New Late-Night Landscape, Part 1

Posted By RabbitEars

The countdown is on as Conan O’Brien leaves NBC’s Late Night franchise to move back an hour and take over for Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show (weeknights at 11:35pm ET) starting June 1. It was recently announced that Conan’s last Late Night show will be February 20. Jimmy Fallon (SNL) embarks on his tenure as host of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (weeknights at 12:35am ET) beginning March 2.

O’Brien and Fallon recently spoke before a television critics press tour, and later to smaller groups of journalists, in separate sessions, to discuss their new roles.

Unlike many comic talents who appear before such sessions, who mainly joke around and often avoid straight answers, O’Brien offered a great combination of his trademark clever wit, along with genuine answers that were thoughtful, serious and sometimes emotional regarding his switchover to the legendary Tonight Show, which has been in its same time slot on NBC since 1954.

“To me, that is sacred territory,” O’Brien said sincerely. “The Tonight Show has huge resonance for me. … I watched Johnny Carson host this show with my father when I was a kid, and we would laugh together. This is a very powerful thing for me. … This is the time [for me to move]. I’ll never have any regrets.”

With NBC able to keep Leno and have him create a primetime show airing at 10pm ET (planned for this fall), some have thought that this might diminish the impact of The Tonight Show. But O’Brien isn’t too worried.

“I don’t need any help diminishing The Tonight Show,” O’Brien joked. “I’ve got that covered.”

And with an increasingly crowded late-night landscape, there is also the issue of competition in booking guests. “We talk about this,” O’Brien admitted. “We have gone through it for a long time. … If you look at television in the early ’60s, when someone would go on a show, it was literally your only chance to see them. I always use the example of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. The reason that so many people tuned in that night is people — a huge number of them — wanted to see what they looked like. Well, now it’s 2009, and my example is that today The Beatles would have been on, like, every — they’d be on The View. They’d be on every single show playing all those songs. They’d be on all the magazine shows. … And by the time they got to Ed Sullivan, you’d be like, ‘Jesus — I like the song, but enough.’ … A lot of these guests go a lot of places now. To me, it’s always been what do you do with those guests? It’s very rare that I interview someone on television that you weren’t able to see anywhere else. How often have you said, ‘I’m sorry, I’d love to go to that party, but Salma Hayek is on Conan O’Brien tonight, and I just must see her with Conan O’Brien’? She’s making the rounds. So the business has changed a little bit. I think it’s what you do with those guests … stunts, what you talk to them about, your chemistry with them. Basically nothing has really changed.”

Some of the “stunts” O’Brien is known for sometimes become a little risque. How will his 12:35am sensibility translate to an 11:35pm crowd?

“I think it’s a case-by-case basis,” he said. “I think a lot of people said, when I first got the Emmy [hosting job], ‘Well, gee, how is this going to go? That’s in primetime, and this guy does very strange stuff, and some of it’s dirty, and he’s got a masturbating bear.’ … I subconsciously almost made decisions about what was appropriate. It was still my sense of humor. I got a good response from people of all ages. And I think people who never saw Conan O’Brien before — yes, I’m talking about myself now in the third person — people who had never seen me before would see those shows and say, ‘That guy’s funny.’ I want to make sure I don’t overthink it. I want to make sure my show isn’t too buttoned up … and change everything about myself. I think the show just has to be funny. … There’s sort of this archaic idea that there’s 12:30, and then there’s 11:30, and people who watch 11:30 can’t possibly comprehend what’s happening at 12:30, or vice versa. And the truth is I see things on MTV at 4:30 in the afternoon that I would never want my children to see. That said, it’s all just taking it a day at a time and figuring out, ‘What do I want to do on the show?’ I’m changing too. I’m not the 29-year-old kid that auditioned for this job in 1993. I’m 31 now, and things have changed.”

One thing that probably won’t change is O’Brien’s trademark entrances to his program.

“You mean all the jumping around and acting like an ass?” he quipped. “I couldn’t make that crap up if I wanted to. I am a big kid. I get excited. I jump around too much. I like to stand on things. I like to lick things. I’m very physical. That’s who I am, and I’m going to bring that to The Tonight Show.”

He will be bringing that across the country from New York to California, as he will be taping his show at Universal in Los Angeles.

“It was Jack Benny’s studio,” O’Brien said, “I think, in the early ’60s. Later, it was the original Knight Rider studio. But I prefer to refer to it as the Jack Benny studio, if you don’t mind. We’re going to play down the Knight Rider thing.”

Does this mean O’Brien will become more “Hollywood?”

“I can never go Hollywood,” he laughed. “I’m incapable of tanning. … I’m genetically engineered to live in a bog in Northern Ireland. I so clearly don’t belong [in Hollywood]. And you’ll never see me in a trendy restaurant.”

Although excited about his next job, O’Brien does have a bittersweet feeling about leaving Late Night.

“We do a show in Rockefeller Center in 6A, and that’s the studio where David Letterman did his late-night show, and Tom Snyder was there before him. I’m a student of the history of television. I walk through that lobby every day, and I’m grateful. I love doing a television show there, and I will cry like a baby when Late Night With Conan O’Brien ends. It’s going to be a very hard show to walk away from. It’ll end up being 2,725 shows [we have done] there. And we’ve been doing it for 16 seasons. And creatively, there’s an old saying that you have to keep moving or die. The move for our show — change isn’t comfortable. To quote our [president], there will be false starts, and there will be missteps, and it may take longer than four years, but …

“We don’t know exactly what we’re going to do for the last show. We haven’t figured that out exactly. I’m hoping we’re going to show a lot of great moments in the last two weeks and have a lot of great people stop by. … I have to walk a line a little bit, which is I don’t want to do a big salute to me. Because if it were my last show ever, and I were getting into a spaceship and going to Mars and you were never going to see me again, I’d probably really load up the ‘Look at all I’ve done and aren’t I something’ clips. But I’m departing for a brief period of time and then reappearing in this dream job. We have a lot of hardcore fans that can recite to me bits that we’ve done 13, 14, 15 years ago. I want to make sure that I don’t let them down, but I also want to make sure I don’t overdo it.”

Does O’Brien have any advice for his successor, Jimmy Fallon? Craig Ferguson, Fallon’s soon-to-be late-night competitor, appeared on a panel the day before this press conference, and suggested that critics should give Fallon a grace period and not review him for a month while he settled in.

“OK,” O’Brien laughed. “Very kind of him. That’s up to you. You’ll decide — unless you’re taking all your cues from him. I’d have loved that deal, I tell you. I’d have extended it beyond a month, myself. I’d have said, ‘Look, from ’93 to ’95, let’s just have a cool-down period, everybody, and then we’ll look at the show.

“What I’ve told Jimmy is that nobody who hasn’t done one of these shows every single day can possibly imagine what that’s like, and so the way to learn is by doing it. I learned how to do one of these shows by doing it. It was not pretty to watch sometimes, but it’s the only way that you can do it. There’s no college they can send you to. … To make this very clear, Jimmy Fallon — I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a very funny guy. He’s immensely likable. And I think he’s going to do fantastic. I really do think he’s going to do a great job.”

We’ll have Fallon’s thoughts on the new late-night landscape in Part 2 of this post.


Credit: NBC