Sick of Conan vs. Leno yet? Me neither! I’m the fourth writer The A.V. Club has trotted out this week to chronicle the gloriously messy sequel-in-progress to The Late Shift, and yet there’s still new stuff to chew on all the time. On Thursday the inevitable became official: Conan agreed to let NBC pay him around $33 million—plus $12 million for his staff—to walk away from The Tonight Show. (Has anyone reported how much Andy Richter and Max Weinberg are getting? Are they just lumped into that $12 million?)
So Conesy was heading into tonight’s show as a lame-duck host in the eyes of the law. If there ever was there was a time for Conan to let loose the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword on NBC and Leno, this was it. Woo boy, this was going to be good!
Except … well, it was okay, I guess, but Conan’s second-to-last show seemed almost staid, all things considered. The digs at NBC are essentially perfunctory at this point, though Robin Williams doing his usual cracked-out Robin Williams act was, incredibly, not nearly as annoying as I feared/assumed it would be. Williams’ improvised Irish ditty, which culminated in a blaze of F-bombs and middle fingers, offered the only whiff of danger on Conan’s penultimate Tonight Show appearance. (Conan, strangely, seemed overly concerned with “keeping it clean” during Williams’ segment.) Otherwise the guest appearances by Pee-Wee Herman and Ben Stiller, while amusing, did little to shake the feeling that the two-week “Rip NBC A New Asshole” campaign is starting to wear a little thin.
Then there’s Leno, who has apparently checked out of the late-night wars completely. I had never watched The Jay Leno Show before tonight—sweet Jesus, did NBC create the butt-ugly opening credits using cutting-edge computer graphics technology from 1992?—but I’d read that he’d taken some shots at NBC and his re-invigorated rival David Letterman in the last several days. Tonight, though, he ignored the elephant in the room until 10 minutes into the show, when he sheepishly announced that “apparently we'll be back on the Tonight Show March 1 after the Olympics, so that's pretty much where we are." I know the triumph of that statement doesn’t really translate on the page, but man, it was even less electric when Leno said it. Then it was on to a horrifyingly boring interview with Billy Crystal, Billy Crystal’s awful dye job, and Billy Crystal’s alarmingly large and smooth forehead. I think Jay and Billy spent 27 minutes talking about driving in the goddamn rain, but I could be wrong about that. To be honest, I was shirking my reviewing duties and daydreaming about a donkey with a fly zipping around his butt.
Man, when I volunteered for this late-night gig I thought I was in for loads of shit-talking and trainwreck rubbernecking. Instead, I was reminded that late-night network talk shows without controversy are basically just slightly hipper versions of daytime network talk shows. C’mon, Conan ended tonight’s show with Barry freaking Manilow, for crissakes. I was getting paid to stay up to watch this. What’s your excuse?
Look, I’m a member of “Team Conan,” whatever that means. I think the guy is funny—a genius even—and likeable as all hell. But I didn’t watch The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien before this shitstorm broke out last week, and judging by his awful ratings, you probably didn’t, either. This simple fact seems to be continually lost in all the pro-Conan hand-wringing over NBC’s supposed stupidity in throwing its support behind Leno. That’s the most fascinating aspect to me of this whole mess: Everybody in the media seems to agree that Conan is hilarious and awesome and Leno is a comedy Hitler. I know I believe this unequivocally. But this is an opinion, not a fact. Here are the facts: For most of the 17 years that Leno hosted The Tonight Show, he was No. 1 in the ratings. When Conan took over, he lost half of Leno’s audience. Half! If I were Conan, and I saw people in the streets protesting my unceremonious ouster from my dream job, I would take to the airwaves and calmly ask, “If you guys really love me so much, why the fuck were you not watching my show when it mattered?”
I can’t speak for how good or bad Conan’s Tonight Show was because, like I said, I never watched it. I’ve heard that he was stiffer than he was on Late Night, but I wouldn’t know, because I hadn’t watched Late Night for some time either. Hardly anybody I know who’s my age watches network late-night talk shows on a regular basis anymore. Because even a late-night talk show hosted by a genuinely funny guy like Conan O’Brien is essentially a predictable and transparent promotional vehicle for movie stars, sitcom actors, and second-tier music acts 90 percent of the time. This is the central problem with the Team Conan nation: Deep down, we don’t give two shits about The Tonight Show. It's just not a brand that resonates with most people under the age of 35, I don't think. For as much goodwill as Conan has engendered lately—which he deserves—I think this whole thing has really boiled down to hating Leno and everything he represents. (Nobody gets this better than Letterman, who tonight weirdly—and hilariously—blamed Leno for running Jimmy Stewart off the road once in 1989.)
To me the most telling part of tonight’s Jay Leno Show was a throwaway moment where Leno mentioned the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and most of the audience cheered. That, in a nutshell, is why people like me hate Leno’s guts. He’s the figurehead of moron America. But my (and your) dislike of Jay Leno has nothing to do with who’s the better host for The Tonight Show. Team Conan is irrelevant because we don’t watch The Tonight Show, even when a guy we claim to love is hosting it.
Conan is obviously much funnier than Leno; then again, so are most contagious diseases. But I’ve learned to get over my knee-jerk anger over this Tonight Show mess. The Tonight Show means nothing to me or my generation, and life is too short to get riled up over who’s hosting shows I don’t really care about, even if the way this is decided upsets my sense of justice. I’m curious to see what Conan does next. I know I’ll watch his first couple of shows on Fox or wherever he ends up, but I’ll likely bail after that. Hopefully for his sake most of you won’t follow suit.
The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien: B-
The Jay Leno Show: C-