Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Return of Leno

Last night, Jay Leno made his return to The Tonight Show after his abysmal detour into the 10 p.m. time slot for NBC. Leno's 10 p.m. comedy show that aired five nights a week was an abject failure for NBC that hemorrhaged viewers and caused a near revolt by network affiliates, who saw their nightly news broadcasts drop by nearly half during Leno's tenure.

Still, as everyone knows, no one was hurt more than Conan O'Brien, who took over the reigns of Tonight and, without any kind of strong lead-in on any night, had a lot of trouble building an audience. After only seven months, he was pretty much forced to quit the show or move it to after midnight to accommodate NBC's desire to retain Leno's services at 11:30 p.m.

So last night, Leno went back to Tonight. And he beat Dave Letterman in the ratings. C'mon, we knew he would, right? I mean, it's his first night back; let's just see what he'll do over time. But we all know, don't we? I'm betting he'll stay at number one. Is his show a boring, middle of the road, pandering snooze fest compared to others? You bet. But, it appears, that's what a broad majority wants in their late night shows.

Letterman is a polarizing figure, always has been. He's sharp, moody and probably the most innovative and brilliant guy in late night. But he's also the most mercurial and "unsafe for all time zones" TV personalities around. If he thinks a guest is an idiot, he'll show it. If he thinks someone out there is reprehensible, he won't do a gentle rib of a joke, he'll fucking destroy them with jokes. If he's having a bad night, he'll come right out and say it. He has weird feuds and some guests that seem to come on and do battle with him in a running joke that the casual viewer won't get at all (his long-standing routine with Charles Grodin is a case in point, a joke that never gets old). Take a look at this wonderfully odd and awesome exchange from last night's interview with long-standing fave Bill Murray:

Meanwhile, here's a look back at the first monologue Conan did on Tonight after making the decision to leave. It's simultaneously funnier than any routine I've ever seen Leno do, and the most clear depiction of clearly, deeply hurt man. It did allow for one of the most revolutionary moments I've seen in TV, where a guy was fired by a network and then allowed to go on and just eviscerate it night after night for weeks. Seriously, between Conan and Letterman, NBC was just brutalized during this whole mess, and they clearly deserved it:

So we move on, and we'll probably see another decade of Leno on Tonight at least. Which is sad, really. O'Brien took the high road and took care of his staff, stuck to his principles and called out a bunch of people who clearly said one thing while meaning other things entirely. Isn't that the kind of guy we want to see win? Yeah, his ratings weren't the best, but did seven months with no lead-in really give him the time he needed? Was he given the same consideration Leno was when he started? Undoubtedly not. It took the massive get of Hugh Grant's first public appearance after picking up a hooker to put Leno in the #1 spot.

The Tonight Show used to be a place where magic happened. Think of the brilliance of Steve Allen's innovative routines. Think of the scintillating talk featured during Jack Paar's sophisticated run. And of course, think of Carson's remarkable reign, filled with funny routines, great interviews and comedy that had wide appeal without being bland.

What will be on Leno's greatest hits reel? Hugh Grant, undoubtedly. Perhaps some Jaywalking and Headlines puns. But I can't think that there will be anything that matches the sheer riskiness and brilliance of his predecessors, competitor, and all too brief successor.

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