There was a time when NBC thought Jay Leno was a good replacement for scripted dramas. But the longer his career has gone, the more drama it seems to have.
The latest developments have been two-fold. First, NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt did not like Leno making jokes about NBC’s woeful ratings. (One line: “It’s so bad, NBC called Manti Te’o and asked him to bring in some imaginary viewers.”) Greenblatt reportedly went so far as to send Leno an email urging him to stop; Leno, who has for decades watched NBC administrations turn over from his perch at The Tonight Show, responded that late-night hosts traditionally make fun of their bosses — and proceeded to make more jokes.
While that brouhaha was in progress, several reports appeared that NBC was getting ready to depose Leno and put Jimmy Fallon in his place. The New York Times has reported that Fallon would replace Leno “by fall 2014 at the latest,” and that the show would relocate from Los Angeles, where Johnny Carson moved it in 1972, to New York, where the series began and Fallon is based. The Times said NBC is building Fallon a new set as part of its preparations for the transition.
And these events have sparked re-examinations of the late-night battles with Leno in the middle. In 1992, Leno succeeded Carson — even though Carson preferred David Letterman. (Dave started his own show, directly against Leno, on CBS in 1993.) Also in 1992, as Leno prepared to take over Tonight, Cleveland’s own Arsenio Hall, already entrenched with a syndicated late-night show, boldly told Entertainment Weekly “I’m gonna kick Jay Leno’s ass” — which EW promptly put on its cover.
Then in 2004, NBC announced that Conan O’Brien would succeed Leno — five years later. But by the time 2009 rolled around, Leno was still popular, and rather than lose him to another network, NBC gave Leno the 10 p.m. weeknight hour for his own talk-variety show, while O’Brien took Tonight. The network quickly decided the experiment did not work, and looked for a way to get Leno back into late night — at the cost of losing O’Brien, who now hosts a show on TBS.
While Leno has shown a superb gift for TV survival, he has made enemies along the way. In a 1992 letter to EW, Hall called Leno “two-faced,” adding that “as a friend, he would call my office to discuss certain segments of the show he had seen. His calls were always very friendly and complimentary, yet to other people, Jay would comment very negatively about me and the show.” Jimmy Kimmel, whose admiration for Letterman is boundless, has publicly disdained Leno.
In fact, it’s a general truth that Leno is more popular with the public at large — to whom he comes across as a regular guy — than with critics and media insiders.
Richard Rushfield of Buzzfeed.com pondered what he called “Lenophobia,” the cumulative effect of Leno’s self-preservation leading to “an animus toward Leno that nothing can touch. To be a thinking or cool person in America is to hate Jay, and like Dave, or Conan, or Kimmel, or Jon Stewart: anyone in the long line of talk show hosts breaking off a niche of the stratifying media world by being edgier and cooler than Leno.”
At the same time, though, Rushfield acknowledges that Leno was and is popular with viewers. He has beaten Letterman most of the time. Hall’s show ended in 1994, although he is planning a return to late-night talk in syndication this fall. Kimmel, who now competes against both Leno and Letterman, has not unseated Leno even with the younger adults that Kimmel is supposedly more connected to. (Leno is 62, Letterman 65, Kimmel 45 and Fallon 38.)
Even as the Times reported that NBC fears Kimmel will lock up younger viewers, Cynthia Littleton of Variety said, “In spite of Kimmel’s youthful advantage over late night’s elder statesman, Tonight Show remains No. 1 in 18-49 and Letterman is highly competitive with Kimmel.”
Fallon not ready?
For that matter, Andy Greenwald of Grantland.com argued that Fallon is not ready for the biggest chair in late-night TV.
“Fallon will have been on Late Night for only five years when he gets the job in 2014 — time enough to have developed a fan following and a richly entertaining persona,” he wrote. “But five years is positively embryonic in the usual cycle of talk-show supremacy: It took Jimmy Kimmel a full decade before ABC saw fit to bump him up by half an hour and Conan O’Brien string-danced at 12:30 for 16 years before receiving his ill-fated keys to the Tonight Show.”
So, it would seem, NBC should be celebrating Leno, not trying to show him the door — especially when it has problems in so many other programming zones.
“To get to No. 1 of anything in television is no easy feat,” Rushfield wrote. “To get to No. 1 and stay there for 21 years is unimaginable. To do that on a network that for most of the past decade has been America’s longest running car wreck is a feat worthy of a Marvel comics superhero.”
But there is one catch in this: Leno is popular with viewers, including young adults, who still watch late-night broadcast TV. Ever more options appear for viewers on cable and online. When I was younger (much, much younger), staying up to watch a Carson monologue was a ritual wrapped in cool.
Now there are young adults, and children, who are losing the habit of traditional-TV viewing because they do all theirs on a laptop or tablet screen, day and night. If you want to catch the latest clever bit from Fallon or Kimmel (and both can be very funny), you don’t have to watch actual TV to find them.
Fallon, the Times noted, “gains additional life on sites like YouTube, and he actively courts interaction with his viewers by having them submit comedy ideas through Twitter.” So he may be priming a young audience that will then seek him as Tonight Show host — or at least bring viewers to the commercials running with his segments on NBC.com.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.