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Point of View: NBC debacle may permanently alter late-night comedy

Jan. 20, 2010

By Chad Shanks

For the second time in nearly 20 years, NBC has chosen Jay Leno over a far superior comic.

In the early nineties, the peacock network tapped Leno to replace Johnny Carson as the host of The Tonight Show, snubbing Carson's heir-apparent, David Letterman. Now, NBC executives are sacrificing Leno's successor, Conan O'Brien, to reiterate to the public that Jay Leno was and always will be late-night comedy's shining star, despite his colossal failure as a prime-time fixture.

While the main issue in this debacle is how badly NBC botched the situation and how it will affect the lives of everyone involved, a secondary factor emerging from the rubble may be a changing of the late-night comedy genre altogether.

Late-night hosts try in vain to recapture the essence of Johnny Carson, whose charm and innovation made their job possible. Their efforts go so far as to take Carson's innovation and make it formula, with every show adopting the basic format Carson's Tonight Show standardized.

With each show being a near mirror image of its competitors, the only separation lies in the quality of comedy, a subjective factor that executives measure solely by ratings.

According to this flawed scale, Leno was the funniest host, as his brand of humor aimed at the lowest common denominator of society regularly trounced the ratings competition. His comedic highlights included airing said lowest common denominator's inability to answer mundane trivia questions and pointing out typos in newspapers.

Meanwhile, Conan O'Brien gained a strong following airing after Leno with more edgy, off-kilter humor that appealed more to the coveted 18-34-year-old demographic than Leno's typical audience, which skewed a bit older.

Critics worried, however, that O'Brien's fiery red hair and manic personality would not be readily accepted by Leno's audience when he took over The Tonight Show earlier this year, and despite claims to the contrary, O'Brien's quirky comedy seems to have been stifled by network brass since the move.

Once a beacon of light in the NBC late-night wasteland, O'Brien's Tonight Show quickly reduced itself to the mediocre precedence Leno set for the genre's flagship program. They added former Late Night sidekick and sitcom cancellation bait, Andy Richter, as the announcer and removed any trace of edginess, including O'Brien's trademark "string dance" and a certain self-indulgent bear, and settled into mainstream-pleasing boredom.

Leno's failure in primetime (foreseen by everyone except NBC) and Conan's newfound mediocrity unsurprisingly led to plummeting ratings for NBC and its local affiliates, whose displeasure with Leno's nightly news lead-in was instrumental in the network's decision to push Leno back to his old time slot and relegate O'Brien to a half hour later, causing The Tonight Show to actually air the next day in the Eastern time zone.

O'Brien issued a statement saying he will not comply with NBC's request to change time slots, and while the specific consequences of NBC's debacle have not fully played themselves out, future late-night programmers will reflect on the network's failure when planning new shows.

The NBC late-night comedians failed while rigorously adhering to a dogmatic show formula, while shows that bucked this trend found considerable success over the last decade, including former NBC reject David Letterman, whose Late Show on CBS is now the late-night ratings champion.

Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report offer a more satirical, biting view of current events while focusing on serious political topics and avoiding the typical late-night one-liners about the current celebrity sex scandal. With this approach, both have seen considerable ratings increases and won most of the major awards for late-night comedy.

But the real winner in this situation may be Craig Ferguson, whose Late Late Show follows David Letterman on CBS. The Scottish-born new American citizen is finally receiving due recognition and is poised to succeed Letterman, thanks in part to his blatant disregard for late-night norms and expectations. Ferguson has completely reinvented the late-night genre, while simultaneously keeping it recognizable. He abandons the traditional setup-punchline monologue format in favor of a more conversational, free-flowing, largely improvisational rant about topics that may or may not be current. His interviews are free of contrite guest set-ups and he even hosted his 1,000th episode without appearing on camera, opting to let puppets conduct the monologue and interviews.

Conan O'Brien will rebound from this fiasco, as David Letterman did before him, even if it requires him to also move to a new network. However, the traditional late-night comedy format may never recover. The Tonight Show is no longer the idol of twilight comedy. Instead, renegade hosts like Ferguson, Stewart and Colbert who are reinventing the genre are setting the stage for comedians to come.

NBC is a victim of entertainment Darwinian selection, failing to evolve its late-night format while being overtaken by competitors who have accommodated evolving audiences. If NBC continues to hinge its late-night programming on a dinosaur, it, too, will be extinct.

Chad Shanks is a contributor and journalism graduate student.