When I was little, like a lot of Americans, I idolized Johnny Carson. When we got our first VCR as a family, to me it meant getting to watch The Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live, and Late Night with David Letterman with more frequency. In fact, I taped Johnny and Dave every night.
I cried when Johnny Carson retired. And I sat on the edge of my chair, only to fall out of it laughing, every time Johnny made a cameo on Letterman after retirement. Johnny Carson was a class act, the funniest of men, and even while hobnobbing with the A-list celebrities of any era, seemed like a regular guy.
Conan O’Brien made a statement yesterday that I believe Johnny Carson would have been proud of. Conan put the Legacy of the Tonight Show and the Late Night Show before certainty for himself and his enormous staff. He honored our mutual hero, Johnny Carson perfectly.
In 1992 When NBC told Letterman that he would inherit the Tonight Show, as per Johnny’s wishes, only to revoke that offer and give it to Jay Leno, my loyalty to NBC died. It didn’t matter how much I loved Cheers, Night Court, the Cosby Show or any of the other shows that helped raise my generation. I stopped watching other than for SNL. I watched Letterman on CBS and the Simpsons on Fox. That was it.
I couldn’t stand Leno, even as a guest host for Johnny. I’ve never found him funny. He was the kind of person I hate in real life: too egotistical for not being that bright. His “regular Joe” persona didn’t mask anything. While the movie The Late Shift portrayed much of the Tonight Show drama as being Jay’s manager’s fault, I still held Leno accountable.
Then Conan O’Brien started. I was interested in checking out what the new guy would do with Dave’s legendary brand. Dave had mellowed out to fit into the 11:30 timeslot on CBS (much like Conan did at Tonight, recently) and I was curious if a former Simpsons and SNL writer could bring back some irreverence to late night TV. And he did. I loved watching early Conan, when he and Andy were finding their way. It was fun, like Dave in the old days.
I blogged here months ago about how I felt NBC corrected the error of 1992 and The Late Shift by giving Conan the Tonight Show. I even warmed up to Jay Leno when he was supposed to retire. I didn’t even mind Conan would be going up against Dave. I loved the idea of the Roots becoming the house band on Late Night, and was even willing to give Jimmy Fallon a shot. Late Night TV was the best in broadcasting again, with the Daily Show, Colbert Report, Letterman, Conan, Ferguson, Kimmel and the Roots all worthy of my attention. I was grateful for DVRs and Hulu.com.
Then NBC announced they would bump all of their 10pm weekday programming to make a new Jay Leno show, which would be just like his Tonight Show, because Jay’s ego changed his mind about retiring again. My dislike for Leno came back to the surface. It made me a Twitter addict, because jokes about how un-funny Leno is are a staple there amongst the sit-down comedians who tweet. But, whatever… I wasn’t invested in NBC’s primetime much.
But then Leno started dragging down local news ratings, which in turn dragged down the Tonight Show ratings, and it became clear Leno would not last at 10pm. What did NBC do? They made an even bigger mistake than in 1992, and offered Jay 11:30 again. The guy who was dragging down 3 hours of ratings a night for the network wasn’t fired, he was offered a better deal. What sort of blackmail does Leno have over NBC executives?
I almost wish Dave would come on tonight and say, “You know, when NBC screwed ME out of the Tonight Show, CBS offered me this beautiful theater to do what I always wanted to do, and it’s been wonderful for Paul, all of our staff, me and our families. But I can’t let history repeat itself again. It’s not 1992. Conan, if you can’t get something going over at Fox, I’ll retire. You and Andy come over to the Sullivan Theater. For Johnny Carson’s sake. If we can’t honor his brand the way we both should have been allowed, please continue this brand in a theater started by the other icon of classic variety shows. The Late Show is with you Conan.”
Now, for me to endorse something like this is huge. I’m likely David Letterman’s biggest fan. Well, I never broke into his house, but I’m still up there. Dave could have had an affair with my mom and I’d have been fine with it. When Johnny died, Dave became my surrogate TV dad. My hero.
But NBC and Leno have shown they’ve no class. They’ve no regard for what really has become an American iconic broadcasting franchise. And I think Dave, better than anyone, has to get where Conan is coming from when he lectures about such things. Dave almost didn’t go to CBS, because he felt there was only one Tonight Show. He never cared that he slightly trailed Leno or slightly beat Conan in the ratings, because he was doing his own show. He wasn’t stewarding the Tonight Show as he always dreamed. Conan got to taste that dream for 7 months. At the very least, he Dave should be getting some beers this weekend.
Why do I rant about this? Especially when there’s a lot of tragic stuff going on today with Haiti and all, isn’t this pointless? Sure it is. But it’s part of the American landscape, that even with a bazillion channels on cable, has yet to be eroded. It’s worth caring about. Maybe not as much as helping the folks in Haiti, but at least as much as who is going to the Superbowl.
I love late night TV. It helps me decompress and understand the world around me with a laugh. It helps me understand popular culture, especially as I age and get further away from it. I love the tradition of it. I love the cast of characters. (minus one)
Since Jay Leno won’t show any class and retire, maybe the elder statesman of late night should. Though, it would be fun to see Dave obliterate Jay once and for all, because anyone with a half a brain knows that he’s going to fail if they give Tonight back to him.
We have to ask ourselves, WWJD: What Would Johnny Do? Johnny told Dave to go to CBS. I’m sure he’d tell Conan to go to Fox. But I bet he’d love to see Conan on deck for when Dave finally retires. You see, late night is about legacy as much as laughs. That’s why Letterman’s ratings went up as Leno dragged down primetime. People were nostalgic. It’s tough out there in the real world. We need our TV dad to put us to bed and make us feel like everything is alright. In a world without Johnny Carson, we need stability in late night more than ever.