Hollywood is a miserable town in which to fail. Much like Detroit, we do one thing and one thing only. We roll out our Edsel's, take our hits and then load up the 2010 version with more airbags.
As hard as it is to give a shit about what two multimillionaires are grumbling about in our still crumbling economy, I'm going to weigh in because it concerns the comedy business, a business I've been in for 24 years. A business so convoluted that the essence of comedy is often lost in the gross amount of money required to keep it afloat. It's a numbers game. The bigger the numbers, the more advertisers and more money. Welcome to TV.
Jay Leno at 10:00 PM was a disaster for the NBC late night news affiliates around the country. The affiliates were rumored to be losing over 100 million dollars with him helming his own show. The affiliates applied pressure to NBC for the latter part of Jay's 4 month tenure. They wanted him out and the more successful 10 pm dramas to return to that time slot.
Conan started losing The Tonight Show audience almost immediately. His herky-jerky physical movements and grotesque faces were not lulling us to sleep. The under-30's responded well to Conan because they weren't going to bed early. The rest of the country needed the soporific that is Jay Leno.
NBC was unhappy with Conan's numbers. The affilates were losing money with him too. But NBC deserved the drubbing Conan got after booting Jay Leno, who consistently posted winning numbers, burying Letterman year after year.
I'm not a fan of either Jay or Conan and don't think either are funny just so you know where I stand on the issue. I'm just an equal opportunity basher.
Conan has never had to play the Hollywood game. He's been one lucky guy for the last 20 years. The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, Late Night and then The Tonight Show. People kissed his ass so many times it was concave. If he experienced career failure along the way, I didn't see it.
But Jay? He was thrown off The Tonight Show as a recurring guest back in the 80's. He wasn't even famous enough for it to make the papers. He eventually made it back on as the permanent guest host, further proving how messed up this business is. First he's banned and then he's a guest host and then The King Of It All?
I found this quote from 1994 by Jeff Jarvis, the Couch Critic from TV Guide. "It doesn't matter what (Conan) O'Brien does because he won't control his fate - his competition will." How prescient was that? He also said "O'Brien - like Leno - took one of TV's great shows and turned it into an also-ran because he didn't have the vision to make it his own."
He's referring to Conan taking over Late Night from Letterman and Leno taking over from Johnny. Jarvis ultimately got it wrong because both hosts eventually succeeded. And you have to wonder if the late night talk show can ever be reinvented. Only Steve Allen and Letterman did that.
"I sincerely believe that delaying The Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting." ~ Conan O'Brien
Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show when it was on from 11:30 to 1:00 a.m., way into "the next day." As Johnny's tenure continued he asked them to make the show a half hour shorter. Having watched The Tonight Show from the 8th grade on, (terrible insomnia and a mom who watched Johnny while she graded papers) I was used to the longer format. But like the rest of the country, I survived this horrifying setback in my life.
This is where Conan overshot his mark and became a baby. If he had just moved his show one half hour to midnight, his ratings would have improved because he would be following Jay, who had ridiculously high ratings when he did The Tonight Show. I believe Conan's ultimate decision to leave was based on his embarrassment over losing one of the greatest franchises in comedy history due to poor ratings.
So Conan, take a seat over here with Suzanne Somers, the late Farrah Fawcett, McLean Stevenson, Shelley Long, David Caruso and countless others who thought they were bigger than the Hollywood machine.