Less than a year from now, the universe of late-night television will have shifted its orbit.
On May 29, 2009, on Johnny Carson’s very own soundstage, Jay Leno will say goodbye as host of “The Tonight Show.” Four years ago, NBC announced that the network was planning to eventually replace Leno with Conan O'Brien. The network surely believe that planning so far ahead, and so publicly, would help to create a smooth transition. Yet here’s the funny part: Leno’s ratings remain solid and the network might be committing ratings suicide.
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Not wanting to lose Conan O’Brien to another network when his contract expired, NBC told the redheaded comedian that he could have “The Tonight Show” job after Leno left. Somehow, the network convinced Leno to agree to the 2009 retirement — even though he was, and is, crushing Letterman in the ratings. O'Brien, who nearly didn’t survive his first few weeks on the job, will begin his new gig on June 1.
It was never clear whether Leno really wanted to leave, or whether he was convinced by NBC that it would be the right move. The decision is looking shaky at best right now. Imagine Fox asking Simon Cowell to leave Nielsen juggernaut “American Idol” just because they were afraid to lose "Fifth Grader" host Jeff Foxworthy to another network.
With the Leno-to-O'Brien transition nearing ever closer to reality, NBC is worried. There’s a real possibility that the network might give up its title as late-night champ and, almost as humiliating, face the very possible scenario of having Leno move on to a job with a competitor.
ABC has already said it would be interested in finding a spot for Leno as a late-night host. In one scenario, “Nightline,” which has struggled in the past, would vacate the 11:30 p.m. spot and Leno could come over there. Jimmy Kimmel would then be faced with a decision: Move his midnight chatfest to 12:30 a.m. or take his talents to another network.
NBC has already hired “Saturday Night Live” alum Jimmy Fallon to fill O'Brien's 12:30 a.m. slot after Leno makes his move. While Fallon was a terrific “Weekend Update” host on “Saturday Night Live,” there’s no telling how he'll will come across as a talk-show host. NBC is counting on the same magic that worked with O'Brien — a virtual unknown before landing his “Late Night” gig — will rub off on Fallon.
Meanwhile, as this juggling goes on, there are still a number of other shows fighting for viewers in the crowded late-night landscape.
Here’s a quick assessment of who’s doing stellar work, who needs improvement and what we can expect in the future.
“The Tonight Show With Jay Leno”
Where: NBC, 11:35 p.m.
Strengths: Leno is the consummate joke teller. He still goes to the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Calif., every Sunday night to perform his standup routine and test out new jokes. If you’re interested in a comedian who spits out funnies in a machine-gun rapidity, Leno’s the guy.
Weaknesses: Leno doesn’t have much of a personality. He comes off as a bit bland. But then again, if you want to get the widest audience, that might be your best strategy.
“Jimmy Kimmel Live”
Where: ABC, 12:05 a.m.
Strengths: With lots of rap artists and indie-label bands as guests, Kimmel is best at attracting the teen and college-age viewers that were once Letterman’s domain. Plus, when he puts together a skit that resonates — think his retort with Ben Affleck to ex-girlfriend Sarah Silverman’s fling with Matt Damon — the result ricochets around the You Tube universe more than bits from other show. He’s quickly gaining steam.
Weaknesses: His choice to use family and those who work on the show — Cousin Sal, Guillermo — as part of the skits is homespun, but can come off as a bit lazy. Also, his joke-telling delivery could use some work.
NBC via AP
Conan O'Brien will be moving up soon, but couldn't he get a better set?
IMAGE: Conan O'Brien
NO SALES EDITORIAL USE ONLY, NO ARCHIVE, MAY 12 2006 FILE PHOTO
O'BRIEN LENO PEOPLEA ELN070720_5top_conanCHICAGOILUSA632829888000000000false1NY115Pfalsefalsefalsefalse“Late Night With Conan O’Brien”
Where: NBC, 12:30 a.m.
Strengths: Conan’s self-mockery never gets old, and guests appearing on the show are always much looser than they would be if appearing on Leno or Letterman. Bruce Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg leads the best band in late-night.
Weaknesses: The woefully homemade skits that were funny years ago seem a little bit lame now, and it comes across as though NBC doesn’t want to put any money into the production. The show has always thrived on a shoestring budget, but one would think O'Brien has earned enough of a reputation that the network could spruce up the set a bit by now.
“The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”
Where: Comedy Central, 11 p.m.
Strengths: Stewart’s still skewering with a blade that hasn’t dulled. Heading into the homestretch of the presidential campaign, he’s sure to get in his best digs yet at both the Republicans and Democrats, each sinking to new lows to get their candidate in office.
Weaknesses: Because the first half of the show is so funny, the interview portion comes across as a hybrid of jokey and serious, and even Stewart struggles to find the right tone.
“Late Show With David Letterman”
Where: CBS, 11:30 p.m.
Strengths: To many, Letterman was the guy who changed the staid talk-show game in the 1980s, with his irreverent 12:30 a.m. telecast on NBC. A couple of decades later, he can occasionally be off-the-cuff funny and his legendary Top 10 List still has a kick to it. Plus, when it comes to topical breaking-news guests — think Eli Manning after winning the Super Bowl for the New York Giants — “Late Show” usually gets ’em before anyone else.
Weaknesses: While Dave was a king in the ’80s, he’s long lost his crown. He often looks tired, and it feels as though he’d rather be somewhere else. His voice gags aren’t funny — if they ever were at all — and his witty rapport with band leader Paul Schaffer, once a comedic staple of the show, feels like a distant memory.
“The Colbert Report”
Where: Comedy Central, 11:30 p.m.
Strengths: Stephen Colbert spoofs right-wingers such as Bill O’Reilly so well, some don’t appreciate the irony. That should be a credit to Colbert, who has succeeded by extending “The Daily Show” brand without repeating it.
Weaknesses: When interviewing an author or journalist, Colbert sometimes isn’t quite sure if he wants legitimate conversation or to play Stephen Colbert, over-the-top host, wanting information. Interviewees beware.
“The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson”
Where: CBS, 12:35 a.m.
Strengths: Ferguson is absolutely brilliant at both earning laughs during the monologue and having the ability to raise a conversation with guests beyond “let's talk about my new movie.” His out-of-the-box opening — featuring Ferguson sometimes sitting on, not behind, his desk — is fresh, and his self-deprecating look back at battles with alcoholism and drug abuse come across as genuine. He shines because he feels like one of us.
Weaknesses: Nothing comes to mind, but if we must get nit-picky, how about a better haircut?
Stuart Levine is a managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at email@example.com.