Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Column #10: Jay and Conan inspire a musical-chairs fantasy

When it was announced that May 29th, 2009, would be Jay Leno’s last night as the host of “The Tonight Show”, I was thrilled. I would be getting married the next day, and I accepted the timing as a gift offering from NBC – nay, from all of TV and comedy – that they knew would make me very, very happy. As a comedy fan, and someone whose personality was influenced perhaps a touch too much by the influence of David Letterman, I don’t consider myself a mere passive observer. As a subject, of course I realize that there are more important things to worry about in life – but, for me, the biggest star who appeared on the Hope for Haiti telethon wasn’t George Clooney or Madonna, it was Jon Stewart.

Now that it’s hopefully over, I think it probably worked out about as well as it was ever going to. Don’t mistake that for an endorsement of Jay Leno; I saw him live 20 years ago, before he got “The Tonight Show,” and I’ve seen his TV show. He was never an inspiring, insightful or particularly memorable comic, but he wasn’t the bloated, transparently pandering RoboComic that he has since become. I live in reality, though, and it seems ridiculous now to think that Conan O’Brien could have tamed the wilder instincts of the younger, 12:30 a.m. Conan without losing what is essential to his comedy, while still appealing to the audience who found Leno and Johnny Carson so soothing and reassuring for so long. Conan could barely beat Craig Ferguson in the ratings. Apparently, the consensus is that brainy O’Brien appeals to a smaller, more focused audience who would rather watch the highbrow comedy of a bear pleasuring itself or a vomiting Muppet - instead of the lowbrow comedy of faux-everyman Leno mocking folks on the street for not knowing, offhand, who our 28th president was (Woodrow Wilson. I googled it).

While I am a realist, I am also a dreamer. I’m very complicated, folks. I hope that Leno will lose his audience soon, and move to China. So, since you’re asking, what would I do next? NBC has a stable of funny people under contract. Two of them have failed as talk show hosts already - Chevy Chase, obviously, and Richard Belzer of “Law and Order” had a talk show on Lifetime in the ‘80’s. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Steve Carrell all seem qualified for the job but that won’t happen. “Community” star Joel McHale also hosts the clip show “The Soup”, is funny, handsome, likable and seems ideal.

I vote for Ellen DeGeneres, though. We now have 2 female news anchors (and a half-black president), but late night network comedy shows are still the land of the white men. Everyone loves her, and it would be progress. But what do I know? I also think that, in 2016, our next president should be Oprah – for the same reasons. Even more interesting would be if Rosie O’Donnell replaced Letterman, when he retired, and battled Ellen to be America's Sweetheart…

And Conan? Any 11 p.m. slot would put him against Jon Stewart, and could backfire. Fox affiliates would revolt over low ratings, and he’d be ruined. He’d reject midnight on Comedy Central – but would 10 p.m. be such a bad idea on cable, leading in to Stewart? Surely “South Park” can rerun 18 times per day instead of 20.

Instead of paying $45 million to be rid of him, NBC could have aired him on USA, the most popular cable channel, which they own – nightly at 10. The whole debacle is already reminiscent of when Mariah Carey was paid $49 million to leave Virgin, then came back bigger than ever on Island Records. Or when Wilco was paid to leave Reprise, then was paid again to sign with Nonesuch, who were owned by the same parent company, and came back bigger than ever.

c. 2010 Velocity Weekly

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