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Here We Go Again: Leno, Fallon, And Why The Late-Night Wars Are So Boring

Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon pose in the press room during the Golden Globe Awards in January.
Kevin Winter
Getty Images
Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon pose in the press room during the Golden Globe Awards in January.

When rumblings began in early March that NBC might be preparing in earnest to replace Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon, I felt more like Bill Murray than I ever have.

Not the Bill Murray in Ghostbustersor the Bill Murray in Meatballsor even the Bill Murray in Stripes. No, this was the Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, who wakes up every morning to "I Got You Babe," over and over. And over.

A couple of disclosures seem appropriate.

As an audience member and a critic, my tastes are strongly pro-Fallon, even substantially more than they were pro-Conan O'Brien when we went through this entire hootenanny three years ago. And they are anti-Leno, and especially anti-"Jaywalking." "Jaywalking" is Leno's man-on-the-street segment that's nothing more or less than a zillionaire entertainer dripping contempt on people who do not own a car collection while his studio audience agreeably hoots at how stupid they are. He does not, of course, quiz his audience to see if they would do any better.

And as a writer, it is my dearest wish that the late-night wars would be packed into a box, the box would be put inside a barrel, the barrel would be doused in honey and covered with ants, the ants would carry it to a launch pad, the best available aeronautics engineers would set it on fire and strap it to a rocket, the rocket would be fired into the sun, and the sun would be snuffed out by the galactic calamity that we all know is coming someday.

Nevertheless, here we are. First The Hollywood Reporter and now The New York Timesreport that NBC is moving in earnest toward making the switch sometime in 2014, along with a move for Tonight from L.A. to New York (where Fallon's Late Night is now).

For those of us asked to muster opinions about this kind of thing, déjà vu doesn't begin to describe it. Conan O'Brien wrote his "People Of Earth" memo — funny, sad, stubborn — in January 2010. That was only a little more than three years ago. You know what that means? If you were impregnated the day we last saw a story almost exactly like this come to an ugly, unhappy end, your child is just reaching the point where the American Academy of Pediatrics says she should be able to "carr[y] large toy or several toys while walking."

The fascination with late-night scuffles goes back at least as far as Bill Carter's book The Late Shift, which is where those stories about Jay Leno hiding to eavesdrop on conversations about successors for Johnny Carson came from. The Leno-Letterman standoff had everything: Betrayal! Intrigue! Eavesdropping! A weird HBO TV movie!

To quickly recap the more recent drama: In 2004, NBC secured the then-hot O'Brien by promising him The Tonight Showin 2009 — in other words, "Stick around for five years and we'll promote you." Leno promised he'd step aside gracefully. But since Leno was still popular in 2009 when their promise to O'Brien came due, they put Leno in a prime-time hour that flopped so grandly that they were forced to cancel it after only a few months. That left Leno free to go somewhere else to compete with the Conan Tonight, which was on iffy ground (though, as noted yesterday by Vulture's crackerjack analyst Joe Adalian, Conan was getting better ratings three years ago than Leno is getting now).

So NBC bit the bullet and gave Leno back the 11:35 slot, pushing O'Brien to a midnight slot he declined. O'Brien was bought out of his contract and left; Leno resumed Tonight just like it never happened.

And now we have to do the whole thing again, apparently, because Leno is still popular with the people who actually sit down and turn to broadcast television to hear monologues at 11:35 p.m., but NBC reportedly feels the hot breath of Jimmy Kimmel on its back and wants to get on with a transition before Kimmel — currently watched by about 3 million people out of a country of more than 300 million — becomes a force too strong to fight.

The quandary NBC faces appears to be roughly this: Jay Leno is one of its few network properties people still watch. Jimmy Fallon, on the other hand, is one of its few network properties that generate any enthusiasm or would ever be called cool or current in any way by anyone.

Look around at the rest of the NBC schedule: prime time, after showing a few signs of life in the fall, is in miserable shape. Morning is dealing with the fallout from the Ann Curry departure and the apparent en massescowl of the public toward Matt Lauer, as described recently by Brian Stelter of The New York Times (who is becoming to morning television what Carter, who's written two books on the late-night wars and now will obviously have to write another one, is to late night).

And then look at the two NBC late-night hosts, both of whom are, in their own ways, very successful. Leno plugs along, getting solid ratings in spite of whatever reservations about creativity anyone may have. Fallon looks like a whole different kind of television, based around looseness, turning The Roots into something more like co-hosts than a house band, generating viral online clips with startling regularity. (Jay Leno would never, ever have done "The Evolution Of Mom Dancing" in drag with Michelle Obama.)

The advantage of Fallon's approach is that this is where entertainment is probably going — he's clippable, fun, fresh, and always good for a mood-lifter. His close collaboration with The Roots also makes it the least unrelentingly white of the broadcast late-night shows (although Arsenio Hall will have a new syndicated show this fall).

The advantage of Leno's approach, on the other hand, is that at the moment, substantially more people ... you know, sit down and watch his television show. Fallon's cultural penetration far exceeds the two million or so people who watch him every night, but monetizing cultural penetration continues to be a tricky thing to do.

What makes all this so wearying — the return to the think pieces about whether it's fair to hate Jay Leno and how Conan was treated — is that none of this changes the fact that the boring, pedestrian truths overpower the more nuanced and interesting conversations that all this raises.

Ultimately, Leno gets good ratings at a time when almost nothing on NBC gets good ratings. The fact that a younger audience, which NBC will certainly want eventually, might well prefer Fallon in closed-room laboratory testing doesn't at all mean they will turn on his show at 11:35 instead of doing what many of them do now, which is watch it online the next day, either in whole or in clips. (You meet people all the time who were this way about Conan. They still feel guilty.) Moreover, trying to fit Fallon's loose-limbed weirdness into the 11:35 slot might do his show harm. Between Fallon and CBS's Craig Ferguson, the 12:35 a.m. hour has become the basement experimental studio to 11:35's staid science library, and if 11:35 would mean Jimmy Fallon wouldn't want to blow stuff up anymore, they can leave him where he is.

Thinking Jay Leno is boring and a bad comedian — or a jerk, for people who believe that, based on all that intrigue and eavesdropping — could not be less relevant. Thinking Jimmy Fallon is a goodwill ambassador for goodwill itself who's doing enormously valuable work? Also could not be less relevant.

These are cold, somewhat desperate business decisions for a network that's struggling in a content model that's struggling, and all the personalities and generational conflicts and intrigue these stories involve will ultimately mean nothing next to what NBC — the company, not the Artists' Collective — thinks will be profitable, as between the Jay-o-matic 3000 and the Fallonbot Turbo. And it's no more inherently fascinating than any other argument about which product a company will keep on the market and which one it will consign to the dustbin of history.

It would be great if it were a story about fresh versus stale, about who will control vast swaths of the landscape, about who's better. But it's not.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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