A Late Tonight Show? A No-No for Coco

How did I react to Conan O’ Brien getting backstabbed by NBC? Well, here’s a little back-story. Conan and Andy Richter pretty much laid the foundation for my late-night insomnia when I was just hitting my teens and realized that hours exist between midnight and 7:00 a.m. on weeknights. I followed “Late Night” in the 00s as religiously as I followed “The Simpsons” in the 90s. I was a little sad when Conan was moving from “Late Night” to “The Tonight Show,” but I was incredibly happy that he had finally gotten the opportunity. Oh, and I’m under 30 years old. So yeah, just like you, I was pretty upset when I heard that NBC was taking “The Tonight Show” back from Conan.

This entire late night calamity has sparked lots of interest in a breed of comedy that many people felt was suffering a slow death. In this programming fiasco, Conan has gone from nice, dorky guy to snarky cynic.

The other late night hosts are following suit. David Letterman is having a good chuckle at what must feel like déjà vu for him. Jimmy Kimmel is still kind of  mind-numbing, but at least he came out from under that ABC rock to help us realize that he’s still great at ripping people to their faces (too bad he has a talk show where he has to compliment everyone to their faces).

All in all, everyone seems to be playing off of each other pretty well – aside from Jay Leno, who’s cementing his role as “the late night jackass.”

Yes, I despise Leno. You might, too. I find him boring, outdated and power-hungry. So for some wise perspective, you might want to ask your parents about this entire late night ordeal. I did, and my parents seemed to side with NBC’s decisions. They blamed Conan’s poor ratings for his ejection from “The Tonight Show,” rather than Leno’s ego. They told me that the economy doesn’t afford NBC the time to wait out for Conan’s ratings to stabilize.  Furthermore, they said, if Leno was really the problem, then he’d be the one getting the boot – not Conan. Older generations remember a time when Leno was tolerable, which was a time when I was too young to even comprehend the idea of television.

Let’s step back for a bit. How much of this is really Conan’s fault? Yes, “The Tonight Show” suffered a considerable dip in ratings after the initial hype. For months, Letterman’s “Late Show” actually beat out “Tonight” in ratings for the first time in, like, a decade. Now Conan’s struggle in this new timeslot has culminated in NBC handing it back to Leno.

There’s no denying that when Leno took over “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson, he grew to dominate the late night scene. The problem is that Leno was given the opportunity to settle while Conan was not.

Leno had plenty of struggles against Letterman when they went head-to-head during their first two years as late night rivals. In fact, Letterman consistently beat out Leno during that time. Only after years of a balanced struggle did Leno finally get the upper hand over Letterman. Leno also benefitted from solid NBC programming that provided a better lead-in than his new “The Jay Leno Show” now provides for Conan. While Jay’s new show has stayed close to NBC’s mediocre expectations for its ratings, Leno has had a negative domino effect for ratings of the local news and NBC’s late night programming – including “The Tonight Show.”

Now NBC is playing it safe, and in the process, and unfairly giving Conan the shaft. They were shifty enough to manipulate a loophole that said “Tonight” could technically be moved past midnight, a small clause which exists primarily to make room for Wimbledon highlights that run for a couple weeks every year. But NBC worked this to mean that they could change “The Tonight Show’s” timeslot permanently. Conan’s a smart dude, but if he learned anything from this, he should either get a new lawyer or learn to read the fine print.

However, this story might have a happy ending. My favorite part of all this is the revitalization it is giving to Conan’s career. I’ll admit, ever since taking over the “Tonight” gig, Conan has been slightly off. Nothing worth fretting over, but he’s been forcing himself to adjust a little too much. Maybe it’s the pressure of the revered brand he’s been repping, or maybe it’s just being nervous about catering to a new crowd.

But ever since this NBC shuffle became public, Conan has been killin’ it. For the first time since “Late Night,” Conan’s trademark swagger is back and he’s been as loose as ever. Even better, he’s only gaining value, and NBC gets to watch this comedy gold melting down their network. By deeming Conan as expendable, they’ve increased his popularity to a new level, and Conan might be peaking right at the time they’re letting him go. NBC’s lack of patience may end up haunting them. The times are a changing, Conan is as hip as ever and the declining Leno is no Johnny Carson.

Is there anything we can do to keep this rejuvenated Conan at his deserved spot? Very little, I’m sad to say. Despite all the college student protests, we’re not the ones who run NBC, and we’re not the ones who have given Jay all his stellar ratings over the years. So now we’re going to have to deal with an appalling lineup of Leno and Fallon on NBC late nights. Ugh. Looks like I’ll be switching over to CBS.

That is, until Conando returns to save the day. Or night. I don’t even care when anymore.