Whether you believe the O’Brien/Leno kerfuffle is yet more rash decision-making from NBC—a network whom someone should really sit down sometime and read Aesop’s “The Dog And The Shadow” to (except it would probably just sit there shrieking, “This is boring. I wanna watch more Heroes!”)—or just the inevitable result of that pact with the devil Jay Leno made back in 1991 to get out of French rule, odds are this is the most you’ve cared about late-night television in years.
And why not? It’s a story full of comedy, drama, and super-fun GIFs you can stick on your Facebook page—and even better, it’s a long-percolating eruption of a certain unspoken intellectual cold war that’s been brewing between the sort of people who find Jay Leno’s humor pedestrian and the people who think those people are elitist snobs (because clearly sense of humor is really just an issue of class instead of taste, and also we should totally live in a Harrison Bergeron-like society where we take our greatest comfort in things that are reassuringly average).
But hey, we come not to root for either side, to offer solutions, nor even to offer a straightforward summation of just what the hell is happening out there in war-torn Burbank; we’re just here to piece together the latest rumors from the front so you can rest easy this weekend, content in the knowledge that you’re fully up to date on an issue you won’t even care about this time next week. Won’t that be nice? You can get back to watching Jersey Shore parodies on YouTube and unjustly ignoring Jimmy Kimmel. It’ll be just like this never happened…
- …unless you work for Conan O’Brien, of course, in which case, oops, you moved to Los Angeles and now you’re screwed. Unfortunately for you, the latest whispers on the blog-street say that Leno’s return to hosting The Tonight Show is pretty much a done deal, with Jay planning to once again emerge from those curtains to a nationwide chorus of boos once the Winter Olympics are over—upon which he will probably make some jokes in a mock-humble vein, do that shrugging thing where he’s all like, “Hey, I’m just a regular guy trying to renege on my years-old contract and greedily overstay my welcome regardless of the cost to others, because I’m far too old and set in my ways to seek out new creative avenues here!” and then retire to his temperature-controlled garage, where he’ll curl up in the front seat of one of his antique cars until 3 a.m. and reap the karmic reward of all those bad reviews, while the tracks of his tears race like fat, salty tributaries to the Mississippi delta of his chin.
Of course, Archimedes’ principle of network displacement says that when boring, undeserving mass reenters occupied, far more buoyant waters, an equal weight of liquid assets must be kicked back to the guy who was already sitting there, minding his own business. So now the story goes that sometime over this weekend, Conan O’Brien will agree to get out of the way in exchange for a “low-eight figure payout” and the promise that any sort of “non-compete” window will be lifted by fall, so he can then take his show someplace that might actually appreciate him—most likely Fox. His exit could even come as early as next week. But in the meantime, the thing “keeping [O’Brien] awake at night” are all his staffers, half of whom he brought with him from New York, who will now be out of a job. Chances are good that most of those people could follow him to wherever he lands, of course, but meanwhile they’ll have to find something else in what is, really, just an awesome economy for writers right now.
- While all of this is still only annoying speculation, any hopes that someone inside NBC was secretly pulling for O’Brien were pretty much dashed this morning in a New York Times interview with Dick “Kills Shows On Contact” Ebersol. You may remember Ebersol as the guy who, like a caveman with Asperger’s, sought to destroy what he could not understand by ruining Saturday Night Live, turning it into a collection of mostly pre-taped videos after Lorne Michaels left. Or, even more pertinently, perhaps you remember him as the guy who called Leno out for “unoriginal comedy” and “piss-poor interviewing skills” while advocating Letterman over Leno in The Late Shift. Chances are he doesn’t remember, however, as Ebersol says it is Conan’s “stubborn[ness] about not being willing to broaden the appeal of his show”—i.e., his unwillingness to do things that aren’t so disconcertingly original, for crying out loud—that is his downfall, while also decrying O’Brien’s jokes about Leno, saying it’s “chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn’t beat in the ratings.” Oops!
- Also weighing in on this debacle for some reason, though sadly not in haiku form: Rosie O’Donnell, who told reporters at an HBO Television Critics Association panel that she believed Conan should definitely get to keep his seat, all while using an analogy that likened taking over The Tonight Show to driving a bus—something O’Donnell obviously knows a lot about.
- Among the funnier (though still probably too tangentially related to merit inclusion, beyond the fact that we’re obviously big fans of his and don’t particularly care if you’re sick of hearing from him) voices to speak up about The Late Shitstorm this week was Patton Oswalt. He was asked what he thought about the whole hullabaloo and, surprise, came out firmly on O’Brien’s side. What’s more, he drew some compelling parallels between Leno’s will to power and Richard Nixon, while also offering an articulate (albeit familiar to anyone who’s heard Bill Hicks’ classic routine on the subject) summation of why most comedians are disappointed in Leno, which is that he’s a formerly funny guy who was given the greatest platform any comic could possibly ask for, only to waste it on lazy jokes that are just a notch above those e-mail forwards you get from your grandpa. (Our words, not his.) “It doesn’t even feel like a bad guy winning,” Oswalt says. “It just feels like a guy winning who doesn’t even know why he wants to win.” Too true. The whole thing is worth listening to.
- Meanwhile, Conan has been keeping his head up, no doubt taking some cold comfort in the fact that all of his comedy peers as well as the whole of the critical world likes him and absolutely hates Jay Leno, and amusing himself with pranks like putting The Tonight Show up for sale on Craigslist, because that is the sort of thing that genuinely funny people do. The ad for a “barely-used late night talk show… guaranteed to last for up to seven months!” has been posted and yanked several times throughout the course of the day, but you can see an archived screenshot here. Meanwhile, Jay Leno probably spent the afternoon drafting and scrapping a mock-humble press statement, and struggling to find the perfect amount of mealy-mouthed tidings of goodwill to surround some joke he’d already composed about Mark McGwire’s steroid use.
- Finally, while everyone else in late night has been devoting their monologues to stoking the flames and ensuring clips from their shows end up in everybody’s de facto YouTube round-ups the next morning, Jimmy Fallon has mostly been keeping quiet—something the L.A. Times speculates is part of a strategy that will have him coming out “smelling like a rose” and, eventually, taking over The Tonight Show once Leno has his inevitable nervous breakdown. On his show he’s avoided talking about it altogether, preferring to do delightfully weird stuff like this cold-open performance of the “Pants On The Ground” song from American Idol as Neil Young—which is precisely the kind of humor NBC loves to reward, right?
Have a super weekend!
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