Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien? How about the Tonight Show with Craig Ferguson?

With NBC late-night airing its dirty laundry for the past week, everyone has been piling on Jay Leno and Carson Daly, as my last post, Tonight Show - Leno or Conan?, shows. Oddly, both shows have been doing fine for NBC, raking in cash even at reduced ratings due to their relative cheapness.

Carson Daly's influence with younger viewers is underrated and despite airing ninety minutes later, he often gets ratings close to the suddenly-relevant-again Jimmy Kimmel. The Leno Show's ratings were more than high enough to keep it profitable simply because it cost a fraction of five ten p.m. dramas.

But ultimately, this new war for late-night's most coveted time slot has revealed cracks in the talk show format itself. I confess, I can comfortably watch Letterman, especially when he's pissed off about something and Conan is a writer's comic, with a terrific appreciation of what has gone before and a delightful sense of the surreal. But they're still doing the same thing over and over.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not headlining talk shows per se, they're lampooning the news and serving a healthy dose of satire every weeknight.

The Boston Globe describes hilariously, vicious comic Chelsea Handler's show on E! as turning "celebrity-watching into a blood sport for laughs." I find Chelsea absolutey hilarious. But she's so relentless and (let's face it) mean spirited I only catch her once or twice a month.

So who's left?

Why, my one, late-night, talk show, true love, standing proud and true - The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

Night after night Ferguson takes giddy delight in his show and that energy is contagious. The difference is evident even in terms of his monologue, a much more personalized experience than those delivered by his peers. Ferguson treats the viewers and his studio audience like his mates, inviting us all to join in the fun in a playful, conspiratorial tone. Ferguson doesn't hit his mark the way others hosts do, choosing instead to resist the formality of a stationary delivery.

The camera is raised several inches above eye level, looking down on Craig with, I think, a wide angle lens so we see the set behind him. This allows Ferguson to look up at the camera and the audience and keep his notes out of site below. But it also allows him to move around in the frame, sometimes backing away and sometimes leaning right into the lens to mug or share some some tid-bit, just between himself and several million of his dearest friends.

Craig's delight in comedy is infectious and he's tremendously skilled at keeping you on your toes. He can zoom from serious to silly in a snap and keep you riveted. Recently, the Philidelphia Weekly's Cup O' Joel blog summed up Craig better than I ever could in this post - Screw Jay Leno and meh to Conan O'Brien: watch Craig Ferguson instead.

The honesty in Ferguson's meandering, storytelling comic style draws you in. And how many talk show hosts would choose to do as candid a monologue as Ferguson's President's Day appeal from one comic to his audience and one alcoholic to any alcoholic who may be watching? Now, how many comics could do it and still score real, deserved laughs?


But hey, don't take my word for it. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu agrees, Craig Ferguson is crazy. No fooling.

I rest my case and will turn over the final comments to Mr. Ferguson himself.

In this monologue from last week Craig puts this late night flap into perspective.

Live the adventure.

Tonight Show - Leno or Conan?

Conan and Leno’s battle for late-night is waking up ratings and putting me to sleep

NBC’ s embarrassingly public mishandling of its late night line-up may be the best thing to happen to late night talk shows across the board in years. Without exception, viewers have been treated to a higher level of engagement and energy from the various hosts and seeming interactivity. For the first time in a long while, the opening monologues seem to actually old personal meaning for each of them.

Ratings are up as well, especially Conan's, as viewers tune in to see who will go the farthest in the battle of the gags and check out what may be Conan’s final week in the Tonight Show chair. Seeing hosts bite that hands that feed them (and the hand that takes the food away) is exactly the kind of real, live drama so-called “reality television” has been attempting to fake for years.

Death Knell for Late Night TV?

But for all the viewer excitement this oh-so public internal spat provides, it has also clarified how staid late-night network television has become. NBC won’t miss me if I stop watching, mostly because I stopped watching long ago with one exception (I’ll get to that) in favour of Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert The Report. Due to their focus on current affairs and lampooning of the news show format, they feel more connected to my day to day experience. A rerun of Letterman, Leno or Conan is dated only by what movie or album their guests are pimping that week. For the most part the monologues and sketches over the years are pretty interchangeable.

So then it’s just a matter of what taste you like your comedy bits in, Leno’s comfortable, gentle humour (remember when he had an actual “angry” edge to his work? Me either. It was so very, very long ago.), Letterman’s curmudgeonly, axe-grinding mugging or Conan’s mix of sublime, reference-based humour and collegiate buffoonery. I can’t really lump Jimmy Fallon into this mix. While likable and somewhat funny, he’s not a comic and seems to lack the ability to adjust and riff when his bits fail. And the monologue jokes seem like cast-offs from his competitors writing rooms.

The Buffalo News’ Arts Editor Jeff Simon opined the loss of late night spontaneity in his Friday commentary, “Hilarity ensues on late night”. Simon points to Ricky Gervais’ Puckish appearance on the Tonight Show last week as an example of one comic with nothing to lose making fun of the situation opposite another comic with a great deal to lose.

That’s when “Golden Globe” plugger Gervais came out to demonstrate to O’Brien the glorious comic art of laughing it up and partying down. “What are you going to do?” he asked O’-Brien. “I’m really worried about you. I’m not being funny [psst. Yes he was]. You’ve got no discernible skills . . . You couldn’t do manual work. You’ve never lifted anything in your life.”
Maybe he could be a lifeguard, offered O’Brien, trying to play along. Said Gervais, “Your skin would dazzle ships. You’re the whitest man I’ve ever seen.” When he takes all his clothes off, he’s probably “translucent,” said Gervais.
His message to O’Brien was to “go mental” on the show and put his moribund act aside during the interview. But O’Brien just couldn’t do it. Gervais’ hilarity clearly cut too close to the bone. The certifiable grown-up and well-mannered comedy patrician in him took over.

Simon’s point that Conan “going wild” and bucking expectations the way Gervais likes to do misses the mark somewhat. Gervais’ preferred form of confrontational humour can be quite grating when overused and Conan has to appeal to a broad range of viewers.

But as the last late-night host to inject anything remotely fresh into the format, Conan did seem to be relying on comfortable tricks to hedge his bets. Perhaps Conan’s respect for “the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting” (as he refers to the Tonight Show in Conan’s statement to the people of earth) made him hesitant to embrace the more absurd aspects of his humour.

Conan: Heir to a proud Tonight Show history

Truthfully, of all the Tonight Show wannabes (Leno, Conan, Letterman and once upon a time, Joan Rivers), Conan’s writing background and love of absurdity had the most potential to revamp the show and bring something unique to the format (Though some would argue the point, as this blog post insisting former Tonight Show hosts are spinning in their graves! It would appear Conan’s appeal lies upon definite generational lines).

Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs were arguably the last pair to bring actual innovation to the Tonight Show. Jack Parr brought the show to a new level based on his personality, wit and authenticity. Johnny Carson took that recipe and turned the show into a cultural institution over his unprecedented thirty-year stint.

But Jeff Simon isn’t the only one pointing out the lack of innovation in late night. Articles like “Late-night talk shows aren’t worth the fight” by Boston Globe writer Matthew Gilbert are adding their voice to the lament.
In the past decade, late-night network TV seems to have been running on automatic pilot, with requisite and uneven stand-up monologues, vapid promotional interviews, and predictably kooky shorts. There are flashes of life here and there, of course, many of them from Ferguson and his outrageous bluntness. But after strikingly original developments by Letterman and O’Brien in the 1980-’90s, the format has just settled into being a kind of merry-go-round of variety- and talk-show conventions while the house bands play on. Even Letterman’s and O’Brien’s current shows are short on the post-bedtime anything-goes vibe that late night cries out for.
This inertia is part of the reason the “Leno Experiment’’ failed so miserably. What we saw when Jay Leno essentially relocated his 11:35 p.m. “Tonight Show’’ to 10 p.m. was the ugly truth about late night. In the brighter light of prime time, we could see how weak and unimaginative so much of the networks’ post-news TV - and so much of Leno’s work in particular - has become.
Leno and Conan – Even the winner will lose

I feel for Leno and Conan. This is a situation not of their own making. Leno was actually gracious when making his move to 10 pm, making room for Conan to take over his Tonight Show chair with little fuss and loads of positivity. And I doubt it was his idea to cancel his new show and move back. But he’s a comic and needs a gig. And if NBC is offering him the premiere late-night again, why shouldn’t he take it?

Jerry Seinfeld (who is coming across as more and more smug with every passing year) weighed in this week.

"It was the right idea at the wrong time," Seinfeld said. "…I'm proud that NBC had the guts to try something."
Asked what he would do if he was Conan O'Brien and NBC had seemingly broken its promise to let him become the network's premium late-night host, Seinfeld suggested he wouldn't complain.
"What did the network do to him?" Seinfeld asked. "I don't think anyone's preventing people from watching Conan. Once they give you the cameras, it's on you. I can't blame NBC for having to move things around. I hope Conan stays, I think he's terrific. But there's no rules in show business, there's no refs."
You have to give Leno props. After NBC voted for Conan five years ago by promising him Leno’s chair, despite the older comic’s strong ratings, Leno took it on his robust chin and jumped at the chance for the prime time challenge they offered him as compensation. After seeing how long they gave that experiment a chance to work, Conan was disinclined to take part in another experiment so obviously designed to move him out of the way.

But the failure of Leno’s show must, at least partially, still rest on his shoulders. The cosmetic changes to Leno’s show for its move to an earlier time slot showed little inspiration and Leno himself displayed almost no comedic invention. Even his off-the-cuff remarks felt dated and scripted. He felt comfortable and entitled and not surprisingly hemorrhaged viewers to more intriguing late evening offerings of the other nets.

NBC: "We bet on the wrong guy"

Still, its clear NBC isn’t handling this very well. One gets the impression all this is a spastic panic response rather than real consideration for the various options. When a former NBC exec and friend of Jeff Zucker, Dick Ebersol calls out Conan in an incendiary interview with New York Times writer Bill Carter, things got heated quickly.

Referring to the pointed jokes made this week by Mr. O’Brien and David Letterman of CBS, Mr. Ebersol said it was “chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn’t beat in the ratings.” Mr. Ebersol said Mr. Leno had not pushed for any of the changes, not the original decision to guarantee Mr. O’Brien the show five years in advance, nor the plan to put Mr. Leno in prime time.
“Jeff and I are big boys,” Mr. Ebersol said, referring to Mr. Zucker. “When we do something big in the public forum and it doesn’t succeed, we know we’ll be the butt of criticism. But you don’t personally attack someone who hasn’t done anything.” In this case, he added, “we bet on the wrong guy.”
Conan: Doing what a comedian does best

Ebersol is missing the point here. While his insistence that numbers did Conan in is valid, Conan targeting Leno in his monologue kind of makes sense. Remember Conan is a comedian. What he does by definition is make fun of whatever is stuck in his craw today. You follow? Conan is actually doing his job!

As a comic and host it’s his duty to make the funny about whatever will provide him with the most comedic points at that point in time. Because of this mess, his monologue is sharper and funnier than it’s been all season and his ratings are up! He’s actually doing his job better this week than the last three months!

Now Conan could can make fun of the NBC executive directly but the public face of the argument is Leno. His audience doesn’t know who the hell Jeff Zucker is. So he has to go for the targets they will recognize, NBC and Leno. What Ebersol is forgetting that this crap is comedy gold.

NBC’s problems are bigger than Leno and Conan

David Letterman opined in a monologue last week, “Don’t kid yourself. It’s all about the money.” That’s true. NBC is in trouble. A study has just been released that reveals NBC affiliates have lost $22 million in advertising revenue for their local normally lucrative newscast over the fourth quarter thanks to the Leno Show debacle. George Poague, copy editor of the Clarksville and Fort Campbell Leaf Chronicle assures us that this is a sign that “Network TV is on its last legs” and many of his points are valid.

NBC doesn’t have time to let Conan grow his numbers. They can only hope that reinserting Leno into the 11:30 will bring the numbers close to what he was pulling before the change and that somehow adds some juice to Jimmy Fallon’s unimpressive ratings. I doubt that will happen, while some may find a return to his former slot a vindication for Leno, many more will consider him damaged goods or worse, a sore winner.

It’s too bad NBC hasn’t offered Conan an attractive alternative to the unwanted later-night spot. Perhaps guaranteeing his production a development deal to fill those suddenly empty time slots with shows he’s developed, opening a lucrative door and fresh creative outlet and allowing him to reinvent himself while he looks for a home for his talk show. But NBC wasn’t that creative, they hit the panic button without a suitable plan so Conan will likely take the money and run.

Leno takes it on the chin

So, after moving his entire crew from New York to LA, NBC and Leno look like bullies (Update: according to Deadline Hollywood, it looks like Conan is insisting NBC take care of staff who pulled up New York stakes and moved to LA) and Conan looks like a victim. Which brings to mind a really interesting thing about this whole debacle -- how many comics have landed squarely on Conan’s side. It seems like Leno is not as popular among his peers as was once thought. Nathan Rabin's Wall Street Journal Essay, Why Some Comics Aren't Laughing At Jay Leno, tries to answer why comics seemed to be lined to take potshots at him.

Take the recent guest appearance by Jimmy Kimmel on Leno's show the night after his notorious Leno impression.

Though I find it hard to believe that Leno didn’t invite Jimmy Kimmel’s hits on their 10 at 10 exchange this week (the questions were such blatant set-ups), he obviously didn’t come off as well from the bit as he’d hoped. Instead of commiserating with Leno, Kimmel put much of the blame squarely on his shoulders and practically dared Leno to come out swinging (comedically speaking).

But Leno never rose to the bait. If he had perhaps I would have been more interested more of what he has to offer in general. But he stayed out of the thick of it and continued his bland ways. And why not? He’s getting what he wanted all along and, rightfully, what he earned. Sadly, I think part of his appeal is what my wife and I refer to as the “Give Up” factor. Leaving the TV channel on Leno is our official announcement that there its nothing else viewable that night and at least we’ll have some friendly company while we read or do the dishes.

That good old “Give Up” appeal allows Leno to pick up cast-offs from a large range of demographics. Enough to keep his 11:35 ratings solid put him in the chair for years to come.

Live the adventure.