Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Conan or Jay?

It’s not science, religion, the market or morals, but I gotta ask: Conan or Jay? I don’t watch either one, and I really don’t care, though it should be said that Jay Leno has a professional reputation as a genuinely decent man. My instinct is to side with Conan O’Brien because I find his sensibility more interesting than Leno’s, but the NYT’s Mike Hale makes some sensible contra-Conan points about this controversy. Excerpt:

The demonizing of Mr. Leno and corresponding beatification of Mr. O’Brien seem to be based on some weird notion of noblesse oblige: that ceding the stage to Mr. O’Brien would be the proper thing to do. This ignores the obvious facts that (1) television is a business and (2) it’s NBC’s money. Mr. Leno, his predictably dismal prime-time ratings aside, is the reigning king of late night; NBC wouldn’t be at this pass if it didn’t think that he could immediately return to 11:35 and outperform Mr. O’Brien.
It seems obvious that what’s really at play here is a generation gap. A younger, more vocal, more online audience simply doesn’t like Mr. Leno’s show, which has gradually come to represent an entire pre-digital, Middle American culture that the Internet commentariat wishes would just get out of the way. Unfortunately for them, their parents are more likely to be watching television at 11:35 p.m. than they are.


This is exactly right. No doubt, NBC handled this about as badly as it could possibly be handled. The fact is, though, both the network and its local affiliates are hemorrhaging revenue because not enough people watch Leno early, and not enough people watch Conan late. This is occurring amid a general ad revenue debacle related to the Great Recession and the collapse of the traditional media ad model. What’s NBC supposed to do, sit around and continue to lose gobs of money (likewise for the local affiliates) to keep the Twitterverse from being mad at them? To preserve a sense of professional honor?
It’s insulting what’s happening to Conan O’Brien, but he simply isn’t getting the ratings in that time slot; Jay Leno was, and might again. I wonder how many people who are angry on Conan’s behalf actually watch his Tonight Show?

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eric k

posted January 14, 2010 at 3:19 pm

How decent of a guy is Leno?
Remember he back stabbed both Letterman and Carson to get the tonight show in the first place. And now it looks like he is backstabbing Conan to get it back.
He seems to do a lot of classic passive aggressive power plays where he plays the “aw shucks I’m just the comedian guy” while behind the scenes his agent does the dirty work.
I think the final statement on the original transition was Carson appeared on Letterman’s new CBS show on it’s premier night and wrote jokes for Dave right up until his death. And if IIRC he never appeared on the Tonight Show again after his last night.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 3:21 pm

If they think that Conan can outperform Leno, then Fox or ABC, or even one of the pure cable networks, will give him the chance. It’s silly to think that Leno moved to prime time without some assurances that he would be welcomed back to the night time slot if things didn’t work and that Conan wasn’t aware of this when he took over The Tonight Show. It’s also rather silly to think that ABC would let Leno move to a competitor where he would likely outperform their own late night offering.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 3:22 pm

The second ABC should be NBC above, sorry.

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Appalachian Prof

posted January 14, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Why do people talk about them so much? Why are they considered important and newsworty?

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posted January 14, 2010 at 3:32 pm

The ratings for the NBC affiliates local evening news – which is the lead-in for Conan – is down anywhere from 25% to 50% O’Brien’s ratings drop (relative to when Leno held the Tonight Show job) is largely due to the bad 10pm hour programming, which put the hurt on the local evening news.
The commentary you linked to was overly harsh on O’Brien. O’Brien is also thinking of the staff that have been with him for nearly two decades. That whole group moved to Los Angeles and their lives matter as well.
In any event, if Jay goes back to host the Tonight Show, then how long will be be there? Five years? Ten? And who will replace him? O’Brien was doing the Late Show for 16 years. That’s some serious prep time.
For what little it’s worth, Leno had a conservative streak (he was an unabashed supporter of Schwarzenegger) and O’Brien is not that. I don’t think Leno’s comedic sensibility resonates particularly well with the younger set. FWIW, I think O’Brien is somewhat similar in attitude to Jon Stewart. Is that a good thing for ratings? I’d say yes.

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Lord Karth

posted January 14, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Neither. I agree with Appalachian Prof.’s post above.
This tempest-in-a-teacup is less than worthy of you, Mr. Dreher.
Your servant,
Lord Karth

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posted January 14, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Jay’s reputation as a “nice guy” isn’t as solid as you think. There are a lot of Letterman fans who still think Leno pulled a fast one to get the Tonight Show the first time around (my mom is particularly incensed that Letterman initially gave Leno a leg up by featuring him on “Late Night” – now she’s firmly Team Conan).
The 2004 deal promising the Tonight Show to Conan was, in retrospect, probably a stupid deal. But all three parties agreed to it. Conan himself sacrificed a lucrative offer from FOX (better timeslot and triple the salary) because NBC wanted him to stay in the fold. Conan honored his end of the deal, yet he’s the one NBC wants to scapegoat.
Last but not least, Conan and Jay treated their staffs very differently during the writers’ strike. When they were laid off as production ceased on their shows, Conan immediately began paying his staffs’ salaries out of pocket. Jay stalled. You tell me which one is the nice guy.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 4:11 pm

I’m with CoCo!!!!!!!!!!

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posted January 14, 2010 at 4:12 pm

I’m a big Conan fan, but his show was better in the 12:35 slot where he could do weirder (and funnier) stuff (and when the 18 – 35 set is more likely to be watching TV). I’d like to see him go to a cable channel so he can really let his comic genius fly.
And Leno: aside from Headlines, and occasionally Jaywalking, I just don’t get what people find funny about him. He’s also a really boring interviewer.

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John E. - Agn. Stoic

posted January 14, 2010 at 4:25 pm

I’m more a Daily Show/Colbert Show kind of guy. And I watch them on the internet so I don’t have commercial interruptions.

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Saint Andeol

posted January 14, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Why do people talk about them so much? Why are they considered important and newsworty?
Rod should probably apologize for wasting Appalachian Prof’s time with this story that’s clearly beneath him.
however, since i’m apparently not intellectual enough to disdain such plebian topics, i would have to say Conan is my preferred host. i’ve been a fan of his for several years. i like that he can get laughs from lame jokes by calling out the lameness.
of course, i’m a 26 year old stoner, so does my having an opinion on the subject delegitimize it?

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posted January 14, 2010 at 4:30 pm

I do not watch either. When The Tonight Show is airing I am watching O’Reilly or an Adam-12 re-run (recorded earlier in the day)if I am watching television.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Who cares.

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Geoff G.

posted January 14, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Appalachian Prof and Lord Karth, sure the topic’s trivial. But a little trivia now and then never hurt anyone.
I don’t generally watch late night TV. Actually I’ve really cut back on TV watching of all kinds (although did anyone else see Ninotchka on TCM last night?) That’s not to say that I’m one of these holier-than-thou ostentatious TV avoiders, I just get my quota of amusing trash online instead.
The few times I have tuned in to Leno, he’s been completely unfunny, which is really odd, because I’m old enough to remember when Carson had him on doing stand-up, and he used to be hilarious (but then again, coming up with material every single night has got to be almost impossible).
I always liked O’Brien’s quirkier sense of humor a bit better (you may recall that he was one of the early writers on the Simpsons). But not well enough to tune into the Tonight Show more than once or twice.
The real winner in all of this, though, is Letterman, especially as long as he can keep coming up with stuff like this.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 4:42 pm

I do not slum myself watching TV, movies, or using the internet. I only farm, raise my chickens, read great literature, play music, worship God, and visit and help my neighbors.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Conan, for sure.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 5:14 pm

I like them BOTH. I realize I’m probably in the minority, but late night is about all the TV I usually get to watch. I liked Conan better at 11:35, for some of the um…racier bits. But they are VERY different comedians. Easy to see how fans of one would dislike the other.
Jay’s 9:00 show is kind of a snoozer. Plus I had a habit of watching local news at 9, which has proved hard to break.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Why don’t they arm wrestle for it?

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posted January 14, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Ditto John E. – Agn. Stoic’s comments above. Daily had an interesting interview with John Yoo recently, and George Lucas.

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David J. White

posted January 14, 2010 at 6:17 pm

Ever since the switch to digital broadcasting last year, I am no longer able to receive my local NBC affiliate, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. It does seem, though, that just as it took Jay Leno awhile to build up an audience, NBC should have given Conan a chance to build up an audience for his version of the Tonight Show as well. Of course, it does come down to business; but it seems that the problem for NBC is Jay Leno’s current show, and the most straightforward solution to their problem is to cancel it, and stop trying to find ways to placate Jay Leno. But, again, I’m not able to watch NBC in any event, so my interest in this is that of a bemused observer.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 7:01 pm

I’ll tell you who looks good in all of this:
Craig Ferguson. He’s funnier– right now– than Jay, Conan, and Dave put together.

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Mike D

posted January 14, 2010 at 7:42 pm

“I do not slum myself watching TV, movies, or using the internet. I only farm, raise my chickens, read great literature, play music, worship God, and visit and help my neighbors.”
So, you took a trivial topic that had nothing to do with you and turned it into what a wonderful human being you are? I feel like I accidentally slummed myself by reading your response.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Mike D., I took that as a parody of a person who disdains tv, but I could be wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. . . .

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kevin s.

posted January 14, 2010 at 8:14 pm

“So, you took a trivial topic that had nothing to do with you and turned it into what a wonderful human being you are? I feel like I accidentally slummed myself by reading your response.”
Well, you have slummed yourself, and I can only assume it was accidental.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Hey Mike D, I agree with Indy, I thought it was a joke too! Either way, all I know is I burst out laughing and I hadn’t laughed all day..

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posted January 14, 2010 at 8:51 pm

I have kids and work full time, so I’m asleep by 10:00 most nights and don’t watch either show.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 8:56 pm

“NBC should have given Conan a chance to build up an audience for his version of the Tonight Show as well”
Ditto. Jay was on the tonight show for 17 years. Conan had 7 months. Jay Leno is, in my mind, an absolute creep. I hope that people refuse to give him interviews on his show.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Jay had his day in the sun, and he retired from it. I think he needs to stay away.
When Conan initially took over The Tonight Show, I was less than impressed. I thought he would mature into the more prestigious establishment that is The Tonight Show, but at first he did not: it took awhile for him to find his voice.
Jay, too, stumbled at his new time slot at 10:00 eastern. He seemed ill at ease with the new schtick and skits. One had to wonder, why didn’t they just move the whole Tonight Show to 10:00 as it was? Why create a new show, and “fix what ain’t broke?”
My guess is that NBC over-saturated viewers with talk-show programming. People who watch Jay at 10 may not need to watch another talk-show at 11:35.
My sympathies lie with Conan, and his cast and crew who moved from NYC to LA. Forget Conan, what is to become of them?

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posted January 14, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Colbert Report is funnier than both. But I did used to love to watch Jay Leno’s headlines. Nothing funnier.

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Erin Manning

posted January 14, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Karlub: definitely, regarding Craig Ferguson. I don’t get to watch his show regularly anymore, though, since I traded watching mindless drivel late at night for writing it, instead. :) But here’s one example of why I think Ferguson’s probably a decent sort:
But the real problem, to me, in the Leno vs. Conan battle is that it’s like arguing a few years ago about rival columnists at some well-known newspaper. One columnist fails to attract readers, so another is brought in and does worse, leading to calls for the first to be reinstated–but meanwhile, nobody’s paying attention to the fact that newspaper readers are quietly and inexplicably and overwhelmingly disappearing altogether.
Network television is not what it used to be, any more than newspapers are. The networks, too, are trying to deal with the new forms of media that let viewers stream or download content on demand, when they’ve already been weakened by several decades of cable and subscription competition. The demographic that is likely to tune in at the “late night” time slot are the same ones still reading an actual newspaper over their morning coffee–and we know their number is dwindling.
The thing is, just as there are so many more convenient ways to watch the news, so are there many more convenient ways to access entertainment content late at night (or any hour) than there were in the days when some channels still had nothing but static after a certain hour. Young viewers are much more likely to be texting, chatting, surfing, social-networking, and the like than to be tuning in at a set time each evening; if they really want to see a funny bit from a late night show, all they have to do is follow the next morning’s buzz over to YouTube and watch just that part, not the whole commercial-laden snoozefest.
I don’t know how the networks are going to adapt. But I don’t think they’re going to have a lot of luck if their idea of a creative solution is to bring back the guy they replaced. Deck chairs, Titanic, etc.

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posted January 15, 2010 at 12:12 am

I have kids and work full time, so I’m asleep by 10:00 most nights and don’t watch either show.
I may not be asleep, but making the attempt, though.

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posted January 15, 2010 at 10:56 am

I do watch the Tonight Show with Conan. It took me a while to get used to Conan’s very funny and freaky brand of humor, but now I really like him.
To me, the $64,000 question is why is NBC protecting Jay Leno, at all costs, from the consequences of failure? The NBC affiliates weren’t threatening to yank the Tonight Show off the air, they were threatening to yank the Jay Leno show at 10:00 p.m. off the air. So there should be no consequences to Leno for taking a risk and failing?
It seems likely Leno is going to become the returning host of the Tonight Show at 11:35 p.m. If he does that, he is simply a humongous “heel.”
I used to watch Leno’s monologue, but in recent years I have switched to Letterman as Leno’s brand of humor has worn thin. Since Conan replaced Jay, I’ve been watching the Tonight Show again.
Plus, I like Andy Richter and adore the Max Weinberg band, especially La Bamba.

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posted January 15, 2010 at 11:19 am

I’m one of those Conan supporter who don’t actually watch.
I find him a lot funnier than Jay, and moderately funnier than Dave. And with the switch to the Tonight Show, he’s dropped a most of the crude stuff, and, just as awesome, has gotten Andy Ritcher back. (Thus returning the Tonight Show to the ‘banter’ tradition.) The few times I’ve seen it, I loved it.
…but I don’t watch live TV anymore.
Late shows were always the ‘last resort’ of broadcasting. The concept was ‘There are probably 3 million people up this late with nothing to do, and all the other channels have infomercials.’.
Well, now people put in a DVD, or watch the bajillion reruns on cable, or (and this what’s really killing them) pull a ‘rerun’ they like off the TiVo. Before, you had to have a show you liked or watch the Tonight Show, now, you can watch Welcome Back Kotter or whatever hard to find show you like, reruns every night at 11, and the TiVo will happily grab them whenever they air.
As an aside, I think in addition to Conan being funnier, he’s also put up with NBC’s crap long enough. He had a competing offer in 2004 to do a show with Fox, and in return for sticking it out in his slot, he was promised the Tonight Show in 2009, because Jay said he was retiring in 2009. (The last thing NBC wanted was another David Letterman grabbing half the audience.)
In return for getting his non-compete for five years, they really do owe him what they promised. Including time to actually find an audience. Of course, said audience might not exist, but we’ll see. I think it will once he does the same sort of modernization that the Daily Show has done, he’ll be okay.

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posted January 15, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Oh–a joke, Ok. That is funny. Now I’m laughing.

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Heritage Hills

posted January 15, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Conan was never funny. I could have told them not to make this lame move of giving him the Tonight Show. Not at all surprised the move tanked.

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Peter Hoh

posted January 16, 2010 at 3:58 am

One must remember that NBC fed Leno an audience with good 10 pm (east and west coast time) dramas.

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posted January 16, 2010 at 8:01 am

I find Conan much funnier than Jay Leno. I never actually understood what was supposed to be so great about Jay Leno. I laugh at Conan’s monologues, and cringe at Jay’s.

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John M Parker

posted January 16, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Why watch either of them when you can watch Colbert.

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Barbara C.

posted January 16, 2010 at 1:57 pm

I tend to side with Conan on this one. He could have kept the Tonight Show at a later time slot, but he felt that would denigrate the history of the show itself. He also knew that it would basically be screwing Jimmy Fallon, so he also turned it down out of respect for him.
The thing is that Leno agreed however many years ago that he would step down and hand the reigns over to Conan. He could have signed another contract if he wanted to keep The Tonight Show. He made a choice. And now he is reneging it, showing a disrespect for the Tonight Show as an institution and his fellow comedians O’Brien and Fallon.
If Leno had just gone gently into that good night, probably a lot of people would have given Conan a chance. (I seem to remember people complaining when Leno took over for Carson.) It is a generational thing, but it is hard for the prince to take his proper place when the king just won’t go away.
And of course, this begs the question of just who will take over The Tonight Show when Leno finally retires or kicks the bucket (he’s not a spring chicken anymore)? Jimmy Fallon? They think they have a generation gap between Leno and Conan; it’s twice as big between Leno and Fallon.

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Fr. J

posted January 16, 2010 at 3:04 pm

What we all forget is that Leno got poor ratings when he started and was routinely beaten by David Letterman. Conan could rise to the top just as Leno did, if given the chance. I understand that at base this is about money and bottom lines, but I think NBC is being shortsighted.

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Steve Balencia

posted January 16, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Leno got trounced initially by Letterman because they split the Carson audience…remember no one could topple Carson, and when Letterman left for CBS, he went up against Leno, the new guy, not Carson. This means of course there was time to settle things in, two new hosts on two networks. Conan is going up against an established Letterman now, not an unknown quantity. Thus the potential for growth is less. The Tonight Show is a brand name, one Conan should never have been given. Leno signed the deal because NBC didnt want to pay Conan to go away. Conan has young people appeal, ironic since he’s the oldest new Tonight Show host ever. He does not have the multi generational appeal that Carson or even Leno had. The only way Conan could get Leno type numbers would require Conan to water down his show so badly that most people defending him would call him a sell out. But i agree….”Team Conan” doesnt watch…and most never will. “Team Jay”, is older and less likely to be setting up websites, blasting Conan on Twitter, or even know what Facebook is. The ratings tell the story, and while i watch neither person, it’s safe to say that Conan, if he leaves NBC, will be hip and popular for awhile, but Leno will remain legendary in late night….unless Conan “sells out”, he’s the next Arsenio, not the next Letterman or Leno….

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posted January 20, 2010 at 12:11 am

You know, if NBC are cynical and disloyal enough to shaft an institution like The Tonight Show in favor of that chin with bad jokes (Jay Leno), then they don’t deserve to hang on to Conan O’Brien. Remember – he had some very successful tenures with Saturday Night Live, the Simpsons, and the Harvard Lampoon. (You do have to go to Harvard to write for the Harvard Lampoon.) It’s not like he’s going to need payday loans anytime soon. If he’s going to get a figurative cactus from a network he’s been so loyal to, why not jump ship and go where his talent would be appreciated?

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