No, I probably won’t be watching tonight when Jay Leno returns to the Tonight Show, but I’m still fascinated with how this whole mess is going to play out. Certainly, the late-night wars are far from over, with Jay once again going head to head with longtime-rival-turned-Super-Bowl-buddy David Letterman, or with the deposed Conan O’Brien possibly barnstorming America with a live show before his likely face-off against both Dave and Jay if he lands on Fox this fall. The struggle is still of interest because. as seemed clear during the depths of the public Jay-vs.-everyone-else battle that played out in January, this is about a lot more than which pampered white guy gets to tell jokes at 11:35 p.m. It’s about great fault lines criss-crossing both our popular and political culture.
Some of those fault lines are:
•Digital vs. analog: The future of late-night really belongs to the show that’s the most modular, that breaks up most easily into viral videos. Actually, Conan did very well here, with his viral vids helping make NBC.com the top broadcast network website. Was NBC’s thinking too pre-digital to take Conan’s success here into account? Maybe out of pique (or maybe for legal reasons, or simply to placate Jay), all digital traces of Conan have been scrubbed from NBC.com and partner sites like Hulu. The current viral king, however, is O’Brien late-late-night successor Jimmy Fallon, who seems acutely aware when crafting bits that fans will be swapping and embedding them.
•Gen-X vs. Boomer: Not a perfect analogy, since Dave sided with the young whippersnapper here. Still, Gen X has long grumbled over the apparent stranglehold the Boomers still have on the levers of power, both in Hollywood and Washington. Here, Conan pays his dues for 16 years, Jay agrees to retire, but when the time comes, Jay refuses to cede the spotlight, eventually grabbing his old job back. Conan, after getting only a few months to prove himself, is kicked to the curb.
Conan as Gen-X standard-bearer is something I pointed out when he ascended to the top job in June, noting that it was presaged by a similar milestone for Barack Obama. Sadly, Obama’s fortunes now seem nearly as perilous as O’Brien’s. Just as many critics blamed O’Brien himself for his ouster (if he’d done a stronger job, he’d still be there, the argument goes), so many critics on both the right and the left say Obama has only himself to blame for his current travails. Certainly, both O’Brien and Obama deserve some blame, but both have also faced entrenched reaction and resistance from an establishment that’s terrified of change. They both could have done a better job, but both also underestimated how precarious their own position was within the power structure they’d hoped to rejuvenate. Still, betting against the future is a game no one can win for long. Change will come, but it may bypass the generation of Obama and O’Brien (and me) and skip ahead to Gen Y.
•CEOs vs. employees: This may be the most resonant part of the late-night battle for everyone, since most of us aren’t bosses. Jay may have won the battle here, but the real winner is NBC honcho Jeff Zucker, who bollixed this whole mess up from the start (and by the start, I mean 2004, when he pre-emptively strong-armed Jay into agreeing to early retirement, out of fear that Conan would defect to another network), who screwed over both Leno and O’Brien, who prompted a revolt by NBC’s affiliates over the 10 p.m. Jay Leno Show, whose mismanagement of the whole affair made NBC a public laughingstock, and who was recently rewarded for all this with a three-year contract extension. (The other big winner is the New York Times‘ Bill Carter, who chronicled the Jay-vs.-Dave battle of the early ’90s in the terrific book The Late Shift, and who’s getting another book out of this whole mess.) Unfortunately, we’re getting pretty accustomed to seeing top management rewarded for its failures (via Wall Street and Detroit bailouts) while everyone below them pays the consequences (via massive layoffs). At least Conan took care of the little guys on his staff, paying $12 million out of his own severance to make sure that the staffers who lost their jobs seven months after uprooting their lives and moving 3,000 miles got some compensation. There’s a great deal of populist anger that could be channeled here, especially if Conan goes on a whistle-stop tour, essentially campaigning to be America’s late-night funnyman once again come fall.
Meanwhile, I’ll be sticking with the late-night host who’s just a year older than Conan, who is quickly figuring out Twitter, and who’s the smartest, wittiest, most patriotic host on TV: Craig “It’s a great day for America, everybody” Ferguson.