The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
As street weeks go, this one is off -the-charts for Nashville rockers Red.
Unit We Have Faces sat perched upon the iTunes chart as we started our conversation with guitarist Anthony Armstrong, and the quartet had just booked its national television debut, an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show Feb. 8 (11 p.m., TBS). They’ll be on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno the following week.
“This album has some of the hardest songs we’ve ever written and some of the most commercial stuff we’ve ever written,” Armstrong said.
We were chatting for a story that will appear early next month to preview Red’s appearance on the Winter Jam tour, which hits Rupp Arena March 12. But with Until We Have Faces such a hot topic now, this seems like a good time to let you listen to our interview.
Hit play to hear our conversation about the new album, lead singer Michael Barnes’ voice and Red’s talent for playing really big venues such as the Ichthus Festival and Rupp.
Conan O’Brien had welcome this news like a President would a bad jobs report on election day: On Thursday, four days before O’Brien was scheduled to debut his new late night talk show on TBS, Nielsen reported that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart had become the No. 1 late chatter among ages 18-49. It was the first time in a decade the No. 1 show had not been NBC’s Tonight Show or CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman. Conan, there’s good news and bad news here for ya.
The good news is that it shows, in this genre, a basic cable show is now capable of besting a network show in the ratings, particularly with that sexy demographic advertisers just adore.
But here’s the bad news: Conan’s going for that same demo … at the same time.
On The Tonight Show, from which he was unceremoniously dumped earlier this year after less than a year on the job, O’Brien had the challenge of keeping people tuning into a show they were already watching. Now, he will need to lure an audience to his brand new 11 p.m. show, when many in that group are enthralled with another 11 p.m. program that employs roughly his same sense of humor.
There are major differences.
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which follows it at 11:30, are all about politics, media, and current affairs. So if you want something less focused the latest headlines, Conan may be what you are looking for.
This is also the age of the DVR, and Stewart and Colbert’s shows repeat several times the next day for people who want to watch all of them. And all of these shows are online and offer added content there.
And Conan most definitely has a following. The I’m With Coco Facebook page has well over 1 million, uh, likers, and his Twitter account, with nearly 2 million followers, was a key to helping sell out his summer comedy tour.
Tonight’s premier episodes of Conan will almost certainly be ratings winners, probably even besting the first part of The Tonight Show, which Jay Leno swiped back from Conan earlier this year. That will be a sweet victory for Conan fans who think NBC gave him a raw deal.
This interesting thing to watch will be how the show fares over time, and whether the real late night competition shifts to half an hour earlier and on basic cable.
Mar12Filed under: Derby, Louisville, Music, Television, video; Tagged as: Bob Costas, Carson Daly, Conan O'Brien, David Arquette, David Letterman, Derby, Eli Roth, Jay Leno, Jay Leno Show, Last Call With Carson Daly, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Lee Daniels, Lucy Steel, NBC, parkour, Pluto, Silversun Pickups, T-Pain, the bird and the bee, The Jimmy Kimmel Show, The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien, Total Request Live, TRL
The most overlooked victim in NBC’s late-night imbroglio earlier this year was Carson Daly.
While people stewed over what would become of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, Daly, the host of the 1:35 a.m. Last Call With Carson Daly, was getting thoughtless slams. David Letterman constantly acted as if he couldn’t remember Daly’s name, calling his show the Pluto of late-night TV, and NBC executives forgot to mention him among personalities they wanted to keep on the air.
In one scenario, Daly would have lost his show.
That would have been the scenario in which Leno, whose 10 p.m. Jay Leno Show was cancelled last month, would have taken over a half-hour show before The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. As night owls now know, O’Brien decided not to take the deal, Leno now hosts Tonight - again – and Fallon and Daly are right where they were.
Daly took the weeks of uncertainty in good humor, even mocking his plight on The Jimmy Kimmel Show on rival ABC and posing for new Last Call promotional photos with a pair of defibrillation paddles on his chest.
Most important, he came back with the most inventive and interesting late-night show on TV.
So, NBC, here’s what you bought: Since all this “Tonight Show” hoo-ha started, Conan O’Brien’s ratings on the flagship late-night show have soared, while “The Jay Leno Show” has been, eh, OK. In fact, the last few nights, Conan at 11:35 was doubling Jay’s audience at 10.
Granted, there are famous qualifiers, like Conan’s show ended last night, so it was the final Conan fix for at least seven months while Jay will be coming back. And Jay does have prime-time competition at 10.
Here’s an evener plane: Conan has just been a whole lot funnier in his shows since it became obvious the nimrods at NBC were going to choose Jay over Conan on “The Tonight Show. The most noteworthy thing that has happened on “The Jay Leno Show” the last couple of weeks was that Jimmy Kimmel, ABC’s late-night guy, came on and humiliated the host. Night-to-night, Leno has just seemed grumpy.
Watching Conan’s final nights, with jokes like buying Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and putting him in a mink Snuggie on NBC’s dime, it’s become sort of amazing that he’s the guy NBC is paying to leave while Leno is the one they felt they couldn’t let go. That’s management at NBC for you.
It could very well happen that Leno retakes The “Tonight Show” in March and by the time O’Brien is back on the air in September, assuming that is what happens, Leno is back to being the ratings champ late night. He was the undisputed champ in the ratings when he left “Tonight,” so right now most arguments that he won’t retake the throne are purely emotional.
But no one can say O’Brien didn’t go out like a champ.
Above: After lampooning Jay Leno on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” Tuesday night, Leno had Kimmel on his “10@10″ segment Thursday and it got … uh … tense.
As late night comedians including David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien have focused some of their attacks about “The Tonight Show” controversy on Jay Leno, some observers have understandably asked if the former and presumably future “Tonight Show” host is really a bad guy here.
O’Brien, who appears to be on his way out as the show’s host, made one of the most stinging statements Wednesday night when he said, in his monologue, “I want to say to the kids out there watching: You can do anything you want in life, unless Jay Leno wants to do it too.”
But wait, some say, this isn’t Jay’s fault. This is mismanagement by NBC, particularly by former NBC entertainment director and now NBC-Universal CEO Jeff Zucker. And yes, there is broad agreement that Zucker horribly mismanaged this situation, as well as many other things at NBC, and find it astonishing he is still employed by the network. Leno, one could argue, is as much a victim as O’Brien because he was put out of a job when he was No. 1 and placed in a precarious situation hosting a chat show where none had been programmed before. Meanwhile, “The Tonight Show’s” ratings have taken a dive since O’Brien took over. So, it really just makes business sense to return Leno to his old show where he presumably will return it to dominance.
After this, you get into a whole lot of other debatable questions like, how responsible were “The Jay Leno Show’s” bad ratings for O’Brien’s bad ratings, don’t these shows take time to click with viewers as both Leno’s “Tonight Show” and O’Brien’s “Late Night” did when they took over those franchises, and would Leno regain his old audience now, because he is viewed by many as a bad guy?
For some perspective, it’s interesting to go back to 2004 and recall what actually happened when the succession plan for “The Tonight Show” was put into place.
The New York Times’ Bill Carter is the authority on late night TV, and his story about the original deal is essential reading.
In a nutshell, Zucker was worried back then that O’Brien was talking to other networks because after more than a decade on 12:35 a.m. “Late Night,” he wanted an 11:35 p.m. show. So, not wanting to compete with O’Brien on another network, Zucker signed a new “Late Night” contact with O’Brien that promised him he would become the host of “The Tonight Show” in 2009, and he would have that chair for at least two years.
And Leno signed off on it. Carter wrote:
NBC executives said yesterday that Mr. Leno was instrumental in making the new arrangement, having agreed when he signed his latest deal in March, that he would be willing to step aside for Mr. O’Brien in 2009. He will be 59 at that point, while Mr. O’Brien will be 46.
In a statement, Mr. Leno said: “When I signed my new contract, I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor, and there is no one more qualified than Conan. Plus, I promised my wife, Mavis, I would take her out for dinner before I turned 60.”
Of course, since then, Leno has remained at No. 1. NBC, again fearful of competing against its own talent, decided to “revolutionize” prime time by giving Leno a 10 p.m. talk show, and it did not work.
Despite contracts, and having made so many bone-headed decisions, you can understand why NBC just wants to hit a reset button and return 11:35 to the way it was.
But Jay Leno has a lot of power here, and considering his actions in 2004, the honorable thing for him to do would be to step aside. He agreed to a succession plan. The new plan for his career did not work, so it was canceled. Yes, entertainment is a rough, grownup business, and no matter what you were promised ratings and revenue are what really matter.
But grownups also make agreements, and they stick to them. It is time for Leno to stick to the promise he made in 2004.
When NBC announced early last year that it would retain Jay Leno for a primetime show after he left “The Tonight Show,” his successor, Conan O’Brien, did the only thing he could: congratulate his predecessor on his new deal.
But O’Brien had to sense trouble, and now he’s got it.
When Leno got “The Tonight Show” desk after Johnny Carson’s retirement in 1992, he had bigger shoes to fill than O’Brien, but he didn’t have the prospect of Carson still hanging around. Leno, on the other hand, was signed by NBC to start a 10 p.m. talk show that was supposed to revolutionize prime time network broadcasting.
In fact, its low ratings were driving the late evening newscasts of NBC affiliates around the country into a ditch. (Here in Lexington, NBC afflilate WLEX says it has not seen a “Leno effect,” but other NBC stations have seen audiences and, subsequently, revenue dive.)
So Sunday, NBC announced what was probably some form of O’Brien’s greatest fear: “The Jay Leno Show,” the 10 p.m. talker, has been canceled and Leno will get a half-hour show at 11:35, his old timeslot. Under this plan, O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” would start five-minutes into the next morning.
In an normal situation, the 10 p.m. show would be cancelled, Leno would have simply moved on to his next opportunity, and O’Brien would have the sort of time Leno had to make “The Tonight Show” his own.
But this situation is far from normal. NBC is running scared, trying to keep all the talent it has under contract while demonstrating it doesn’t have a clue what to do with it. And in the process, the Peacock network could be destroying one of the most enduring franchises in television, “The Tonight Show.”
Almost half-way through the first episode of The Jay Leno Show, Jerry Seinfeld sat down and cracked a joke about how in the 1990s, when Seinfeld went off the air, people actually retired. But now, in the Brett Favre ’00s, people retire, take a three-day weekend and come back.
It didn’t feel quite like a compliment.
After all, though Favre had a good first game as a Minnesota Viking yesterday, he hasn’t exactly come out of retirement and won Super Bowls.
And really, the initial episode of The Jay Leno Show felt more like the product of a three-day weekend than a three-month break. At half time of Sunday Night Football, Leno joked that NBC was throwing a big Hail Mary pass with his new prime time comedy/variety/talk show that will run at 10 p.m. five-nights a week.
Even if it fails to achieve, Law & Order- or ER-like ratings, the Leno show reportedly could be a success because a whole week of the show costs less than an hour of a scripted drama.
But the debut episode felt like a pass that went through the receiver’s hands and fell to the ground. And despite all the chatter about this being different from The Tonight Show, Leno’s gig until May, the only things that seemed to differentiate The Jay Leno Show were changing the order of some Tonight Show staples and taking away Leno’s desk.
The show opened with a title sequence that looked like something out of the first few years of Saturday Night Live. Then Leno emerged on a set that looked smaller than his old Tonight Show digs — or Conan O’Brien’s new Tonight Show digs, for that matter — though it is reportedly a bigger studio.
Leno came out and delivered a mildly amusing, topical monologue which led into two taped bits. In the big spotlight piece, Hangover actor Dan Finnerty sang to a car wash customer who seemed as uncomfortable experiencing this as it was to watch it.
Seinfeld finally sparked the show to life, including a short Oprah Winfrey interview in which he asked all the questions before a faux flummoxed Leno.
The most compelling moment of the show wasn’t humor, but actually Kanye West coming out to discuss his classless hijacking of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech on Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards. Leno clearly hit a nerve with West by asking what his late mother would have thought of his behavior. Then West joined Jay-Z and Rhianna for a solid performance of Run This Town.
But Leno’s first show was far from solid — a routine Tonight Show at best. Of course, Leno’s Tonight Show is proof you can’t count the man with the anvil chin out early. He struggled early, only to dominate his time slot for most of his 17-year late night run.
But there, he was facing news and other talk shows. At 10, he’ll contend with scripted dramas and other standard network fare. And it’s first night out, The Jay Leno Show was a not ready for prime time player.
Note: 35-minutes later, on The Tonight Show, O’Brien welcomed viewers to NBC’s “night of a thousand monologues,” and proceeded to deliver a much funnier one than Leno’s, covering many of the same topics.
Some other views:
- Newark Star-Ledger’s Alan Sepinwall.
- Atlanta Constitution’s Rodney Ho.
- Ed Bark of Uncle Barky’s Bytes.
- Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times.
- Time Magazine’s James Poniewozik. (Interesting here that several commenters seem to be people who never stayed awake for the musical guests on The Tonight Show.)
With the latest changing of the guard at The Tonight Show we were once again chatting about late night talk hosts, asking the question, could anyone truly replace Johnny Carson?
But the obituaries Tuesday morning brought a reminder of late night’s truly irreplaceable man: Ed McMahon.
Yes, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Kimmel have all comanded the desk of a late night chat show and millions have watched. But none of them has had an Ed McMahon.
Leno and Letterman each used their bandleaders as foils. Jimmy Fallon is currently out there on his own in his new Late Night gig, and could desperately use an Ed or Tina Fey — his old Weekend Update partner on Saturday Night Live. O’Brien has come closest to an Ed with Andy Richter, who actually performed an Ed-like role at the beginning of O’Brien’s Late Night gig, and has returned as the announcer for O’Brien on Tonight.
But even Conan acknowledged that there’s been nothing like Ed’s straight man to Johnny — and sometimes vice versa.
“Sitting alongside Johnny, Ed was an indelible part of what I think is the most iconic two-shot in television history,” O’Brien said on Tuesday’s Tonight Show. “It’s impossible for anyone to imagine the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson without Ed McMahon.”
And it is. Think about Carnac the Magnificent, and Ed is there. Think about any Johnny Carson skit, and Ed was there. He was a star who never really threatened to eclipse his star. He created a role and perfected it.
Johnny has had numerous successors. Ed has yet to be succeeded.
In a way, Dave won.
Back in 1992, Johnny Carson was leaving The Tonight Show desk, and the battle was between genial comedian Jay Leno and scrappy David Letterman, whose Late Night followed Tonight, to take over the hosting gig. NBC opted for the relatively safe choice of Leno, who had his own-shtick, but didn’t really divert Tonight from it’s easygoing, mid-American tone — none of that Letterman goofiness, like dropping watermelons off buildings.
Meanwhile, Letterman bolted NBC to launch an 11:30 talker on CBS that, though it still trails Tonight in the ratings, is the only late night talk show to successfully directly compete with Tonight.
Replacing him on Late Night was Conan O’Brien, who continued that late, late goofball aesthetic with the non sequiturs, idiosyncratic skits and off-beat stars and musical guests. So, with Conan making the move to Tonight, would he be Conan-lite, for the earlier hour, or bring the after-midnight vibe to 11:30.
The answer started coming pretty quick on his debut, Monday night. The show opened with O’Brien sitting in a New York office going over a check list of things he needed to do before his new show got started. When he hit the last item, “Move to L.A.,” it started a montage of O’Brien running across the country, making stops at Wrigley Field and — first non sequitur — dropping by a doll shop for a detailed discussion of doll hair.
When O’Brien arrived at the studio , we saw that he had forgotten his keys back in the Big Apple, so he knocked down the door with a tractor.
The introductions brought a flurry of familiar faces for Late Night with Conan O’Brien fans, including original Late Night sidekick Andy Richter as the Tonight Show announcer and Max Weinberg now heading up the Tonight Show Orchestra, which plays a variation on O’Brien’s Late Night theme.
O’Brien started the show with a reliably funny monologue, saying he figured he had timed things perfectly by staying with a last-place network, moving to a bankrupt state to host a show sponsored by General Motors. Quite a bit of humor focused on Conan moving from New York to Los Angeles for The Tonight Show, and then he launched another video segment that showed while this production may have a little more SoCal cool than Late Night, it is very much Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show.
In the bit, he commandeered a tour tram at Universal Studios, where his Tonight Show is taped. The ride included driving the tram in circles with the passengers chanting, “Circle! Circle!” and Conan directing the tram out onto the streets where he, among other things, stopped at a dollar store to get something for everyone.
When he came out of the segment and the studio audience was chanting “Circle! Circle!,” Conan was clearly in his comfort zone.
If O’Brien stays on this course, it will signal the biggest stylistic shift for The Tonight Show in 47 years, save for dropping from 90 to 60 minutes. It sort of feels like a generational change for those of us that liked and appreciated The Tonight Show, but viewed Late Night as our own.
On Late Night with David Letterman, Dave used Tonight‘s basic format, but injected it with a hip, irreverent and frequently abrasive humor all his own. When O’Brien took over for Letterman, he kept that vibe going, and in some ways perfected it.
Now that O’Brien has made to the Late Night-to-Tonight move many anticipated for Letterman nearly two decades ago, and has done it staying true to himself, that Letterman aesthetic truly dominates after-hours chatter.
With O’Brien’s ascension, Letterman probably has lost any hope of ever hosting the flagship late-night talk show. But as he looks across the dial at Conan’s Tonight Show, he can take some satisfaction in knowing he changed the genre.
Billy Crystal was two-thirds of the way through his goodbye medley to Jay Leno on The Tonight Show Thursday when he exclaimed, “Why are we even having this fond farewell? You’re going to be back at 10 p.m. in the fall!”
Yes, we are in the midst of another passing of the torch on The Tonight Show — Jay wrapped up his 17-year run last night and Conan O’Brien will take over Monday.
“I’m going to a secluded spot where no one can find me: NBC prime time,” Leno joked in his monologue, referencing his forthcoming 10 p.m. show and continuing his traditional NBC ribbing.
Leno’s farewell was a tidy wrap-up of his Tonight tenure. He identified Rodney Dangerfield as the inspiration for his nightly economy joke. He revisited his signature Jaywalking segments in which he asked people on the street questions any fifth grader should be able to answer, but they couldn’t, including a woman who thought the President nicknamed Tricky Dick was Bill Clinton (not gonna take the bait) and a man who thought Benjamin Franklin was the first President of the United States.
He had James Taylor come in and sing one of his favorites songs — did he change it to “Sweet Baby Jay”? — and ended on a nice note bringing in all 68 children born to Tonight Show staff during the last 17 years.
But the centerpiece was O’Brien, who talked to Leno about having replaced David Letterman on Late Night, when Dave bolted to CBS after being passed over for the Tonight job, and now replacing Leno, who O’Brien said he has been constantly told leaves him with big shoes to fill.
“Just once, I want to replace some local weatherman that’s been on the job three months and everybody hates because he’s horrible at his job,” O’Brien quipped.
Could be nice, but no. Conan gets the keys to the mothership of late-night TV, Monday.
If he maintains his signature zany, idiosyncratic style — which seems to be intact in show promos and he had it in his appearance last night — O’Brien will be a much bigger game changer to Tonight than Leno, who never took the show too far from the genial mood Johnny Carson established.
Leno noted several times that he inherited the show at No. 1 in its time slot and was leaving it No. 1. True, though he didn’t lead wire to wire, as Letterman’s Late Show mounted a serious challenge to The Tonight Show and other programs have crowded into the marketplace such as ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live and Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report.
It’s a very different late night TV landscape now than when Johnny Carson retired from The Tonight Show in 1992.
Carson’s farewell was one of those legendary moments in television, particularly the second-to-last episode in which Bette Midler sang One More for My Baby to a teary-eyed King of Late Night. It was a perfect, emotional moment in large part because over his 30 years on the show, Carson had become so singular and beloved.
We also got all choked up because Johnny was going away, and he did. That 1992 sayonara was pretty much it for Carson, who truly retired, mostly staying out of the public eye until his death in 2005.
As Billy and Jay said, Leno is going to prime time. In the fall, he’ll start a 10 p.m. Monday-Friday show on NBC that will in a way offer a challenge to O’Brien’s Tonight Show. You can only get so choked up over Leno retiring from a seat he never quite owned the way his predecessor did, particularly when they’re running ads for his new show during the farewell.
It would have been totally if someone had come on to sing See You in September.
That’s when we’ll really start to see how the next era of late night will look and whether Leno is ready for prime time.
- Lynn Elber of AP has a good wrap up of the finale and Leno’s Tonight Show history.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich