Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Reader mail: Final thoughts on Jay Leno vs. Conan O'Brien

Reader mailbag column today, in which I deal with the Jay vs. Conan mess once and for all (I hope).


Karen said...

I just want to say THANK YOU for your observations on the sophomoric or juvenile nature of Conan's comedy vs Jay's comedy. That has been driving me crazy.

Actually, I want to thank you for that entire response! You laid out the reasons for Jay's unpopularity in the Conan vs Leno contest very concisely and convincingly.

Anonymous said...


I notice that in your first response in the reader mailbag, you write that the lead-in strategy remains important because for the majority of viewers, TV is a passive activity.

Have there been recent studies examining the strength of the lead-in effect? I would imagine that the correlation has been growing weaker over time, as timeshifting gets easier and viewers become more acclimated to a Youtube model of seeking out things to watch.

I assume that, at a minimum, the networks must have looked into this, but with geniuses like Zucker running the show, you never know...

Anonymous said...

I don't get the juvenile humour tag, anyway. Where are TDS/Colbert? Or Monty Python? Voltaire? Swift? Shakespeare? Twain? Cracked? (Yes, in that order.)

wheelpoint said...


You really got an equal amount of mail from "Team Jay"? That's a little surprising considering most of the coverage has painted him in such a (deservedly) negative light.

Not that I'm sure he doesn't have fans; it's just surprising that anybody would care enough to write you from the angle of supporting his return to late night and the vanilla status quo.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I write for a newspaper, which means an older readership, which is right in the Leno demographic wheelhouse.

This is like the current state of American politics: the people who believe in Jay are going to believe in him no matter what he does.

Jake said...

The thing about supposedly juvenile humor is that all great humor must have a baseline of absurdity. Voltaire's Candide features a character who falls apart by the second due to syphilis. Conan is Harvard-educated, the Python boys went to Oxford and Cambridge (Gilliam went to Occidental College) as well as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Yet all of them delve into farce, cross-dressing, innuendo and the like.

What separates them from people like Leno or Larry the Cable Guy is that, when Conan or Python resort to lowest common denominator jokes, they mingle them with high comedy to make something brilliant (such as the Python "Summarize Proust" competition, which ends with the prize going to none of the participants but the woman in the audience with the largest breasts). Leno just aggressively shoots for the middle and does nothing with it. Besides, compare Leno's desperate attempt at martyrdom to Conan's brilliant skewering and final moment of class and point out the child to me.

Adam said...

Alan, do you think the folks on Team Leno even know how Kushnick and Leno pushed Carson out the door? Would they care?

Nicole said...

Leno v. Conan has become a little like the red state blue state divide where the most vocal become entrenched for their candidate and ridiculous assertions get tossed around. However, since I'm team Coco, the allegation that Conan had sophomoric humour as compared to Jay's Dancing Itos was just ridiculous and Alan's observations were spot on.

Except for moments of TDS and Colbert Report, none of the late night talk shows use sophisticated humour on a consistent basis, but the difference, as astutely pointed out, is that Conan tends to make himself a part of the joke instead of simply laughing at the target, as Jay does.

Leno seems stuck in the 90s with his jokes, especially when he does standup. Colleagues at work saw him at Casino Rama last spring and he was still doing jokes about the Menendez brothers.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Alan, do you think the folks on Team Leno even know how Kushnick and Leno pushed Carson out the door? Would they care?

Those who "know" refuse to believe it. I've had readers write in to say that Kushnick did it all on her own, and use the fact that Jay fired her (long after Carson was gone, btw) as "proof" that he had nothing to do with it. A sample sentence from an e-mail written in response to today's column:

"First ,no matter what Jays late manager did or didn't do and what Jay knew and IF that stupid book was even half true THEY did not force Johnny out.NBC did and no one else."

TL said...

Alan, your response to Ms. Herzberg is a perfect summation of the whole mess. NBC is ultimately at fault, but Leno had numerous veto points where he could have stopped all of this with only minor hurt feelings.

Now, NBC has nothing to show for its 15-year investment in Conan, Jay can't host forever, and there's no natural successor for the Tonight Show. Way to go, guys!

Btw, Jay got lined up for his gig by guest hosting when Carson was out. Did Jay ever have guest hosts? Why did that go by the wayside?

Nicole said...

As a follow up to Adam's comments about Kushnik, the most telling sign that Leno isn't the nice guy he pretends to be is that not only does he simply blame Kushnik for everything, but that he fires her and fails to show up to her funeral following her death from cancer a few years later, even though she was his manager for a period of time. I can't see most of Team Leno being fine with that kind of behaviour.

Adam said...

Did Jay ever have guest hosts? Why did that go by the wayside?

Katie Couric, one night. That was it. He never gave another person that seat.

Anonymous said...

And that was only a "job swap" gimmick where he went to New York, right? Meaning that he was still working and still on television and the person sitting in for him was absolutely no threat to him.

dez said...

The best thing that will come of Jay going on Oprah's show will surely be the mileage Letterman gets out of it.

I still watch a couple of NBC shows that come on before Leno, and I cannot switch the station or turn the TV off fast enough to avoid even a whiff of his stale act. I can't believe I ever thought he was funny at all.

njames said...

If you look at the situation, Leno didn’t do anything wrong when it came to the idea of the shake-up. HOWEVER, he has done nothing but hurt his image (and made people point fingers AT him) by some of his actions.

1. On my site, I had a post that had The Jay Leno Show 2009 monologue about the situation put side-by-side with the 2004 monologue about Conan getting the spot. He took credit for the decision to pass the torch in 2004, but in 2009 said it was out of his control. So while the TRUTH was that it was the network’s decision to give Conan the show, Leno didn’t help himself by publicly taking credit for it.

2. He also burned himself by signing back up for The Tonight Show BEFORE Conan’s NBC deal was reached. I’m baffled how Leno could think that wouldn’t make him look bad.

3. His insistence that he’s “blue collar”, and him using phrases like “hand shake” deal; when the reality is that he has a team of lawyers and reps that etched out a $150 million penalty. Pretty sure most middle-Americans don’t have handshake deals like that.

4. His 2009 monologue where he says he was just doing what he was told, when the reality was that he could have left at the end of his contract. NBC couldn’t KEEP hmi at the net, like he implied. His 2-yr 10p deal was a NEW contract (AFTER his 2004-2009 contract), so no one forced him to do the 10p show.

You absolutely cannot blame him for going for that huge paycheck (and anybody saying otherwise needs to get off the unicorn they ride to Candyland and lvie in the real world), BUT he did himself no favors by publicly calling himself a bystander. So his image as being the perp in all this is really brought on by how his actions are perceived.

JMC said...

Rosie O'Donnell revealed on Stern's show recently that years ago NBC courted her to be the Friday guest host on Leno's Tonight Show. Negotiations, etc., had all been worked out and an announcement was forthcoming until at the last minute it was suddenly yanked from her due to Leno stepping in and squashing it.

One thing I feel is overlooked in this debacle is Leno's propensity to lean on his 'normal guy' status to excuse behavior that if you scratched a little deeper is just plain wrong. You can't say "aw, shucks, I don't have a manager/agent; we shake hands and call it a deal" and then in the same breath say "I have 175 jobs I'm responsible for." Any decent agent would never have allowed the 2004 negotiation to wind up in such a ridiculous predicament. And likewise a savvy agent would not have actually heard NBC say "Sure, Conan's on board!" without a lot of extra legalese thrown in the mix to make sure all i's and t's are dotted and crossed.

But at the end if Leno wants to say he's a normal guy, then that normal guy is just an insensitive whacko, because we all know, as decent human beings, that if some major shakeup is about to occur, and it involves someone you claim is your 'friend', the *first* thing you'd do is go around NBC and contact Conan directly and plainly state "Hey, they want to do this, BUT I DON'T WANT A REPEAT OF WHAT HAPPENED YEARS AGO WHEN I LOST DAVE AS A FRIEND, so what do you think Conan?"

Call his show a ratings winner, his comedy just exactly what the majority of this country wants, etc., but you can't look at all this drama around Jay and say that the man knows how to manage his own career with any aplomb. What a dope.

JMC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Srimshaw said...

Alan - two inside baseball questions if you have the spare time that I think are interesting.

1. What % of US Households have a DVR (or TIVO) appliance?

2. How does this affect ratings if a show is watched on DVR delay. (I would assume that me watching on DVR and fastforwarding the commercials is not as valuable as real time watching)


Dave T said...

Did Jay ever have guest hosts? Why did that go by the wayside?

Somewhere around the time the late-night field got much more competitive.

First, Johnny took about 15 weeks of vacation, and by the end, he was working only 3 days a week. His absences were too frequent to keep slotting in reruns, so they used guest hosts. (Leno had far less time off.)

Second, long before many of us were old enough to stay up and watch, Johnny was the undisputed king, and everyone else was an also-ran (Merv, Cavett, Joey Bishop, Alan Thicke, Pat Sajak...) Arsenio Hall had some success, but he and Johnny weren't competing for the same audience. Arsenio and Jay were. (Remember his "I'm gonna kick Jay's ass" threat?)

Soon after, Dave went to CBS and things really heated up. Jay couldn't afford to cede ground, or to give exposure to future competitors.

I don't know why it is incumbent on Leno to have guest hosts just because Johnny's schedule necessitated them. Did Letterman (aside from during extended illness) ever have guest hosts? Did Conan? Did Craig (either Kilborn or Ferguson)? Did Arsenio?

So why aren't these hosts subject to the same criticism?

As a matter of Jay "forcing" Johnny out, it's very likely that Jay was complicit in Helen Kushnick's actions, if not behind them. But it's not like Johnny was going to host forever.

During the end of Phil Donahue's run (another who never had guest hosts!), they ran some "classic" episodes, including one with Johnny. An audience member asked about rumors he was leaving the Tonight Show. This was from the early 1970s!! Even then, talk of Johnny "leaving The Tonight Show" was pretty much of an annual media event (usually as he tried to get sweeter and sweeter deals).

A post-Johnny scenario was contemplated in the early-mid 1980s, with that infamous memo listing possible eventual replacements. (At that time, Jay wasn't much more than a frequent guest on Letterman.)

Again, they knew Johnny would not always be the host. (The fact that the Joan Rivers was at that time the "permanent guest host," yet her name wasn't on the list, led her to sign with Fox.)

Jay may have threatened to go to CBS or syndication, but he had no power or authority to "force" anyone to do anything. Substitute Conan for Jay, and Fox for CBS... did Conan force Jay out?

But for those who dismiss Jay's audience as "too old," so was Johnny's! Anyone arguing that Jay had to be replaced - because of his audience - cannot credibly defend Johnny for trying hang around for eternity.

I'll agree with M.Chavez above: Jay should have called Conan before agreeing to anything, and not taken NBC's word that "Conan's OK with this."

Alan Sepinwall said...

Substitute Conan for Jay, and Fox for CBS... did Conan force Jay out?

Looked that way? Sure. The difference is that many of the Leno boosters I hear from attack Conan for "forcing" their guy out, yet refuse to acknowledge that Jay did the same thing to Johnny.

Rick said...

The nhing about this whole debacle is that it's given me excuse to reminisce about the Carson Days.

God, he was good.

BigTed said...

I think the difference between Johnny Carson and Jay Leno is that Carson liked doing "The Tonight Show," but he didn't need it. He was clearly getting tired of the grind of doing a nightly show, and, as by all accounts a fairly solitary person, seemed to look forward to the peace and quiet of retirement.

Leno, on the other hand, has a compulsive need to be successful, and to be liked by the maximum possible amount of people, at all times. That's why he still spends his free time flying around the country doing gigs, and that's why he stifled his former comedic tendencies to make a lowest common denominator-pleasing show that never risks offending anyone (or making them laugh too hard).

Jay won't leave the stage until he absolutely has to, or until the number of people clamoring for him to go is greater than the number who are okay with him staying. And if he starts beating Letterman in the ratings again, which there's a good chance he'll do, he'll fight to stay in that host's chair until he physically can't sit up anymore.

selke99 said...

I'm sick of hearing people say that Conan didn't have the ratings after 7 months. I've read multiple sources saying it took Leno 18 months to defeat Letterman. Long Live Conan!!!

Wish he would have had Triumph on his last week!

Anonymous said...

Alan, I'm surprised you get so many people championing Leno. All along I figured his viewers were similar to his comedy, bland, boring, non-committal. I assumed that when/if Leno left the Tonight Show they'd be bummed, but not really passionate about the guy. I always just figured none of them took the time to think about this stuff. Seems kind of odd that they not only think about all the stuff going on in late night, but they've twisted history and logic to conform to Leno being some sort of great guy.

Just curious, but do Larry the Cable Guy or CarrotTop fans think those guys are brilliant, misunderstood comics, too?

michael gilchrist said...

I thought Conan got a raw deal, but the Late Show was definitely a much better show. They really restricted a lot of his skits, and eventually that freedom cost him in the ratings and his job.

Craig Ranapia said...

The thing about supposedly juvenile humor is that all great humor must have a baseline of absurdity.

Jake: I'd question whether late night has ever harboured "great humour" (or anything even remotely amusing), but that's beside the point. Complaining about the "juvenile" nature of Conan or anyone else is like muttering that the Pope would be OK, but he insists on banging on about God all the time.

I find Letterman unwatchable, because he seems incapable of making a joke that isn't dripping with condescension and mean-spirited contempt. Obviously, millions disagree but I can't be bothered.

Bix said...

Since someone asked:

Leno started as full-time host on May 25, 1992.

The Hugh Grant interview that shifted the war in his favor was on July 10, 1995.

james said...

Predictions for the future?

Will Jay Leno be back on top with the ratings?

Will Conan move to FOX?

dez said...

Just read Mo Ryan's transcript of the Leno interview on Oprah. What a whiner Leno is. Not to mention delusional, pathetic, and other perjoratives I'm too lazy to list right now. I'm glad Oprah called him out on his cheap shot re: Letterman's marriage. And I'm realllly looking forward to Letterman's first show back after this, which should be epic.

Anonymous said...

What dez said.

And it's always someone else's fault with this guy, isn't it?

Caitlin said...

"So why aren't these hosts subject to the same criticism?"

WHAT criticism? Guy just asked a question. I haven't heard a single person criticize Leno for not having guest hosts.

"But it's not like Johnny was going to host forever."

That doesn't mean you force the guy out.

"Anyone arguing that Jay had to be replaced - because of his audience - cannot credibly defend Johnny for trying hang around for eternity."

Again, though, I haven't heard anyone say Leno HAD to be replaced, let alone for his audience. It's just that once he agreed to leave, saying it was his own idea and what was best for his life- it's a really crummy thing to go back on that word after someone else has already acted in reliance on it.

Anonymous said...

I would personally like to see all 3 major late hosts retire and never come back. Leno, Conan, and Letterman all need to go. They have all been on forever and they all feel stale. They should all step aside and get some fresh talent in the game. The few times i have stayed up late to watch Jimmy Fallon, I find him fresh, even though some of his bits fall flat. At least they feel fresh. And another thing these shows need to get rid of is the celebrity interview. Jon Stewart has figured out that less is more when it comes to these types of interviews. I wish other hosts would catch on too.

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to get into the Conan vs. Jay argument. Frankly, I don't care.

But it seems to me that the entire situation was predictable (I saw it coming a mile away), and was brought on by a bad initial call by NBC.

The Tonight Show has always been a sleepy, traditional show where the host (be it Johnny or Jay) survived on weak monologues and a likeable, somewhat conservative personality. It could never be accused of being edgy. And that was the key to its long success.

Why? Because people watch it as they drift off to sleep. It's the same reason that morning TV shows are calming. Nobody wants to think too much late at night or early in the morning. They just want a familiar, calming face they can drift off to (or wake up with). The TV version of a sleeping pill or a morning cup of coffee.

Conan targeted a completely different audience on his late night show, a young audience staying up late and looking for edgy, offbeat humor. And he was great for that audience.

NBC's big mistake (and I called it the minute I saw it) was to assume that the edgy Conan would appeal to the conservative, midwestern viewers of the Tonight Show.

NBC apparently agreed to let Conan take over the reigns of the Tonight Show in order to avoid losing him. The effort was doomed to failure from the start.

Leno, kicked to the curb in this odd situation, did what most would do: he grabbed whatever alternative action was offered him. And the offer of doing basically his same, usual show, except in prime time, must have seemed like a great offer.

Except it only compounded NBC's error. Not only was Conan not right for the Tonight Show audience, Leno wasn't right for prime time, which wants to be excited, not put to sleep.

There's a reason the Tonight Show prospered (with Carson & Leno) in its own hour. And a reason Conan prospered at his own hour.

Different time slots breed different audiences. NBC's attempt to force feed a personality into the wrong time slot was doomed from the start.

Once the Tonight Show with Conan failed, AND Leno's new prime time show failed, NBC was dead in the water. It made no sense for them to keep beating a dead horse with either show. The only logical move would be to return both hosts to their traditional hours, and hope to regain the old magic.

But it was too late, since that would most likely be seen as a demotion (and an insult) to Conan.

In reality, it wouldn't be. It would simply be an admission of reality: that his show works best with young, late night audiences. But when egos are involved (not to mention tens of millions of dollars), common sense goes out the door.

NBC: You really blew it big time with this lame stunt.

And you screwed up two different shows (and two funny guys) in the process.