Jay, Conan and the Rest
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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.
Well here we are at the end of the second week of the great American late night talk show crisis. And I still don't know how I feel about who gets to read jokes off cue cards on NBC at 11:35 p.m.
Maybe that's the point of the whole thing. That the outcome doesn't really affect those of us whose lives and jobs aren't tied to NBC, and the whole episode is just there for us to observe and have a few chuckles over.
I look at it this way. It's got drama – a showdown between powerful multi-millionaires and a mainstream media company that's lost its way.
It's got comedy – the sniping by Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien has been pretty funny. The tons of free spoof-worthy material seems to be delighting both hosts. They've been delivering some pretty classic monologues.
And it's also woken up David Letterman from his post mid-life stupor. Some of his commentary on the NBC situation has been brilliant – and remember, he has a toe in these waters himself, having been passed over by NBC in the 1990's for the same job that is being so obsessed over this week.
And it's got the spectacle of fumbling corporate suits, getting burned by their own managerial excesses.
Just a few years ago, Leno was cruising along with a commanding lead in the late night ratings. He had comfortable tenure as a safe successor to the legacy of Johnny Carson.
Middle America could relate to him, even if he is a Hollywood gazillionaire with a fleet of fancy cars.
Jay's Tonight Show had even become a safe place for Republicans to come on and break news. Arnold Schwarzenegger's improv routine about becoming governor of California got a huge boost from being unveiled and promoted on Jay's show.
Then the geniuses at NBC decided it was time to phase out Leno and bring in O'Brien, who was back in New York eager to get to the adults' table.
An expensive new set was built at Universal Studios, and Conan's company of Harvard Lampoonies was uprooted and relocated to L.A.
They opened here with a truly inspired short film showing their gangly paycheck appearing to lope across the country over the plains and through the mesas.
East coming west to settle and conquer. Again.
To placate Leno, the network braintrust created a new kind of 10 o'clock programming slot. Jay could tell a few jokes, stretch with weak skits and lame gimmicks, and keep his prominent chin in front of the viewing public, even if not many of them were watching.
The bad ratings and butt-covering of the past two weeks is all the evidence you need that nothing that NBC thought up worked out. Well, that's not completely true. I hear the O'Brien suites at Universal are pretty nice.
There's talk that Conan's company may stay in the studios if he gets another talk show gig, like at Fox. Which may be the only thing in all of this that makes sense, since NBC won't need the space anymore and could use the rent.
The best news in all this is that NBC has decided to fill the 10 o'clock hole in its schedule with at least one or two scripted dramas.
That means some of the unemployed TV writers clogging the tables at Starbucks all day will clear out, making more room for the out of work journalists.
Finally, last week in this space I misstated the name of Getty chairman James Wood. I apologize to Mr. Wood and to all of you for my mistake.
For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.