The Last Tonight Show

We’ll let Ned Beatty open our proceedings with an invocation:

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature!”

That’s what happens when you fuck with one of the last institutions of American broadcasting. NBC did it once before, when they threw over Dave for Jay, and they’re doing it again with the botched reverse-transition from Jay to Conan to Jay.

But this isn’t really about Jay or Dave or Conan. It’s about Johnny. And Sigourney’s dad.

Pat Weaver’s foundational role in American television is well-known to broadcast historians. Among other things, he saved Meet the Press from oblivion. He founded the Today show, at an hour when nobody thought there was an audience. And in 1954, he installed Steve Allen as host of the new Tonight Show.

We know these things because, like Conan, we are a Tonight Show geek. Conan’s cri de coeur Tuesday, announcing his refusal to host a midnight program, sounded a very familiar note to us:

Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me.

That chair. Johnny’s chair.

We’re just four years older than Conan. We started watching Johnny soon after the Tiny Tim wedding. We stuck with the show throughout the Seventies, until we graduated college. To be anachronistic about it, the Monologue was the nightly blog of the day’s events, a series of brilliant tweets from Bob Hope’s studio.

When Johnny was good, he was very good. And when he was bad — cue Tea for Two — he was even better.

In addition to being the Standup For Our Time, Johnny had an essential and enduring role introducing other standups to America, before cable channels could pick up the slack. We looked forward to sets by Robert Klein. And Steven Wright. (1982 — we didn’t stop watching entirely.) And, of course, Carlin — our playful sense of language stems directly from Carlin’s Tonight Show appearances, when he had to work clean.

We’re almost a generation beyond Johnny’s thirty-year tenure, but we’re still seeing the effects — not just comics who are still around, but fellow childhood fans like Conan, now in middle age. Jay the Usurper may have desecrated the throne, but Conan was going to set things right. We could always pretend that Dave hosted the real Tonight Show in exile until now.

But no more. NBC just threw a tomahawk into the Tonight Show’s crotch.

Rationally, there’s no reason anybody should care about the events of the past few days, unless they share our late-night geekhood, or are just fans of the principals. Nobody cares about the network anchors any more. We’re not sure anybody ever cared who hosted the morning shows. But the Tonight Show, well, it once held a singular place in American popular culture. And now that NBC has screwed over two successive heirs apparent, that era is finally drawing to a close.

We’ll still have late-night comedy. Conan himself will land on his feet. But Johnny’s Kids have been cast to the winds.


One thing I didn’t realize was that there are rats with huge jutting chins.

I was never allowed to stay up past 11 till the last year of high school (domineering parents) but I understand your sadness. I feel that way every time I see a Simpsons past 1998. A shadow of its once great self.

It’s amazing to me to see how many digs the other late night hosts (Kimmel and Ferguson especially) are making against Leno. It’s not just comments about the situation as a whole or against NBC; it’s straight up hatred for Jay Leno. And it’s kinda fabulous to watch.

@ManchuCandidate: Not so much sadness, but trying to find the historical perspective — folks who don’t even watch these shows are interested, and I think it’s because of the Tonight Show’s place in American pop culture.

@TJ/ Jamie Sommers /TJ: You’d think Leno was Gallagher, the hate he’s getting from other comics. But then, Gallagher’s funnier.

@TJ/ Jamie Sommers /TJ: Leno has fucked over Letterman, he fucked over Carson, now he has fucked over Conan. He’s just a fucking shit.

@Prommie: I’m not sure Leno fucked over Letterman — the switch was NBC’s call, based (if I recall) on Leno’s Q score, a “likeability” measure used by Hollywood. And financially, NBC made the right call, although it wasn’t evident at first — the “Dancing Itos” during the OJ trial was when Leno started getting traction.

Leno didn’t fuck over Carson, either — although he did fuck over Carson’s staff. Personnel change was inevitable during regime change, but it could have been handled a lot more elegantly. I think that’s why Carson was really pissed at Leno, not just Carson’s preference for Letterman.

More generally, Leno’s manager-turned-exec producer earned no friends in the industry when she played hardball with guests: You appeared on Leno’s show first, or you didn’t appear on it at all. They got rid of her once his position was secure.

And, in fairness, Leno should be held harmless for NBC’s contract with Conan five or six years ago — the one that guaranteed Conan the Tonight Show in 2009. The game was to keep Conan from going elsewhere at the time, which was also the reasoning behind puttng Leno at 10 p.m. (Besides saving all that production money on scripted shows.)

There’s certainly no love for Leno, because he’s a fucking lazy comic. But this isn’t all his fault.

@nojo: . . . the “Dancing Itos” during the OJ trial was when Leno started getting traction.

I prefer to blame Hugh Grant.

@Prommie: Another comparison of sorts, not necessarily showing why Leno isn’t beloved by his peers, but why Letterman gets more respect…

As we learned in later years, Conan was on very short-term contracts in the early days — NBC had no confidence in him whatsoever. It wasn’t until Letterman appeared on his show a year or two in — in effect, “blessing” it — that Conan’s audience began to build.

The point of Letterman’s gesture was that Conan’s Late Night wasn’t a carbon copy of Dave’s, recycling old setups and such. (Since NBC owned Letterman’s material, Conan could have run Top Ten lists and recast Larry “Bud” Melman.) Conan was re-inventing the show from scratch, and Dave respected the effort. (Note how Jon Stewart slowly remodeled Kilborn’s Daily Show over time.)

There may well be similar stories about Leno, but I’m not aware of them.

(Did I mention I’m a late-night geek? We’re still only scratching the surface…)

@nojo: Well, to me, the purple curtain alone was enough reason to hate Leno.

I think he is hated because he is a weasel, for years he let that psychopath manager bully and fuck with people and would pretend ignorance, he steals bits, he steals jokes, he is always the passive aggressive, “what, what, what’d I do,” and he is just weaselly in his weaselly weaselling.

And dumb, too.

Houndini. Good God, Houndini, the man should have been fired the instant that fucking houndini skit aired.

Meanwhile, in news that is now profoundly trivial, rumors afoot that Leno may walk.

And, of course, rumors denied.

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