When people approach me in the local supermarket or at the Jazz Dance studio and ask me how I got to be so damn funny, I usually have three answers:
1. Screwball Teen Comedies
3. David Letterman
Then I chastise my entourage for letting the general public wander into the Joe Zone.
Beyond the obvious implications of the rule-of-threes and non-sequiturs in that list, my answer has a lot to do with upbringing. I was exposed to funny at an impressionable age. I was a little kid during the time when the edge of television began its transition from Little House on the Prairie to Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction.
Somewhere in there, TV grew up, and during its dorky teen period, shows like Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman were pushing the envelope. "Lord and Lady Douchebag" may seem almost quaint today, what with the smack usage and hooker references, but back then, it was sophomoric humor aimed at adults, meaning it struck a huge chord with kids and teens as taboo we could kind of get away with.
Yeah, it may have nerded me up for a life of... whatever it is I do. But it kept me away from the smack and the hookers. The unfortunate side effect for me was a brimming fascination with this entertainment universe, a lifelong study of the mechanics of fleeting fame. I don't really dig the Sex Pistols, it's not my bag, but I've read and watched everything I could get my hands on about their story, which is far more fascinating than their art or their music, which is crap.
It's why I watch Survivor, not because I'm curious about the relational dynamics of putting 20 strangers on an island to compete against one another, but I'm a sucker for the relational dynamics of putting 20 strangers on an island to compete against one another with a camera crew.
Late Night with David Letterman skewered that entertainment universe. In those early years, the jokes were awful and the sketches were unwatchable, but it was meant to be that way, because the target was rich. The Top Ten Lists were only funny when they tackled fame and notoriety. And all along as Letterman worried about becoming what he mocked, he found he could do little to stop it.
So as Letterman toiled in the shadow of The Tonight Show and became the architect of acerbic satire, the stuff that late night from Carson to SNL was made of, Johnny decided to pack it in and call it a career. I had never taken to Carson, who was way out of my demo and my taste. And I was not alone. To be blunt, Johnny was for old folks. And what his retirement meant was the ascendancy of not only Letterman, but the Late Night vibe, one that pushed the envelope and mocked while it walked that fine line, much like Jon Stewart today (or "slightly yesterday" if you're actually keeping score).
Bill Carter's fantastic The Late Shift is a shot-by-shout recount of the war between the Letterman and Leno camps up to and through Carson's retirement. It's also the most stunning account of fail of suit decision-making ever recorded. See, NBC has a history of this, and the decision to replace Carson with Leno as a nod to an aging and traditionalist (and rapidly declining) Tonight audience goes down as an epic gaffe akin to New Coke.
I heartily recommend this book. And even in the sloppy, made-for-TV movie that makes agent Michael Ovitz out to be a superhero and has everything wrong with it except a brilliant performance by John Michael Higgins as Letterman...
...NBC still comes out looking like a bunch of idiots.
This battle, some 17 years ago, laid the groundwork for the same shafting of Conan O'Brien today. Although there are several key differences, the result is still one giant NBC fiasco.
First, the issue this time around is not the brushing-off of Conan. In 1993, everyone except NBC assumed, and rightfully so, that Letterman was the next and perfectly logical choice to take over The Tonight Show upon Carson's retirement. If you believe the book, even Johnny fell, unapologetically, into Letterman's camp.
Conan, on the other hand, never built the following or, frankly, the quality with his 12:30 show like Letterman did. Whether or not Conan deserved the Tonight throne is immaterial.
All things being equal, if you have to pick someone to take it over today, it's Jon Stewart, hands down if you let him do the show he wants. Again, in 1993, NBC fretted severely that Letterman's antics wouldn't translate to 11:30. They were wrong then, but you can't tell me that a network that keeps hammering a terrifically awful Parks and Recreation into a lineup that was the home of Cosby, Cheers, Friends, and even The Office today has any idea what works where or when.
But to lament the passing over of Conan is to assume you have the same show with the same legend intact at 11:30 today.
You do not.
The real mistake NBC made was two-fold, and it goes all the way back to 1993. Once NBC put Leno in place, Tonight immediately lost its edge. It got crushed by Letterman's CBS competition in the beginning, before settling into a number one slot for good. But this was a new universe, one in which Leno's dumbed-down, safe, and altogether unfunny style destroyed the genre.
Quick, what's the best soap opera on TV?
Answer: What's a soap opera?
But in true television executive fashion, NBC fixed the mistake by making it worse. As the ratings slipped, and the focus shifted from Tonight to The Daily Show, the suits got all itchy and half-heartedly decided to push Leno out. But in the same terrified fashion as 1993, they didn't really do it. In fact, they gave him 10:00. Every night.
This is the dumbest thing ever done on network television, and I'm including both the original and the new Knight Rider.
So now the fix includes giving the same old lame but now also damaged Leno The Tonight Show back, paying Conan a huge sum of money to not be on TV for a little while, even though when he does come back he simply won't be competition for either Leno or Letterman, obliterating NBC's 12:30 slot, the spectre of an entire week's 10:00 slot with absolutely no programming ready, angry affiliates, the further erosion of the late night genre, and somehow inadvertently placing Jimmy Kimmel's name into the conversation.
Quick, someone call Michael Ovitz.
So the question now looms, is this the final nail in the coffin for network television? No. That will happen when this recession is over, Gen Y realizes they have all the purchasing power, and spends it all on iPads and Wiis.
It isn't even the last nail for NBC. That honor goes to whoever put Rod Blagojevich on The Celebrity Apprentice. And if there really were still a late night genre, whoever was hosting The Tonight Show would be shaming NBC back into the stone age for that move alone.
Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.
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2.1.10 @ 11:56a
I agree with most of this except for one thing: Conan might actually stand a real chance against Leno and Letterman, if he decides to go up against them (and why wouldn't he?). There was a valuable lesson in Conan's last two weeks on the Tonight Show, and that is to be as genuine as you can, because people really REALLY react well to it. Conan is a smart man and I'm sure he picked up on it.
One thing that I think would be a good move for him is if he and Letterman can form some sort of behind-the-scenes alliance, even if it just takes the form of friendly rivalry. As you hinted at slightly, Letterman is Conan's comedy-uncle, so they have a similar mindset. If they united somehow to defeat the bland Leno, the world would become a better place.
2.1.10 @ 4:13p
It bothers me, growing up as I did with NBC the family favorite, how many of my top shows are on ABC these days. ABC didn't even have the good Saturday Morning Cartoons.
Just goes to show.
And, yes, 10:00 Leno every night was the stupidest decision anyone has ever made regarding television programming. I can only assume the conversaion went something like this:
"Why aren't more people watching Jay?"
"It must be because his target demographic goes to sleep too early."
"Well, let's put him on earlier then."
And I just know there was some new guy in the back who didn't enjoy quite the job security to be able to suggest that maybe the reason Jay wasn't generating better numbers was because he wasn't very good.
2.1.10 @ 6:09p
I have to say that while Parks and Rec's first season was atrociously unfunny, this season has been quite good. Aziz Ansari rules.
2.4.10 @ 3:35p
I have to correct my comment above. CBS, not ABC. And CBS always had good cartoons.