Being the visionary predictors of the zeitgeist that we are, we here at The A.V. Club have determined that the world is clamoring for some, for any coverage of the current state of NBC late-night programming. With what might be the final episodes of The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien airing this week, it seemed like high time to pay due consideration to these so-called “Late Night Wars.” (Ha! What an original and apt descriptive phrase!) Different writers will be weighing in on both shows for the rest of the week.
In an uncharacteristic bit of self-awareness, tonight Leno seemed very cognizant of the fact that he has become the villain of this whole kerfuffle, and counteracted that with a straightforward, joke-free evaluation of the whole situation and his role in it. After a monologue full of the sort of snippy, backhanded jokes that have become the norm on both shows for the last week or so, that is. But even with these so-called “jokes,” Jay attempted to fashion himself into a victim of the Evil Network Dictators: “You know the difference between me and Tony Romo? I’ve only been sacked twice.”
Leno returned to the “I’ve been fired twice” gambit several times tonight, probably to counteract the image of him as a megalomaniacal multimillionaire intent on taking out our poor, humble Conesy. Granted, the extent to which Leno has been vilified is a little out of control and a little unfair; but Leno can’t pull off the self-deprecation act like Conan can, and he just ended up coming off as petulant. Not to mention that both of his so-called “firings” have resulted in him getting millions of dollars to keep crapping out Headlines and Jaywalking bits in slightly different timeslots.
To be fair, Leno’s statement following the monologue seemed reasonable, boiling down to: NBC kicked me out so they could keep Conan, Conan fumbled, they asked me to pick up the ball and I did because I don’t want the children of my 175 staff members to starve. But it’s hard to buy Leno’s naïve, “They told me Conan was cool with it, I swear!” line when he follows it up with the assertion that “It’s just business.” If you’re bitter about your so-called “firing,” Jay, what makes you think Conan would just go on his merry way? You can go the route of the humble ringer who’s just trying to make everyone happy, or you can take the pragmatic, “it’s just business” tack, but you can’t have it both ways.
And then, Sneaky Jay, just when you had us off our guard with that forthright testimony, you bowl us over with the most potent weapon in your comedy arsenal: HEADLINES! From there, it was business as usual: A stilted, canned promotional interview with Emily Blunt about how stilted and canned promotional interviews are; Ringo Starr banging a snare drum and singing about Liverpool in order to establish himself as a solo artist outside the shadow of The Beatles; and a Golden Globes red-carpet package that was also a spoof trailer I guess? I don’t know, at that point I was on YouTube trying to find that video of the cat falling on the guy from earlier in the monologue. Best laugh of the night.
Even with such hilarious viral video at Leno’s disposal though, all eyes have been on Conan for the past week, as we all wait for him to finally snap and burn down the Tonight Show set while he string-dances amid the flames. Everyone’s been talking about how much looser Conan’s seemed since the announcement, a glimmer of the offbeat weirdo he left behind at Late Night. And while it’s true that Conesy has been fucking NBC hard and nasty in his monologues for days now, it doesn’t feel like he’s going quite as far outside the lines as he could be. Yes, putting the show—and tonight, himself—on Craigslist is the sort of trenchant, mildly absurd gag that Leno would never touch; but compare it to Late Night during the writers’ strike and some of the brilliant anti-programming that came of that. It could be so much more! If there was ever a time for Conan to go big and bold, it’s now.
Prime example: During his monologue, Conan showed footage of the support rallies that formed outside the NBC studios today (yes, really), and said that as a thank-you to these supporters, he sent an “Tonight Show emissary” out to greet them. Triumph, right? It’s gotta be Triumph, especially considering he’s among the properties that Conan might not be able to take with him if he left NBC. But no, it’s LaBamba waving from a Popemobile. Which, you know, fine, whatever; but really, that situation called for some Triumph. (Yes, I know there’s a good chance there could have been a scheduling conflict with Robert Smigel, especially on such short notice, and I’m choosing to ignore that logic.)
But there’s still at least four days left in this whole dramarama, and judging by some of the guests Conan has lined up for this week—including the always-game Will Ferrell and Tom Hanks—it’s a safe bet things will continue to ramp up. Conan soliciting Martin Scorsese for a job and Colin Firth repeatedly saying “unhappy anus” is a good start.
Frankly, this whole conflict is starting to take on the air of a political campaign, and Conan is clearly ahead in the polls: He has celebrity endorsements and the adoration and support of the Liberal Media; he has a Shepard Fairey-like logo; he has a snappy slogan (I’m With Coco), oodles of Facebook support (the all-important youth vote), and even well-attended rallies. Plus, as we learned tonight from writer Dion Cole's recurring bit, he’s a Black Man. Basically, at this point Conan is Barack Obama circa 2008, but fueled by indignation and mild pity instead of Hope and Change. But hey, things turned out pretty well for ol’ Barack, right? Technically, Conan may be the loser in this situation, but if there was a popular election right now, he’d be voted president of NBC. And then he’d burn down the place and head to cable or HBO or some other place where he can really be the loveable weirdo he is. That’s change we can believe in.
The Jay Leno Show: C-
The Tonight Show: B-