Thursday, January 21, 2010

Team Conan, Team Jay? Team Neither

Now that Conan O'Brien has been let out of his contract with NBC -- with a nice farewell package of $33 million to him and $11 million to his staff -- perhaps our long national nightmare will end. Oh the humanity of it all. Two unattractive, unfunny men were fighting over who would be allowed to continue to make The Tonight Show a shadow of its Johnny Carson-era self. What team were you on? Who cares?

The fact is neither Conan or Jay Leno are hosts of the caliber of Johnny. Jay's humor is insipid and trite, Conan's mean spirited and overwrought. NBC's real mistake was many years ago, when they could have installed David Letterman as Carson's worthy successor. He has the same Midwestern roots and sensibilities as Carson, can be both edgy and yet not lose mass appeal.

Instead NBC went with Leno, for the same reason that most TV sitcoms go with a laugh track. It's easy for the audience. You spoon feed them a predictable formula of set up, pay off, laughter, with the laughter already provided just in case the pay off had none. There is no originality, no spontaneity, no wit. But Leno had one thing Conan doesn't -- he's nonthreatening.

Conan may be funnier (he did write for The Simpsons after all), but his humor has a dark, angry edge and he seems to be daring you to laugh, rather than inviting. He was not the person you'd want to curl up with as you drift off to sleep. Leno may not be original or talented, but he doesn't make you squirm. Conan liked to push that envelope and see how far he could go to make the viewer feel more than a wee bit uncomfortable. He was asked to tone it down for the 11:35 slot and he didn't. And so he must go.

So bland wins out over scary, really nothing new. The real news is there are good talk shows out there, not only Letterman's but Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Kimmel. Ferguson and Kimmel have far better shows than either of the last two Tonight Show incarnations. Check them out, and if you want to watch the Tonight Show? Go buy a boxed set of the Carson years. Now that was funny.

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