Jay Leno Deferred To Culture Quake As Conan Gets It

Conan O’Brien is going to The Tonight Show.

And The Tonight Show is not coming back to New York.

On Tuesday, Sept. 28, NBC’s Late Night host Conan O’Brien stepped onto the stage at Studio 6A at Rockefeller Center and announced to his audience that he would be taking over NBC’s Tonight Show in the year 2009. “I’ll be doing this show for about four and a half more years,” he said, “and then I’m going to take over The Tonight Show here on NBC.” Then added, “Huuuuge mistake.”

Call that the voice of the future. The night before, Jay Leno had announced that he would be leaving and handing the program to Mr. O’Brien—”Conan, it’s yours.” Tuesday, in New York, Mr. O’Brien returned the gesture, the first member of his generation to get the most important slot in show business. The machinations that had precipitated it, and the rationale that had dictated it, were there only to be felt, but nowhere in sight and—unlike the tortured transaction that had taken place in 1992 when Johnny Carson stepped down, putting Mr. Leno and David Letterman in a terrible street fight—nowhere in the stated transaction.

But even with the switch five years off, NBC insiders told NYTV that Mr. O’Brien was moving to Burbank, Calif.—the program would not be coming home to New York, the city where Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Mr. Carson created and coalesced it—and with the contracts now signed, Jeff Ross, the executive producer of Mr. O’Brien’s Late Night, would now become the Freddie deCordova of 2009, executive producer of The Tonight Show.

The next major contract renegotiation in the works at NBC will be with Lorne Michaels, Mr. O’Brien’s other executive producer, who can now count the crowning of Mr. O’Brien as ‘09 Tonight Show host among his bargaining chips.

“Jay has been a big supporter of mine, a good friend to me for eleven years when I first showed up at this network,” Mr. O’Brien told his audience Tuesday afternoon. “He’s been incredibly kind and gracious about the whole thing. He’s a class act. And so to everybody at NBC, but particularly Jay Leno—a huge thank you and I hope I can live up to that challenge, but I have some time to figure it out.

“In the meantime, there’s a lot that I’d still love to do with this show; a lot of things we still want to try and I’m looking forward to doing that. We’re going to be here for quite a while still, but to everybody thank you very much—it’s very cool.”

And with that, the torch was passed, kind of, to a newish generation of comedians. It was still unclear exactly why Mr. Leno had decided that it was in his best interest to quietly acquiesce in a deal to exit the show. NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker had decided it was time to start creating a younger audience and to secure Mr. O’Brien for future generations—and against aggressive offers from competing networks, particularly the Fox Network and ABC, both of which had been reported to have made attempts to hire Mr. O’Brien.

In the age of Jon Stewart, Mr. O’Brien’s cable coordinate in age and ironic intent, those were particularly threatening attacks. Nevertheless, it didn’t quite make sense that Mr. Leno, a workaholic, a network politician, a Tip O’Neill all-politics-is-local kind of broadcaster who visited affiliate meetings and did standup on his weekends, would have agreed to leave the most powerful position in television comedy—the most visible place in show business—a gig that paid $ 17 million a year, willingly. For now, Mr. Leno’s associates were maintaining that Mr. Leno’s dignified exit was authentic.

“The thing with Jay is, what you see is what you get,” said Dan Klores, Mr. Leno’s publicity advisor. “He’s saying, look, I’ll be 59, Conan’s a great guy and he’s really good at what he does I have all the money in the world and I’m a team player. So why go through what everyone was going through years ago? He was aware that people were going to spin it a different way. He’s fine. He’s fine. So the graciousness was quite natural.

“But one thing was very clear,” Mr. Klores added. “If Jay wanted to, he could have stayed and set his own timetable for 20 years from now. That was abundantly clear.”

But he didn’t. And in part it seemed as if Mr. Leno had sniffed the cultural winds and found strange smoke coming from a new direction, as though—as he suggested to Gary Shandling on The Tonight Show Monday night—he had made a generational anticipation. After watching clips of Mr. Shandling and Mr. Leno in their late-70’s appearances on the Tonight Show with Mr. Carson, Mr. Shandling said, “You watch those clips and you see how TV has changed and how it’s gotten faster. The things you can say, I used to have to run things by the censors.

“You can actually say, ‘If you have a four hour erection, call a doctor,’” he said. He looked up. The audience was quiet.

“Like, there’s no reaction. When we did this show, no one had a four hour erections!” It was funny. But on the other hand, Mr. Leno and Mr. Shandling probably felt a little like Jan Murray and Buddy Hackett. Not that there was anything wrong with Jan Murray and Buddy Hackett. They had a whole city in a desert built for them.

The somewhat cooler Mr. O’Brien, on the other hand, is a 41-year-old comic reared on SCTV and David Letterman—the two geyser sources of broadcast comedy sensibility—was now inheriting the cultural institution to which Presidential candidates now make pilgrimages on the way to getting elected, a tradition that began with John F. Kennedy and Paar in 1960. The program that more than any other, through Mr. Carson’s 30-year tenure, acted as America’s great calming social rudder, through change, riots, storm, war and generational revolution.

By the time Mr. O’Brien came to the program, the sensibility had developed from comedy to irony, past self-awareness in a trilling triplicate, approximating the absorptive sophistication of a media-glutted viewership, having steamed past the grizzled Mr. Letterman who has more and more developed the aspect of an aging, crotchety pioneer—old Davy Crockett in the U.S. Congress.

On Monday, Sept. 27, Mr. Leno, in his 50th anniversary special, showed what Mr. O’Brien was inheriting: he broadcast the four men who had hosted the show before him, Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, each with his own variation of the straight face peering into the camera like an exclamation point, reacting to the absurdity of the American moment.

As always, it was the ability to shadow dance with dignity that was the secret credibility of the late-night host. And that night, Mr. Leno was the embodiment of graciousness, reminding some apostate viewers of why they had first liked him, telling his audience he wanted to avoid the “awkwardness” of the last transition, when his friend and benefactor David Letterman had fought for Mr. Carson’s throne and inflicted “permanent damage” on a friendship.

But the old clips of Mr. Carson were somehow a testament to the futility of the endeavor. Mr. Carson was the gold standard of the show, cagey, lean, an American as Americans would generally like to be seen, linking the Bob Hope post-war golf swingers to the new generation of icy ironists.

For his part, Mr. Leno had reached for the Carson ring and found himself battling for something more blood-spattered, sheer victory. So Mr. Leno, who had once been a supremely successful, often savagely funny stand-up, who combined a hard-edge and warmth but managed to submerge both those things in his determined charge to trundle to victory, somehow transformed himself into a boxy, clunky winner without grace.

And yet it is clear he is a graceful, intelligent man of some sensitivity who regretted the battle with Letterman and may have even regretted his lowest-common-denominator Tonight Show.

“I think you know there’s only one person who could do this job into his 60s, and that was Johnny Carson,” he said on Monday night. “And I’m no Johnny Carson.”

There was a moment of sympathy from the audience when he said that —awwwww! —and Mr. Shandling, his pain-ingesting, long-suffering guest, for whom being a receptacle-of-grief has become a very functional comedy device, sat dressed in black, making the pretense of telling him it wasn’t true. But Mr. Leno waved it off. Mr. Leno has evolved past the point of allowing anybody wrestle him into a position other than the place a host should occupy. He may have been starting a long ascent to post-host statesmanship, but he was not about to give up his position of power yet. And even if Mr. Leno was just being respectful—and he was—one sensed a pang. Mr. Leno knew that he hadn’t had Mr. Carson’s blessing from the beginning. Whereas Mr. Shandling, a one-time Carson fill-in who had graduated to HBO heroism and then became a show biz martyr of the second magnitude through his settled lawsuit against his former manager, was there to restore Mr. Leno’s comedy integrity. He was there to remind Mr. Leno and the audience that he had once been a comedian who was more than the guy introducing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, that he was more than the host who had gained lawful, permeated access to Joe Sixpack’s bedroom by avoiding jokes that might startle his audience. Jay Leno loved politics—maybe too much. He had become a politician. But he had also sold Doritos, and once he did, that was that. Jack Benny had sold Jell-O, but that was good stuff. Doritos were bad for the viewers and made your fingers yellow.

Ah, but Conan. Would Mr. O’Brien’s sharp-edged stuff survive the new time slot? Probably not. Mr. O’Brien will be 46 when he takes over. Mr. Carson was 36 when he got the show. By ‘09, he’ll be gearing up for modern maturity, the funny brother-in-law at Thanksgiving, setting the cultural tone with his monologue. The former Simpsons and Saturday Night Live writer who plied scripts in the back rooms of studio 8-H, he is a Boston boy, like Mr. Leno, but the Ivy League guy, a college boy through and through, embodying East Coast self-consciousness and a prickly perceptiveness. How that goes over in Burbank and the obsequious celebrity culture of Los Angeles, nobody knows. Mr. O’Brien is headed toward something almost inevitable now, a time, not a place, that Mr. Letterman wanted and had to go to CBS to get: 11:35 p.m. Mr. O’Brien will be getting the last really good place in broadcast television, better than the Today Show or the NBC Nightly News. He is being put in place with a great deal of creative freedom and a great deal of cultural importance. When President Obama has his worst day, tripping on the helicopter landing pad or duking it out with Senator George P. Bush of Florida in 2010, Mr. O’Brien will be there. And Natalie Portman will be waiting to tell him what it’s like to direct her first movie.

Like Mr. Letterman had been, Mr. O’Brien was a niche market talent, his humor crafted for multitasking minds fragmented by Web and cable TV. Inheriting 30 years of television references at the weary end of a media-battered century, his generation lacerated the old culture so adeptly that self-awareness became a requirement for survival. Since then, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show has shown that cable TV could create an entirely new genre of late-night comedy and grab a mainstream audience, too, without sacrificing quality. Mr. Stewart has redefined the role of the comedian, turning it past show business and directly and precisely to its place as political and cultural influence. Mr. Stewart somehow bypassed all the crapola and stated clearly what everybody knew: the talk show is now the press and the news as well, and it’s better for everybody if it’s run by someone who’s intelligently aware of that.

On Sept. 10, Mr. O’Brien had invited Dave Eggers, the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, to the show. It was Mr. Eggers’ first TV appearance, and Mr. O’Brien introduced his audience to him with all the gentleness of an adjunct professor turning the kids on to the heavy stuff that the tenured geezers would never understand.

So here was Mr. O’Brien: 6 feet, 4 inches of angular, Tin Man awkwardness, entering the stage with a mock-confused but agile Hey, where’s the camera? zigzag, followed by a maniacal grin, an ad-man’s thumbs up, a Bob Hope cat’s purr, a deft spin on the heels, and a third-wall breaking wink at the camera—playing with the TV screen like a kung-fu mime, hopping like a Howdy Doody to Max Weinberg’s drum kit, and then returning abruptly to reality with a casual clap of the hands, a late night host once again.

“What the hell kind of opening of show is that?” he asked. “We put a lot of work into this show and yet seven times in the last year, I’ve run into people who say, ‘I love your show!’ What part do you like? ‘The part where you jump around like a clown! Before you start talking!’”

Beat.

“I’m like, ‘Dad, please!’”

The move to Mr. O’Brien is the latest shift in cultural comprehension. Would Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Pimpbot 5000, Bob Smigel’s priapic yee-hah! Bill Clinton, and The Masturbating Bear enter the wider lexicon or sink into Burbank asphalt? Well, who knows? When he announced his new job as host of The Tonight Show, Mr. O’Brien said, “I don’t think at 11:30 I can jump around and go”—Mr. O’Brien hissed like a cat, then snapped into—”Yes I can!”

“I think you’ll see the comedy adapt more to that show than vice versa,” said David Cross, the former co-host of HBO’s Mr. Show, now on Fox’s Arrested Development who has appeared on Mr. O’Brien’s show eight times. “There’s a lot of stuff they’re not going to do, not get away with, but on the other hand, by 2009, I think the standards of late night chat show comedy will get closer to Conan’s sensibility as it is now. So it won’t be that dramatic of a change.”

As for Mr. Leno, he’s probably familiar with the Bill Hicks routine, in which the late comic genius and fellow veteran of the early 80s Houston comedy scene riffed about “my favorite cultural train wreck, The Tonight Show.”

“Me and my friends have a little office pool wondering which episode and which guest is going to be on the night Jay finally puts a nine millimeter in his mouth and blows his Dorito-shilling head off his fucking body,” said Hicks in the routine. “I think it’s going to be Joey Lawrence from the show Blossom.” Hicks finally had Mr. Leno’s “brains splew out, forming an NBC peacock on the wall. SPPPLT! Because he’s a company man to the bitter fucking end.” And that was in 1993.

Would Mr. O’Brien have to straighten the corners to reach for an even wider audience, like Mr. Leno had? To some extent, he would have to meet his new audience half-way.

“Leno used to talk about how the Tonight show was a big steam ship like the Queen Mary,” said Louis C.K., a former writer for Late Night who has appeared on The Tonight Show as a standup comic. “You don’t take sharp turns, you take big, well-telegraphed, carefully navigated turns. I always thought that showed a little too much respect for the time slot. But the fact is, even though our generation is going to be older in five years, the people watching the Tonight Show since Carson aren’t going to die all at once. They’re still going to out-number us in that time slot. They’re still going to watch that hour more than we watch it.”

In Sept. 2003 question-and-answer session with Jack Black in Interview magazine, Mr. O’Brien said he been forced to adapt to his new conditions along the way, to add from subtraction when Robert Smigel left as his head writer and one-time co-host Andy Richter departed.

“I feel like whenever we lose one component, it forces us to develop something else in this evolutionary way,” he said. “When Robert left, it really forced me to step up and take more charge of the show, and when Andy left, it forced us to say, all right, we’re going to get the show going faster at the top, and I’m going to talk directly into the camera now.”

“I’ll be curious to see how it affects his content,” said Adam McKay, the former head writer for Saturday Night Live. “To see if he starts doing more political material. Except for the ‘Clutch Cargo’ bits, he doesn’t do a lot of political stuff. You kind of have to in that slot.”

Already, people were beginning to look ahead, to 12:30 p.m., the time slot that housed Mr. Letterman and Mr. O’Brien and now seems to be the housing for the next big thing. The man who discovered and promoted Mr. O’Brien, Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of both SNL and Late Night, might now be in the position to invent a new Conan O’Brien. With his contract coming up, he now can sell himself as the guy who brought NBC its new Tonight Show host. “It will give Lorne more leverage at the network to take bigger risks, and hopefully, fingers crossed, at SNL, and also developing other shows.” said Mr. McKay recalling that in Mr. Michaels’ budget, SNL and Late Night were linked economically, part of the same spreadsheet. “For a while, he was using SNL to keep Conan on,” said Mr. McKay of Mr. Michaels, “and for a while he was using Conan to keep SNL ’s budget the way it was. So it’s always that same thing, in politics anyway, the leverage game. This gives him a big, big chip. He certainly has room to take a shot at a crazy show and fail and not have anyone blame him for it, to swing for the fences on one and not have anything to lose.”

By the way, you might have asked what Andy Richter thinks of all of this. Through his agent, Mr. Richter said of Mr. O’Brien: “I’m sure that he’s already insufferable, and if you went by his office today, you’ll probably find him bare-chested pushing interns into the ground just to make them cry.”