Ken Tucker's TV Prime-Time TV commentary

Tag: David Letterman (51-60 of 62)

Who's the biggest winner in the late-night wars? Jay Leno. Here's why.

As we all bask in the afterglow of Conan O’Brien’s tremendous final Tonight Show, I have some cold water to pour on this. There’s little doubt that, over the course of the rest of the year, the biggest winner of the late-night wars will be Jay Leno.

Why? Because once Leno re-takes the Tonight Show desk on Mar. 1, he’ll begin one of his inexorable, inexhaustible efforts to regain the ratings lead over David Letterman, now not just his rival but his grand arch-enemy. (Think Dave as Batman [brooding, wily, powerful] and Jay as The Joker [giggly, wily, powerful].)

And as much as it pains me to write this, Leno will probably succeed; it’s just a matter of how long it takes.

Because if you think the vast majority of Americans who have long watched The Tonight Show truly believes Jay is “tarnished” or “the bad guy,” as so many pundits have written, you’re deluded. Middle America still loves Jay, and the backlash to the backlash will be that Leno emerges just the way he’s been positioning himself: As the loyal underdog who’s now coming to rescue NBC’s late-night ratings.

Damage control is already in high gear: It’s being reported that Leno will appear on Oprah, TV’s great anointer of forgiveness, on Thursday.

Combine that with the fact that, once he Jaywalks back to 11:35 p.m., he’ll still be booking big-name guests (again, if you think Robin Williams or Tom Hanks or any other final-week Conan supporter is going to turn down Jay, you’re crazy), and he’ll strike millions of viewers as the warm, comfortable guy to watch. As much as you and I have revelled in the late-night wars, there’s a chunk of viewers who just want the sniping to stop now. I’ll bet Jay will shrewdly back off from any more attacks on Letterman, thereby leaving Dave in the tricky position of seeming too aggressive.

Hey, I hope I’m wrong. But I don’t think I am. Prediction: Jay will be number-one at 11:35 before September, when Conan can go to Fox (nooooo! don’t do that, Conan!) or FX or Comedy Central or wherever O’Brien chooses to land.

What do you think?

Follow me on Twitter @kentucker

See Kimmel, Letterman, Ferguson, and Fallon pay tribute to Conan last night

The other late-night hosts addressed Conan O’Brien’s final Tonight Show each in his own unique way.

Jimmy Fallon and the Roots paid musical tribute to Conan from O’Brien’s old New York City studio:

Jimmy Kimmel proved once again that he’s terrific at the taped-bit stuff. He reedited Jay Leno’s lousy 1989 movie Collision Course, in which Leno played a cop partnered with Pat Morita, to make it look as though Conan was taking his revenge:

David Letterman usually tapes his Friday show earlier in the week, and I assume that was the case this week. He limited himself to a few Leno jokes and then said there was going to be a sequel to the 1996 HBO movie The Late Shift, about Leno winning The Tonight Show over Dave. The new Late Shift 2 looked like this:

Craig Ferguson, too, pre-tapes his Friday editions, and The Late Late Show pretty much avoided the late-night wars last night to devote his show to a salute to MythBusters, a show he loves because “it’s about blowing stuff up, which is awesome!”

Ferguson said this was also NBC’s philosophy: “‘This is working,'” he said, assuming the corporate voice of NBC and referring to Conan’s Tonight Show, “‘so blow it up!'” It was great. I hope you watched it.

Did you see any of these guys last night?

Follow me on Twitter @kentucker

For more:

Conan O’Brien’s last ‘Tonight Show': a review

Conan O'Brien's last 'Tonight Show': Jokes, sure, but near tears, too: a full review

Conan O’Brien presided over a proper Irish wake for his final Tonight Show. It was a boisterously funny, sobbingly sad, unpredictable hour that demonstrated all of his strengths while never hiding the emotions behind those skills.

O’Brien delivered a fine monologue that included the hope that “when HBO makes a movie” about this late-night mess, “I want to be played by Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton.” A picture of Swinton loomed up beside Conan’s face and, yep — they really do look similar. He also continued his new “tradition” of giving us the “most expensive” sketches for NBC to fund. On his final night, a skeleton of a “giant ground sloth” that “sprayed Beluga on an original Picasso.”

He also had a list of ideas for what NBC could do with the newly-built studio Conan was leaving. My favorite was, “Leave the studio cold and empty and rename it ‘The World’s Largest Metaphor for NBC Programming.'”

Tom Hanks came out carrying glasses of “Scotch” (i.e., cream soda) for Conan and himself. Hanks talked about an upcoming movie he’s written and will direct, featuring Julia Roberts. Its subject? “It’s about a guy who loses his job,” Hanks said with a gulp as Conan did a double-take. It got a good laugh, but in the context of this celebratory wake, it almost seemed strange to watch Conan conduct a conventional celebrity interview. The night was, y’know, about Conan. But you had to admire O’Brien for sticking to some of the conventions right to the end.

Conan then introduced Neil Young by saying the singer-songwriter was “the very first person who called” him. Young sang a beautiful solo version of “Long May You Run.” Hell, I almost teared up.

A bit later, Conan sat at the desk to thank NBC with sincerity, saying he was grateful for his time at The Tonight Show. O’Brien’s voice cracked and his eyes seemed to well up, near tears, when he told his fans, “I can never thank you enough” and that their support had been “joyous and inspirational.”

To close out the show, Will Ferrell came out to sing “Free Bird” wearing a Ronnie Van Zant wig and hat, as well as a t-shirt bearing a picture of the Tonight’s The Night-era Neil Young. Conan strapped on a guitar to accompany him, as did Beck and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.

It was, all in all, an hour that summed up O’Brien’s appeal: Wacky but modest, impishly intelligent and un-ironically sincere. On the one night when all the weeks of jokes about how he’s been messed-over by NBC could have come to a belligerent climax, Conan practiced what he preached when he said this night, “Please don’t be cynical… it doesn’t lead anywhere.”

Where that attitude will lead Conan O’Brien — last seen on The Tonight Show playing guitar furiously, yelling with pure joy as the band played “Free Bird” — will mark the next chapter in late-night television.

What did you think of last night’s farewell Tonight Show with Conan?

Follow me on Twitter @kentucker

For more: Conan’s final monologue

Late night is Coco-crazy: All the Conan, Letterman, Leno, Kimmel jokes

Jay Leno continued his amazing gall last night in attempting to make the coup that NBC and he have engineered to reclaim The Tonight Show from Conan O’Brien seem like an act of heroism.

Confirming reports that he’ll return to hosting The Tonight Show as of Mar. 1, he said, “I have chosen to stay on the Titanic.” But that “joke” implies that someone else chose not to stay at NBC, when everyone except Leno seems to know that Conan was pushed off the Titanic. I mean, NBC.

Depending on how you watched it, Leno either wussed out or showed the serene swagger of a victorious survivor. Unlike the night before, when he was busy hauling David Letterman’s wife into a joke.

First, last night’s Best Late-Night Taped Bit goes to Jimmy Kimmel, who did a wonderful Ken Burns’ Civil War parody of the subject, complete with a mock-historian analyzing how General Jeff Zucker had “authorized an attack on his own forces” — cut to old tintype showing Jay slaying Conan:

A close second was David Letterman, who ran a “Jay Leno File,” documenting Leno’s history of transgressions, including the possible murder of James Stewart. Dave remains delightfully ruthless and gloriously tasteless.

As for Conan himself, his penultimate show was uneven. Having Robin Williams on to run around using the f-word and act as though he was peeing on NBC, or Ben Stiller popping out to make some unfunny jokes about the ecological unsoundness of building “a $50 million studio you only use for seven months,” or inviting Pee-wee Herman in to explain the NBC settlement with various toys was okay, but beyond the notion that Conan’s lawyer is Optimus Prime, it wasn’t all that hilarious.

It was an odd night in late-night. Aside from Stiller’s stillborn funniness, there was also Harrison Ford on Letterman, going off a bit on people who sought his autograph as “autograph merchants,” accusing a boy who’d accosted him outside the Late Show studio as actually being “a 45 year-old man in a boy suit.” Weird…

It took Conan himself to provide his own most clever gag, bringing out what he claimed was Derby-winning horse Mine The Bird in a “mink Snuggie” for a bit O’Brien said was “not so much funny as crazy expensive”:

Finally, Letterman addressed some criticism he’s received (not here) for what he called “the inequity in my attacks,” saying many folks feel he’s done more Leno jokes than Conan jokes. “The thing is, I have known Jay forever,” said Letterman. “And it’s just more fun to tell jokes about Jay.”

Everything’s revving up for tonight’s final Conan Tonight Show. Will you be watching? What did you think of last night’s talk-show coverage by the talk-show hosts?

Follow me on Twitter @kentucker

For more on late-night:

NBC execs on Jay Leno’s return to ‘The Tonight Show’

'Saturday Night Live' recap: Sigourney Weaver and the Laser Cats, doing their best

How could anyone not root for Sigourney Weaver as she hosted Saturday Night Live again (for the first time since 1986)? She’s terrific in almost any movie, Avatar included; she’s got theater and improv skills that more than qualify her for SNL duty. Sure enough, this was one of the better editions of SNL this season, if only for its frequent go-for-broke attitude. (Does anyone love Jason Sudeikis in those ESPN Classic sketches as much as I do?)

The show began promisingly, with the first pretty-funny cold-open in a while. Fred Armisen as Larry King interviewed late-night hosts Jay Leno (played by a briefly-returning Darrell Hammond), Conan O’Brien (Bill Hader), and David Letterman (Jason Sudeikis, all twitchy pencil-throwing and muttered “Hee-hee-hee!”s). The amusement derived less from the late-night guys than Armisen’s way of capturing King’s out-of-it patter, complete with irrelevant references to Joey Bishop and his non-mastery of the internet.

The week’s real-life events were so numerous, Seth Meyers had to cram “Weekend Update” with quick jokes about Sarah Palin joining Fox News, the political bestseller Game Change, Mark McGwire’s steroid READ FULL STORY

Friday night massacre: Late-night jokes, and why the anti-Conan, pro-Jay backlash won't work

Last night, Jay Leno trotted out his unique new mixture of self-pity and aggression to close out this week on The Jay Leno Show.

“There’s a new show premiering on Fox called Human Target,” he said. “I thought it was about me.” And: “I’m getting beaten up in the press; you know things are bad when Tiger Woods calls to offer PR advice.”

And then: “Even David Letterman is taking shots at me. Which is weird, because usually he just takes shots at interns.”

Two points: the anti-Conan, pro-Jay backlash that Dick Ebersol tried to start yesterday in The New York Times is both inevitable (we live in a media time when people go “counter-intuitive” to stir up controversy, Web traffic, and make last-ditch efforts) and it won’t work.

Ebersol called Conan O’Brien “an astounding failure” and “chicken-hearted and gutless” for making jokes about Leno earlier in the week.

Now, consider the source. Ebersol is the NBC exec who recently announced with peculiar pride that his network will “lose money” on its broadcast of the winter Olympics. On its face, this is rather admirable: NBC may well spend more money giving you an extravagant look at the Olympics, and they’ll trade profit for esteem and media heat in that area. But…then why is it not okay to lose a little money, probably in the short term, to help build Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show into the ratings powerhouse Leno’s version was?

Ebersol uses the classic boss logic: If he likes something and it’s losing money, it’s a loss taken in the short term to improve the long-term value of the brand. But if he doesn’t like something and it’s losing money, his message is, we live in a capitalist society and everything needs to show a profit or die.

As I said, consider the source. Dick Ebersol is the kind of flamboyant exec with strong opinions about things — some of which, including comedy, he knows little about. This is the guy who, when he took over Saturday Night Live in the early ’80s, thought that then-SNL-writer Larry David was talentless.

Dick Ebersol is the guy about whom it is said by a source in Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s superb history Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, “Every time somebody in the world lies, Dick gets a royalty.”

That’s the guy leading the Conan-is-a-failure charge. Good luck, Jay defenders.

Bottom line: As many of you have written in your comments, this whole controversy is not a grand tragedy. This is sandbox-fighting among men, every one of whom is rich and will fare quite well, no matter what the outcome.

But this also one of the rare moments when things have gotten a little bit out of control, and that’s great — too much network TV is scripted down to the second, and so when Kimmel insults Jay on Jay’s own show, or Letterman depicts Leno as a grave-robber, that’s the kind of chaos and emotion and calculation we see all too rarely on TV these days.

Word has it that an agreement between NBC and O’Brien may be announced as early as this weekend. Too bad; this has been great television.

What do you think of Ebersol’s “astounding failure” comment? About Jay’s latest jokes?

Follow me on Twitter @kentucker

For more:

Exclusive: Source in Conan negotiations says deal ‘possible’ by the weekend

Who is TV's biggest Conan O'Brien supporter? Who's the lamest?

“You can do anything you want in life, unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.” So sayeth Conan O’Brien last night, speaking to his soon-to-be-lost flock.

Conan’s biggest supporter? That would be David Letterman. Letterman showed a segment called “Jay Leno: The Early Years,” with random found-footage of what he claimed was Jay “sabotaging [his] school’s production of Peter Pan.”

Letterman excoriated “the pinheads, the nitwits, the twits, the knuckle-draggers, and the mouth-breathers” who run NBC. And he did a list of the Top Ten messages left on NBC exec Jeff Zucker’s answering machine that included, “Hi, it’s Jay. All in all, I think it’s going pretty well.”

My friend and colleague Mark Harris suggested to me that it was Leno’s joke early in the week that “I didn’t sleep with my staff for nothing” — all the more piercing for being such an off-topic, out-of-left-field, gratuitous gag — that has helped stoke Letterman’s renewed, glowing flame of fury at the late-night situation. That could very well be. But I also think Letterman READ FULL STORY

'Conan': 'NBC is a big pimp,' plus: All the other late-night hosts join Team Conan

Last night, it was as though the late-night hosts were talking not just about, but to and even as each other. In the wake of Conan O’Brien’s announcement that he would “not participate” in the “destruction” of the Tonight Show legacy, Jimmy Kimmel said on his show, “Fortunately, I will!” He said this in the voice of Jay Leno, having made himself up into a punching-bag version of Jay, and continued tossing jabs:

Kimmel, whose impersonation was finely detailed and sustained, said, “You know what ABC stands for? ‘Always Bump Conan.'”

Jimmy Kimmel’s guest Chevy Chase — who had a Fox late-night talk show in 1993 that lasted only six weeks (remember that, Conan!) — came out wearing a Conan wig.

Conan received a long ovation when he emerged last night, and began by saying that at NBC, “our new motto is, no longer just screwing up prime time.” He showed tape of the “worldwide reaction” to his statement of refusal, subtitling comments from foreign dictators including Fidel Castro: “Conan had to put his foot down!” READ FULL STORY

Letterman weighs in on 'Jay Big Jaw Leno': Last night's late-night jokes, including Conan's and Craig's

“Well, once again, I did not get The Tonight Show.” With that rueful opening joke, David Letterman finally weighed in on the late-night shenanigans. “NBC is bringing back Johnny Carson — they’re putting him on at 10 p.m.”

Letterman was relentless, gleefully relishing these moments. Presenting an alternate-universe version of what went down over at NBC, Dave said, “[NBC] gave The Tonight Show to Jay ‘Big Jaw’ Leno… [but] he said, ‘Y’know, I’m having trouble staying up this late. Is there any chance you could put me on at 10 p.m.?” Letterman then offered some “free genius advice” to NBC:

Makes as much sense as anything else, right?

Dave was wonderfully unstoppable. He gave us a Top Ten list of “Signs There’s Trouble at NBC” that included, “Just gave 10 p.m. show to Snookie.” Letterman offered a terrific sight-gag, saying that things were so confused over at NBC, they were now airing “Nighttime with Chuck and Don”: Cut to a shot of Charles Grodin sitting at a desk, with Don King next to him cradling a guitar, Kevin Eubanks-style.

Letterman concluded with a question: “Do I still have a show?”

Meanwhile, Jay Leno kept up his curious tone of chipper bitterness last night: “Our show has been canceled. We’re fired again. [Except] the last time, we performed better than expected — that was totally different!” READ FULL STORY

NBC's new late-night schedule: Brilliant by accident?

NBC is the media’s piñata, slammed for everything from screwing up the 10 p.m. original-drama slot to ruining Conan O’Brien’s sleep. But in its own accidental, cynical, necessity-as-mother-of-invention way, NBC’s new late-night schedule could really work for the network. Here’s why:

Presuming Conan agrees to all this (and I think he’d be making a big mistake going over to Fox), we’ll soon have an NBC late-night schedule with Jay on from 11:35 to around 12:05, and The Tonight Show from 12:05 to 1:05. Jimmy Fallon will rub his eyes and broadcast from 1:05 to 2:05. This is a minor revolution in late-night: No network has ever timed its shows to air in this formation.

What does this mean for the competition? David Letterman goes up against Jay in the opening monologue duel, but Dave also faces Conan’s sharp monologues during The Late Show‘s second half-hour, which is when Dave is working his hardest to make sure that his second, B-list guest keeps your interest and that the music acts are lively. This could be a problem for The Late Show. READ FULL STORY

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