Like sands through the hourglass

It just occurred to me that the end of the Jay Leno “Tonight Show” a week or two ago might have been the end of an era — I wasn’t sure if it was the last production in the Burbank Studios, formerly owned by NBC. NBC sold the studio in 2008 and gradually moved most of its production to Universal Studios (which is now, of course, part of the same company as NBC). During Conan O’Brien’s short tenure as host of “The Tonight Show,” he broadcast from a studio on the Universal lot. I read just now that Conan’s old studio is now the home of “Chelsea Lately.”

Jay Leno, however, was comfortable in the Burbank facility and stayed there throughout both of his runs at “The Tonight Show” and the short-lived “Jay Leno Show.”

It turns out Jay wasn’t the last NBC star to leave the ship; Wikipedia says that “Access Hollywood” and “Days of Our Lives” are still being shot at the Burbank facility.

I got to tour the studios in the year 2000 when visiting my brother and sister-in-law in California. (I may have told this story before.) Our tour guide told us the story about Jay Leno and the studios.

When Jay first took over “The Tonight Show” in the early 1990s, he went into the same large stage where Johnny Carson had been presiding since moving the show from New York to California. Johnny, who got his start in radio, was used to not being able to see his audience, and he was far enough away from the bleachers, with bright TV lights shining in his eyes, that he didn’t see them when doing his monologue. Jay, who got his start in comedy clubs with the audience at his feet, was never comfortable with that arrangement. During a week of “Tonight Shows” on the road in New York, he found himself in a much smaller studio and noticed a change in his energy level. Upon returning to California, he asked to move onto one of the smaller stages in the Burbank complex, and a special platform was built so that during his monologue, he would be much, much closer to the audience than he had been. He could even shake hands with them as he took his mark. Jay became more relaxed in his new surroundings and eventually started beating David Letterman in the ratings.

We did not get to see the “Tonight Show” studio that day – they were doing sound check or something at the time of our tour. But at the time, they took you into the parking lot to see Jay’s parking space, and which of his many vehicles he’d driven to work that day. We went out, and gawked, and as we turned around to go back inside there was a man standing on the loading dock from which we’d emerged, smoking a cigarette.

It was – no kidding – Maury Povich, who was taping the first few episodes of his revival of “Twenty-One” that day. (Someone in the gift shop had tried to recruit us for the audience, but we already had tickets for a sitcom over on the Warner Brothers lot that evening.) Maury saw the tour group looking at him, tossed his cigarette and ducked back into the building.

There were murals outside some of the stages of famous shows that had been shot on those stages, and the one of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” made me think of Gary Owens, hand cupped to his ear, announcing that the program originated from “beautiful downtown Burbank.” (This was sarcasm; Burbank is neither particularly beautiful nor does it have a noticeable downtown.)

Steve Allen did his version of “The Tonight Show” from Rockefeller Center in New York, where Jimmy Fallon has just taken over. But this is from some other prime time show or special that Steverino shot in Burbank, and I like the way it makes use of the corridors, which actually still looked a lot like this in 2000:

Anyway, I don’t know if the current owners of the Burbank Studios give tours, but if they do, and if you’re in Southern California, you need to stop by. It’s a pop culture historic site if ever there was one.

‘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.”



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.

The Super Bowl of Love

In 2007, at a time when conventional wisdom held that there was a feud between Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman, this promo aired during the Super Bowl. Winfrey, of course, was based in Chicago, while Letterman is a native of Indianapolis, so that year’s Bears-Colts matchup made this appropos:

In 2010, the next time CBS telecast the Super Bowl, Letterman was faced with the prospect of having to once more compete with the man for whom he’d been passed over as host of “The Tonight Show” in the early 1990s. That made this promo absolutely unexpected:

Bill Carter of the New York Times reported the story of how the promo was put together. I remember reading it on the Times web site, and then of course Carter re-told it in his book “The War For Late Night” about the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien debacle. Rob Burnett, who heads Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, called Leno’s executive producer Debbie Vickers to describe what they had in mind and ask Leno to participate. When she stopped laughing ten minutes later, Vickers pitched the idea to Leno, who was in need of a little image rehabilitation, having been perceived (rightly or wrongly) as the villain in what happened to O’Brien. Leno flew to New York and, wearing a disguise, was hustled into the front entrance of the Ed Sullivan Theater while Letterman’s nightly show was being taped. (During that time, sightseers and paparazzi tend to congregate at the side entrance, from which guest stars come and go.) After the talk show taping was over, Leno, Dave and Oprah taped the promo there in the theater.

Later, after Leno had returned to California, one of his staffers who wasn’t in on the secret dashed into his office with rumors that Dave had filmed a Super Bowl promo featuring a surprise guest –  maybe even the President. Leno, amused, told the staffer to keep him updated if any new information turned up.

I wonder whether there will be a “Late Show” promo tonight, and if so who will be on it. Letterman recently received the Kennedy Center Honors, of course, and in the weeks surrounding the ceremony he hobnobbed with all sorts of luminaries.

Craig Ferguson, whose show follows Dave’s, will do a special post-Super Bowl edition of “The Late Late Show,” but I think he did the same thing in 2010, so that doesn’t necessarily have any relevance to the Letterman promo.

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.

No story tonight

I was really counting on a long and funny story from Dave Letterman tonight about the taping of the Super Bowl ad with Jay and Oprah. But there wasn’t one; he made a very brief monologue joke, and then later at the desk he dryly thanked “the actors who played Oprah and Jay Leno.”

Part of the problem may have been that tonight’s Late Show was chock full anyway, with little time for desk chat — Super Bowl QB Drew Brees, Sandra Bullock, the unveiling of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover, and some unexpected crisis in the form of stage manager and frequent cast member Biff Henderson injuring himself. Dave, in Brees’ honor, was tossing the pigskin to various members of the crew and the CBS orchestra, and Biff fell down trying to make a catch. Dave said he was fine, but they apparently took him out on a gurney with his leg in a splint.

I actually watched the first few minutes of “The Jay Leno Show” tonight — the first time I’ve done so since Jay started whining at the peak of the late night crisis — and I have to admit that Jay did a nice job talking about the spot, and about how he had to sneak into the Ed Sullivan Theater in a hoodie, shades and fake moustache for the taping last Tuesday.

Top NBC officials had to approve Jay’s appearance on the CBS promo, but it was kept so hush-hush that a lower-level NBC functionary actually came to Jay a day or two after the taping to tell Jay about a rumor that Letterman had taped a Super Bowl promo with a super-secret guest, which the executive figured might be … Barack Obama. Jay listened with great interest and instructed the NBC executive to keep him informed.

Bet that guy felt stupid when he saw the promo.

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.