Saturday, February 21, 2009

About Last Night

What a different landscape late night television was a decade-and-a-half ago.

My experience with Johnny Carson is almost entirely in the past tense. He's someone who I know was great, even though I never got to witness that greatness firsthand. By the time I was old enough to be staying up late regularly, Carson's much-ballyhooed retirement was already a season removed, Jay Leno was firmly ensconced in his role as The Tonight Show's host, and David Letterman was just some guy who came on too late for me, though I guess he did something with "lists" that folks seemed to appreciate. And that was about it.

The first time I really became aware of what a warzone late night would become was in the fall of '93, with a disgruntled Letterman bolting his post-Tonight Show perch on NBC's Late Night to go head-to-head with Leno, and Fox throwing their own hat in the ring with the here-and-gone Chevy Chase Show. Oh, and I think Arsenio Hall still had his show around that time as well. Still, perhaps most puzzling of all those night moves came when NBC replaced Letterman with some guy whose name was vaguely familiar to me from the credits of Simpsons episode of that vintage: Conan O'Brien.

 I only learned later that his first name had a short "A" and was not, in fact, pronounced ConAN (as in "the Barbarian"). Reporter Paul Harris offers some recollections as the first person to break the news of O'Brien's hiring. Those who tuned in for that first show in September '93 out of a sense of morbid curiosity probably wondered who'd spiked the punch over at NBC. This was the guy who was supposed to fill Letterman's shoes? Those first few weeks were pretty rough, with noticeable, uncomfortable patches of silence as O'Brien would make his way through his monologues. Some of the comedy bits were amusing, some were bad, and many were just downright confusing.

After those first few weeks, I pretty much stopped paying attention, figuring Conan would be joining Chevy and Arsenio (and Pat Sajak, and Alan Thicke, and Joan Rivers, and...) on the Cavalcade of Cancelled Comedy Shows before too long. Of course, somewhere between then and now, Conan either a) got funny, b) the world finally figured out how funny he was, or c) a little bit of both. Whichever answer you prefer, the end result is the same: after sixteen years, Conan is ready for the big chair, and come June he displaces Jay Leno (still the undisputed ratings king of late night) to an earlier timeslot, and takes over as host of Tonight.

I didn't see Carson's last show, and Letterman was on too late for me when he left for CBS, but with last night's Late Night, the final O'Brien hosted installment, we have another one of those moments in pop culture, these cultural touchstone passing-of-the-torch type things. I wonder if Conan will have the same success now that he's switching things up a bit and moving to LA. I hope so, but I'm somewhat cautious. For me a big part of his show's appeal was how it seemed almost "hidden" at 12:30. While Leno's more big-tent Tonight Show far too often sees him playing to the cheap seats, Conan was a guy who seemed content to crack his friends up, and if everyone else got a chuckle, hey, that's good too.

The easy, unforced nature of his humor is, I think, where much of his appeal lies. From "In the Year 2000" to "Clutch Cargo" to one of the single funniest bits of all time, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog's legendary visit to the premiere of Star Wars: Episode II, Conan just did his thing, and it's a testament to how steadily he stuck to it that eventually the rest of us just had to catch up. Here's a countdown from last year of some of Late Night's most memorable segments, and here's last night's funny and, at times, moving final sign-off:

1 comment:

J.R. LeMar said...

I remember watching the first episode of the Chevy Chase Show, and that was just painful. He's a funny guy, but I guess he's just not cut-out for that particular format.

And you forgot Dennis Miller. I though his show was great. He's very funny. But as I recall, one of his biggest problems was that he had trouble getting decent guests, because all the big names when to the Leno or Letterman.

What I don't understand is this new move of giving Leno a show @ 10pm. That seems like a slap in the face to Conan, in my opinion.