan, and Jason Sudeikis was a wordlessly-mugging Dave.) But then, in her monologue, Sigourney made very brief reference to it, noting her father’s role.

I’ll wait and see if Seth makes any reference to it during Weekend Update.

The show is still falling prey to this year’s recycling epidemic; the first sketch, about a women’s darts tournament on ESPN, is recycled from a previous sketch about a women’s bowling tournament.