Jay Leno can be funny sometimes. There, I said it. But Jay Leno is also, well...devious and not exactly my cup of tea. He's what I imagine George Bush was around the White House back when Cheney was President. Smiling, cheerful, woefully ignorant of the damage he's really doing and ultimately unable to hide that his outer visage cannot hide the schmuck inside.
Everyone channels surfs. I have to admit, I've surfed to Leno and, now again, he has made me laugh. But there's just something about the guy I can never put my finger on...and suddenly it all comes back...his uncompromising cheerleading of the Bush White House...his smug chin...the black guy on the stool in the corner always with the same lean back & laugh, firmly protecting his cherished guitar & never quite dropping it no matter how funny (or unfunny) Leno's last joke was.
I remember the initial buzz with the announcement that Leno would be stepping down as host of The Tonight Show in the far off year of 2009 and that, unlike the murderous succession following Johnny Carson's retirement, this would be an orderly and planned change of the reins. Leno's heir apparent: Conan O'Brien. People were surprised but, much like Drew Carey taking over The Price is Right, it was a sign of the times. How much more could we really ask of Bob Barker, who, by the time he retired could automatically add up any combination of "The Wheel" in his head at the speed of light and in his sleep with one hand tied around his back. Times, they were a-changing but the change to Conan, despite a tad bit of doubt, people weighed in the balance and found it might not be a bad idea after all. America waited.
After years of working second shift and coming home after 11pm, Conan's show was always a lovely way for me to wind down in the evening and fall in love with bands I never would have heard of in my R&B loving home. That I ever had a love affair with the White Stripes, Goo Goo Dolls or Pearl Jam (ah, the early aught's were fun) is a testament to Conan's loving tutelage in the finer points of alternative rock.
When the announcement about The Tonight Show transition was made, the target date of 2009 seemed so far away. But all too soon, 2009 was approaching and, it's funny how people remember things like this...but in a pop culture world like America, it really was an office water cooler question: Would Leno really step down? Would Conan really be stepping up and could he handle the job?
Amazingly, it all transpired as foretold. I think Leno's stepping down kind of went along with the election of a black President and the promise of a new decade that we wouldn't have to akwardly call "the aughts" (sure we have to brave 2010, 11, & 12 but then we can comfortably say it's the teens.)
But I think NBC panicked. Too much of the old guard changed so fast for them. Bush was out, Obama was in. Their old dependables like Frasier, Will & Grace, and ER had sung their last swan song. Their days as "Must See TV" were patently over even with shows like 30 Rock & The Office. Scrubs, in a move that was oddly precient of the current climate, moved to another network and My Name is Earl, well, did he ever finish his list?
NBC, in a modest little tongue-in-cheek campaign, began insinuating that Leno wasn't really going away after all. And America began to look at those ads sideways? What the hell was NBC talking about? Leno was already...well...gone. Conan had ascended to the throne. So far so good, and he obviously had a lot to learn, but his initial reception and his obvious willingness to string-dance his ass off in gratitude for his new spot, earned him grudging admiration. Conan had grown up when we weren't looking, and only he knew that his success hosting the Tony Awards (where, ironically, he pointed out that trouble was brewing at NBC) hadn't been a fluke. Conan was ready to be on TV when most of America was still awake.
When Leno was granted a brand new show (that looked remarkably like his old show) at 10 p.m., it was almost as if NBC believed that Conan was going to fail and trying to provide Conan's show with some training wheels in the form of a Leno lead-in. Or maybe they just felt 2009 had come before they had really realized it. I mean, with a new black President and all...maybe we would need to keep Leno around.
It hasn't even been a whole year since Conan took over and suddenly, NBC seems to feel it was all a mistake. They want Leno back on at 11 p.m., despite his less than stellar ratings at 10 p.m. and despite that many beloved shows that might have helped NBC through this tempest have been shuffled around or, in the case of Scrubs and Medium, been moved to other networks. The term for the fallout to other shows is called "being Leno'd." Viewers patience ran out with the announcement that it was Leno, not Conan, who would be pushed into the dawn.
The backlash against Jay Leno has been legendary. NBC did not recognize the muted collective sigh of relief that America heaved at Leno's retirement, and they somehow missed the buzz of uncertainty and outright dislike that Leno's return engendered. However with the proposed banishment of Conan to a next day spot at 12:05, they're certainly hearing the howls now.
Not since Stephen Colbert shaved his head under orders from President Barack Obama has America realized just how much the hair on the heads of late night talk show hosts means to America. Refusing to treat him like proverbial red-headed stepchild, America has chosen to embrace Conan's oddly flexible coif and taken his ruddy curls to our hearts.
They both have single monikers but the differences in how they're known are quite telling. While Leno is so old guard people call him by his last name, Conan is known by his first name like the guy in the office everyone likes. Leno, with his dry, unfunny, meandering, passive wit is the past. Conan is the future. Animated, intelligent, witty - who's already fought the odds against being canceled at NBC over & over again in the beginnings of his previous later than late show.
Here's to Conan beating those odds again.
I had more to say about this Conan-Leno thing than I intended so I'll write about Pat Robertson basically summing up that God hates Haiti, later tonight. In the meantime, check out what my blogpal The Skeptik One, has to say on the subject.
End Part 1
Click Here for Part 2
A link to some video clips with Conan's take on the matter.