When Conan takes over The Tonight Show, what happens to the rest of the late-night landscape is anybody’s guess
"Doing talk show duty is very close to the easiest job that humans have ever devised. All talk show hosts ought to get up out of bed in the morning, look up in the sky and say, `Thank you, oh universe, for letting me sneak on by one more day.’ They’re all stealing money."
The year was 1992, and the speaker was somebody who should know (or know better): Steve Allen, the original host of The Tonight Show.
Allen was being asked to comment on all the comings and goings on TV that year. Johnny Carson ended his 30-year reign as king of late night. Jay Leno beat out David Letterman for Carson’s crown. Letterman brought his act to CBS. A young kid named Conan O’Brien was somehow handed Letterman’s old gig.
Allen, who passed away in 2000, wasn’t suggesting all late-night talk show hosts are "chimps," as Letterman often quips.
He simply was pointing out that the job was more like that of a radio DJ in that it didn’t require any special talent.
Which brings us to Jimmy Fallon. After months of speculation, the former Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" anchor will be officially named on Monday as NBC’s replacement for Conan O’Brien. O’Brien, as everybody knows by now, is leaving to take over The Tonight Show. Both hosts will be in place by June of 2009. The announcement is expected in New York as NBC unveils its fall shows to advertisers.
This is part of a series of moves the U.S. networks hope will shake late night out of its latest rut. Ratings for the genre in general are in a slump (see sidebar, next page), hammered by a sharp increase in TiVo and PVR use (viewers are watching stored prime-time shows late at night instead of Leno and Letterman), as well as the younger demo’s migration to YouTube to get their comedy fix in shorter bites.
Fallon should be a familiar face with the YouTube generation, thanks to his four-year stint behind SNL‘s "Weekend Update" desk, as well as his goofy imitations of stars like Adam Sandler and Nicolas Cage on the "Celebrity Jeopardy" skits. When the 33-year-old Brooklyn native bolted SNL for fame and fortune in films, however, it all seemed to go sour. Taxi, with Queen Latifah, went straight into the ditch. His baseball comedy with Drew Barrymore, Fever Pitch, was low and outside. Except for a popular Pepsi spot with Parker Posey, Fallon had lost his fizz.
"There’s a weird undercurrent about him," says Bill Carter, TV columnist at The New York Times and author of Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & the Network Battle for the Night.
"He made some really bad film choices. I think people tend to feel like, if you leave Saturday Night Live for a movie career, you better make it as a movie star, otherwise they’re going to say you were a fool for stepping out of the show."
Carter, who returns to the Banff TV festival next month as a moderator, points to Will Ferrell and Tina Fey as stars who stuck with SNL even after a taste of movie success. Amy Poehler (Baby Mama) is taking the same cautious approach today. "I think Jimmy thought he was going to break through as a movie star and it didn’t happen," Carter says.
This doesn’t mean Fallon can’t reinvent himself as a late-night success. In his corner is Lorne Michaels, the long time SNL executive producer, just named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
Michaels clearly still has plenty of influence at NBC. His company, Broadway Video, produces Late Night, and Fallon is his hand-picked choice to succeed O’Brien.
By his own admission, O’Brien’s name seemed "pulled out of a phone book" when he was handed Late Night by Michaels in 1993. Because things eventually worked out so well, Carter says there isn’t nearly the "sturm und drang" about Fallon. "While you do hear reservations, nobody at NBC is saying `boo’ about it. When Conan was picked, it was, `Who the heck is this guy?’"
Nobody is asking that question now, especially with O’Brien set to take over the biggest prize in late-night television, The Tonight Show. That was set in motion four years ago, as NBC moved to keep O’Brien after rumblings the Harvard grad was looking to bolt to ABC.
Four years ago in February, O’Brien took Toronto by storm, packing thousands of cheering fans into the Elgin Theatre for four memorable shows, his first taped outside the U.S. The rock star reception opened eyes all over in late night, as did O’Brien’s ratings dominance at 12:35, a string of weekly successes dating back a decade. By the time of the Toronto tapings, he was ready for 11:35.
Trouble was, Jay Leno still owned the time slot. The network, fearing the loss of O’Brien (just as Letterman had bolted years before), took a calculated but extraordinary gamble: O’Brien would get the Tonight chair in five years time, giving Leno the job until he was pushing 60 and likely out of gas.
Four years later, Leno the car collector still has plenty left in the tank. He still creams Letterman every week in the ratings, did it all during those strike shows (supposedly) without writers.
Still, a deal is a deal, especially when Leno’s lawyers have agreed to it, and O’Brien’s lawyers insisted on a default clause: NBC must pay him a whopping $40 million penalty if they renege. Thus NBC will announce next week O’Brien and Fallon are a go in one year and one month. O’Brien has already bought a home in Los Angeles. NBC is building him a new studio in Burbank, Calif., right on the NBC/Universal lot. Office buildings are being constructed for his staff.
"Everything’s in place," Carter says, "except for the fact there is a hint of danger in the air."
The big whoops happened three weeks ago when the unthinkable happened: CBS’s Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, for the first time ever, beat O’Brien at 12:35.
NBC was quick to point out O’Brien still won in the younger demo, but O’Brien’s invincibility was suddenly in doubt. As Carter says, "You sure don’t want to be moving to The Tonight Show if (O’Brien) is not beating Ferguson at 12:35, because Jay is still beating Dave."
And if it happens a second time, during May sweeps or, worse, the week NBC officially unveils their late-night plans – well, as Ed McMahon used to say, "Heyyyy-oooo."
Dave, of course, is David Letterman who, at 26 years and counting, has the longest grip on late night. His contract with CBS extends one year after Leno leaves, until 2010. Speculation after that is Ferguson – emerging as a star in his own right – Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert (who competes directly with Leno and Letterman at 11:30 on Comedy Central in the States, and here on The Comedy Network) could get a shot at Dave’s desk.
The dean of late night may have been damaged this winter after striking a separate deal with writers but still failing to beat Leno in the ratings. "Leno beat Dave with what, animal acts?" says Carter. "That was a real feather in Leno’s cap."
The big question then becomes: What of Leno? Where will he wind up? By the terms of the NBC deal, he must sit on the sidelines for at least six months after departing Tonight in June of 2009.
"That will drive Jay insane," Carter says. "He’ll work every club in America. The guy has to work."
Rival networks, with ABC and Fox seen as the logical suitors, are not supposed to even approach him – wink wink – until that November.
NBC has offered Leno prime-time and weekend shows – anything to keep him in-house. Carter guesses Leno still covets weeknights at 11:35, and if NBC won’t let him win that hour for them, he may very well take his act to ABC, which would provide him with a better lead-in off higher local news numbers.
One complication, though, is ABC would have to dump their long-running and successful newsmagazine, Nightline, to open up 11:35 for Leno. Carter doesn’t see that as a problem. "Even people at ABC News concede that if Jay’s available, that show is history," he says.
Where, then, does that leave Jimmy Kimmel? The comedian just celebrated five years and 1,000 shows as host of Jimmy Kimmel Live. His infamous YouTube-friendly music videos, featuring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Kimmel’s girlfriend Sarah Silverman, drew millions of hits on the Internet and oodles of buzz.
His ratings, while not spectacular, have not declined as much as his peers and he seems to have stolen some of O’Brien’s college-age audience, especially among young males.
If ABC offers 11:35 to Leno, Kimmel could take second chair at 12:35 (the two got pretty chummy during the strike, guesting on each other’s shows on the same night). Or he could go to Fox, which covets a late-night presence and, with no local news affiliates, could start Kimmel at 11 p.m.
All the momentum in late night, in fact, seems to be with Kimmel and Craig Ferguson – which has to be troubling for NBC and their five-year plan. Ferguson’s recent win against O’Brien comes as he scores rave reviews as the featured act at the White House correspondents’ dinner in Washington.
"Watch him, he can taste it – you can see the energy there," Carter says.
NBC’s nightmare, of course, is that O’Brien winds up facing off against both Leno and Letterman – or Ferguson, Kimmel, Colbert and Stewart. As Carter says, "Just because Conan’s getting The Tonight Show doesn’t mean he’s going to walk in there and dominate late night, especially if Jay moves to another network."
If only Johnny Carson’s Carnac was still around to see into the future.
Bill Brioux is a freelance television