The Late Night Melee

I was in mourning over the collapse of the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, but the Conan drama this past week has filled the void in my heart for televised combat.

I've been able to watch this battle with more detachment than emotional angst as late night talk shows no longer have the same cachet they once did. s for many of my generation (and Hulu's popular video list bears this out), the talk show hosts that resonate most are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Toss in Sportscenter and my after-work, sit-on-the-sofa-and-eat-my-dinner dance card is full. It was more understandable when Letterman and Leno battled so fiercely to gain the vacated Johnny Carson throne given Carson's status as Hollywood royalty and the limited fraternity of late night personalities back then. Now there are so many late night talk shows (where there were once two or three late night talk show hosts of note, now we have not just Leno, Letterman, and O'Brien but Kimmel, Fallon, Ferguson, and Daly) and so many other TV shows period, not to mention time-shifting with DVRs and internet video viewing that the idea of The Tonight Show at 11:35pm as a sacred institution feels dated.

But I'm still a big Conan fan, and I can understand his reverence for that chair. Like most younger people and a lot of "pure" comedians, I've never found Jay Leno to be funny or his interview style to be particularly effective. TV interviews in general are a depressing affair, a setup for celebrities to pitch their latest project at the request of some PR department. The questions are light-hitting, pre-screened, and spoon-fed, and no one does that like Leno. With his huge collection of vintage cars and motorcycles, his real-life caricature of a face, the oddly insecure way he delivers jokes during his monologue (never content with the first laugh, he almost always follows the punchline by repeating it or explaining it to try to grab another laugh), he's like an alien to me, like nobody I know.

Conan, coming off his days writing for The Harvard Lampoon, SNL, and The Simpsons, has a comic sensibility more in tune with my generation. I never felt comfortable with his move up to 11:35pm to present his more absurdist comic style to what people like to generalize as "Middle America" but which I'll just call the Leno crowd. I liked Conan the way he was at 12:35, loose and free, but if The Tonight Show was what he wanted, I was glad he was getting it. But my fears seemed to be confirmed by the early ratings on the show, which weren't what Leno was pulling in the same time slot. The few times I watched him, he seemed himself and yet not himself. Something, it was hard to pinpoint what, was missing.

That is, until this past week, when, after rumors of NBC's proposed reshuffling surfaced, he finally seemed to say, "F*** it, this is how I feel." This was his Jerry Maguire manifesto moment. All the resentment over the shifting of Leno to 10:00 (poaching premium LA guests) and now the shifting of Leno back to 11:35 honed Conan's humor to a razor's edge, and with the end of his time at NBC all but sealed, he seemed liberated of the burden of The Tonight Show mantle. It is ironic, if not tragic, that what is likely the last week or two of his time at NBC will see his strongest ratings. It must be at least some consolation to have Kimmel and Letterman unleashing on Leno this week on his behalf (Letterman's dislike of Leno is not surprising, but it was only via Bill Simmons that I learned that Kimmel has held Leno in nothing but disdain since Leno and his team told everyone that was anyone to blacklist Kimmel's show when it launched).

His resurgence this week reminded me of the Apatow movie Funny People. Many people found the movie's sudden plot shift partway through the movie disconcerting, but what I enjoyed was Apatow's depiction of the sadness behind the humor of the standup comedian, the pain and spite and anger that drives the court jester. Failure, jealousy, pettiness, pride, ego - all of these are the fuel that comedians use to power their craft.

That dynamic has been on given full demonstration by Letterman, Leno, Conan, and Kimmel this past week. Not only has it been compelling to watch late night show hosts take off the gloves and throw verbal haymakers at each other, it's been surreal to watch Conan tearing into NBC from his show airing on...NBC. Just tonight, Leno for some reason had Kimmel on his show for 10@10, and Kimmel tore into Leno, and Leno seemed either strangely oblivious or gracious, it's not clear which. I was reminded of Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondent's Dinner.

Ultimately, it may work out for the best for all involved, even if Conan has to drop off the air for some period of time. If Conan walks across town to Fox, he may get to come back with a renewed vigor on a network more suited for his comedic style. What's more, at Fox he might be able to come on the air at 11pm, a half hour before The Tonight Show which would likely be helmed by a reinstated Jay Leno. Given that the current plan was to bump Conan a half hour behind an 11:35pm Leno show, that would seem a satisfying reversal for the man they call Coco.