February 18, 2009

goodbye conan

Friday marks the end of a era in late night television: Conan's last Late Night show after 16 years. At my age, I don't really know a late night without Conan, but I know it was a rocky start for him. Lorne Michaels first produced Late Night, and Conan (former SNL writer) was his baby, but definitely not a favorite among skeptical network executives. Conan was weird and quirky - plus he had a sidekick, Andy Richter. It was all too unfamiliar for older execs - and audiences agreed. Ratings were uneven, and he was almost fired weekly. He didn't fit the mold, but that soon started to resonate with the younger generation of late night viewers. Eventually, he gained a really strong following.

I know it's a pretty big deal that Conan is taking over The Tonight Show, but I have developed two schools of thought (in my own head) on this subject:

One: this show is iconic American television with a history of comedy legends like Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson - all of whom had very different styles, and all of whom caused some "hoopla" when the transition happened. After the Letterman/Leno fallout, NBC chose Leno, he has enjoyed the top spot in late night television for his entire reign. This is a huge deal and a lot of pressure for Conan.

Two: Isn't it just going to be Conan an hour earlier? TV critics are making a big deal about the fact that Conan has never "guest-hosted" The Tonight Show, as Leno often did for Carson. He's been hosting his own show in the exact same format for 16 years. Will it really be a big stretch? Sure, The Tonight Show is a more high-profile, so more top tier actors and musicians will appear, but as a viewer, I think I'll just enjoy having Conan on earlier, so I don't fall asleep. (We won't speak of the new 10pm Leno show that makes this argument even stronger - NBC, we're still in a huge fight.)

But, then I need to get out of my own head and start thinking like a media professional, which oddly enough, I sort of am. It's about the audience. The hour difference between Late Night and The Tonight Show is huge in terms of audience. The earlier slot gets, on average, a much broader, diverse, slightly older, more working/middle class audience. By Late Night, most of that audience as gone to bed leaving a younger, college age or young professional audience. That's a big difference. And that's why Leno has always beat out Letterman - he's just more accessible. He's humble in his denim on denim off-set casual wear and collection of cars. Sure, he makes fun of politicians and celebrities, but manages to do it in a likable way. Letterman - and I do like him - comes off as a bit of a jackass.

Where will Conan fit on this spectrum? His coolness factor has faded in recent years - he has Jon Stewart to thank for that - but maybe that's a good thing? He is a master of self-deprecating humor, but he's still a Harvard educated, freakishly tall man. Will people relate to him? Will Tonight Show fans just watch because they're loyal to the network/show? Is there really competition anymore or is it more of a Coke/Pepsi scenario now? CBS is ready to renew Letterman's contract, so they came to play. And ABC is considering scrapping the long-running Nightline to throw Kimmel into the ring. I'd like to see that play out - it raises the bar for all three.

In the end, Conan created an incredible show in an unprecedented time slot. He's a pro and has a place in TV history regardless of what happens next. Jimmy Fallon starts right away on March 2 - we'll talk about that later.

Here's a clip from Conan's Late Night premiere - an interview with John Goodman. Too funny.


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