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The Mutually Assured Destruction of Late Night Television

Nicholas Anderson | Tuesday, January 19, 2010

By the time a feud in the entertainment industry devolves into “teams,” I’ve normally lost any interest I may have had in the subject. I would assume that it’s because these teams are populated almost exclusively by giggly middle school girls and lonely middle-age women.

See “Team Angelina” vs. “Team Aniston” and “Team Edward” vs. “Team Jacob” to illustrate my point.

For a moment, however, it seemed there was a team I could get behind: “Team Coco.” For those uniformed, “Team Coco” is the legions of fans supporting Conan O’Brien in the most recent of the Late Night wars. It seemed easy; I was a fan of Conan.

Conan deserves both an audience and support, both of which he is severely lacking. Back in 2004, Conan was being heavily courted by rival networks following a 10-year run of his own talk show which showcased brilliant comedy, exceptional guests and promising musical talent. Instead of letting him leave, NBC promised him “The Tonight Show” in 2009, the high seat of late night comedy pioneered by the peerless Johnny Carson and kept warm by the vapid Jay Leno.

Leno graciously, at the time, offered his retirement and willingness to pass the show along.
 Before delving into the current drama, it’s best to keep in mind that NBC nearly destroyed “The Tonight Show” once before. When Carson left, his heir apparent was David Letterman, who had occupied the 12:35 a.m. spot for years, and was passed over as the new host. I

n a series of back-handed deals, executives at NBC offered the show to Leno, a hard-working, everyman stand-up persona whose appeal focused strongly on Middle America. Letterman’s cynical, watermelon-dropping style departed to CBS, where it’s been strong but consistently beaten by Leno.

The current situation reeks of the same tainted touch of bean-counting suits at the NBC studios.

Conan, who only head-lined “The Tonight Show” for seven months, has been pushed out by Leno’s desire to return to the spotlight and corporate structure’s desire to make advertising money.

After Leno’s failure at 10 p.m., he wants to return to late night and executives want the money that comes with his ratings.

It looks clear cut; Leno is a hack who gathers his audience through a broad, lowest common denominator appeal and whose mind-blowing mediocrity leaves those with an above average IQ suffering. Conan is a quick-witted charmer whose writing staff has provided moments of unquestioned genius including Preparation H Raymond, the FedEx Pope, desk driving and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

Upon further inspection, cracks emerge. Like much of his audience, I failed to follow Conan to his earlier time slot.

His often bizarre sense of humor was clearly limited by the earlier time and responsibility to appeal to more people, but the problem didn’t start there.

Conan had been coasting on early strengths and an “aw-shucks” attitude even before his switch. Few of his memorable sketches and moments of magnificence have occurred in the last five years. In fact, most of them happened before Andy Richter left the show. (It’s at least nice to see him back).

Conan will most likely land on his feet on Fox, Comedy Central or somewhere out on the great expanse of the Internet. Leno will be back at his old desk cracking bad jokes for another 10 years before maybe passing the show along to a by then middle-aged Jimmy Fallon.

Letterman will be glad he left this all behind in 1993. Young viewers will continue their migration to watching Stewart and Colbert on their Internet browsers.  And NBC will have killed the traditional late night talk show.