Inching towards mediocrity.

The Late Shift, Part II: Shift Happens. (Now with 75% more lies from NBC!)

Conan O’Brien has gone rogue.

NBC’s red-headed stepchild and host of “The Tonight Show” has begun to lash out at his keepers in increasingly awkward (and increasingly hilarious!) dramatic fashion.

The story has been getting a lot of coverage these past few days, but in case any of you missed it, I’ll sum it up here:

It began innocently enough with Jay Leno, who’s been unfunny for well over a decade, deciding to retire as host of the legendary “Tonight Show,” setting in motion a series of events that would doom the entire Peacock network to fourth place suckery. (Though, to be fair, they were already a fourth place network long before this debacle happened).

We're worse than FOX!

So Leno plans his retirement (which I’m sure entails hours of waxing his car collection and telling terrible jokes to his grandchildren while they secretly conspire to kill him and claim their inheritance) and NBC hands the reins of “Tonight” over to O’Brien, who has been patiently waiting in the wings for years, turning down much more lucrative offers from other networks, and biding his time on his “Late Show” (which he in turn had taken over from David Letterman – another victim of Leno’s ambition) until “Tonight” was made available to him. Leno okayed the transition, and everything seemed (more or less) hunky dory.

THIS guuuuuuuuuuy!

Except everything was NOT hunky dory…Leno began to have second thoughts about his “retirement” and was looking to jump back onto the late night bandwagon. NBC, not willing to let one of their hottest commodities go (I’d love to make a joke here, but Leno, for some damn reason, WAS something of a ratings behemoth in his “Tonight Show” days) decided to instead placate Jay by giving him another show – during the coveted ten o’clock prime time spot, a spot usually filled by some ratings grabbing drama, and rarely occupied by any sort of big-chinned variety talk show aimed at octogenarians with sleeping disorders.

The obvious joke here is to draw parallels between Chamberlain/Hitler and NBC/Leno. But since I can't think of a single tasteful way to do that, I'll just move on.

Regardless of what you think of Leno or his show, it’s obvious that this was a Very Bad Idea. There are only so many hours of prime-time available, and to give one of those coveted spots to a talk show is just ludicrous. That means that starting at ten P.M., NBC had roughly four hours of straight talk showy madness. Not good – and without a decent prime-time lead-in (like the seemingly unstoppable “E.R.”) ratings were bound to start slouching, with no chance of straightening up.

Not even Noah Wylie could revive NBC now.

And slouch they did. Leno’s army of loyal pensioners, to confused to locate his new show, or to busy dying of old age to care, didn’t follow their fearless leader to his new time slot, and “Tonight’s” ratings took a hit because of it. Not willing to resign themselves to the horrible fate they’d created for themselves, NBC backpedaled – hard – and attempted to reclaim their prime-time spot by canceling the current iteration of Jay’s show, and giving him a half hour one at 11:35…which will of course push “Tonight” back to 12:05, which spits in the face of the show’s sixty year legacy – something Conan refuses to do, although Leno doesn’t seem to give a shit about it either way.

Here's a headline for you! "I'm a dick."

To say that O’Brien was mistreated by the network is an understatement. Leno has once again bullied himself into a position to reclaim the “Tonight Show,” and NBC has acquiesced to his demands without so much as a fight. In attempting to hold onto both comics, and their respective fan bases, NBC has managed to completely alienate one and vilify the other. Leno’s audience is enormous, but older and easy to please. O’Brien’s is younger, hipper, and loyal as hell. While many of us have manged to put up with Leno in the past while waiting for Conan to hit the screen, I can’t imagine that happening now. We’re fiercely loyal to the ginger king of late night, and we’ll follow him wherever he goes…and fuck up Leno as much as possible.

And we’re not the only ones. Other late night hosts have shown their solidarity with Conan, jumping to his defense and jumping all over Leno. David Letterman (who went through a very similar debacle with Leno twenty years ago) has been particularly brutal in his attacks on the Big Chinned One, but Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson have also had a lot to say, skewering both Leno and the network that so royally screwed up.

This all seems vaguely familiar...

The point is this: Leno had his shot. And, to his credit, he did well. Despite a staggering lack of comedy or originality, Leno’s version of “The Tonight Show” fared very well with viewers and the occasional critic. And, more importantly, he had the time to get there. The network allowed Leno to tweak the show to his liking, and endured a rocky start to the show because they had faith in his abilities. Conan never got that chance. He was only allowed seven months to do something that Jay had twenty years to do. And that’s patently unfair. Cold feet or not, ratings dropoff or not, Conan should have been allowed the same time and the same chance that Jay had to make the show his own. Neither one of them were going to be Johnny Carson; that was clear from the beginning. But the irony is that Conan’s version of tonight had much more in common with Carson’s version than Jay’s did. (Partly because Conan took risks, but mostly because Conan was funny).

It looks like Conan is out and Jay is back in. I’m not worried about Conan; he’ll find something. He’ll persevere because he’s talented, he’s funny, and people genuinely like him. Leno will certainly bring his audience back with him, but I’m hoping there will be some kind of backlash. He’s shown his true colors and his ruthlessness and pettiness in getting his own way. And that’s not exactly something people can relate to – especially when you gave it up to begin with, and you have pretty much everything else a person could ever want anyways.

It’s a sad state of affairs for the late night club, but at least it’s somewhat entertaining. My only question is what Johnny would have thought of all of this.

Something tells me that he’d be on Team Conan.

Tomorrow, I’m gonna look at who I think is the cream of the crop of late night hosts. I think you all can imagine who’s going to be number one – and who’s definitely not.

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