By FRAZIER MOORE
AP Television Writer
NEW YORK — We’re steeling ourselves for Conan’s farewell Friday night (as if he were headed into Witness Protection).
We’re getting set for the imminent return of Jay (who never left).
We’re catching our breath from all the jokes, bile and turmoil leading up to Thursday’s deal that springs Conan from NBC after 17 years and re-establishes Jay’s ongoing service.
And through it all, we’re recognizing things we already knew (or should have known from ratings figures and our own eyes): Jay Leno was a flop with his prime-time talk show. Conan O’Brien was a flop as Leno’s successor hosting ‘The Tonight Show.’ And the people who run NBC are unmatched in the industry for fashioning fiascos _ then, in an NBC tradition, super-sizing them.
This is nothing new, as the Late Night Follies of the early 1990s remind us. After months of all-too-public dithering and bumbling, NBC chose Leno over David Letterman to inherit ‘The Tonight Show‘ from Johnny Carson. Longtime ‘Late Night’ host Letterman, the heir apparent, was hurt and angry that NBC betrayed him. He bolted to CBS and waged war on his old network.
But that was not before he rejected NBC’s scheme to unseat Leno, a deal hatched in January 1993 after Leno had logged his first unpromising few months. All Letterman had to do was cool his heels for a year and half, until Leno’s contract ran out. Then ‘Tonight’ would be his. Or so NBC said.
In short, the current round of Stupid NBC Tricks should have come as no surprise to any of us viewers. It’s been more like an entertaining encore of a time-honored act.
It has also been a whirlwind reminder of how late-night TV remains a fixture on the nation’s cultural radar screen _ at least as much as on TV screens.
Even people who don’t catch much of Conan, Jay or Dave (or Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon or Craig Ferguson) care what they do. We forge relationships with them that endure for years, decades, even lifetimes. We identify with them. We love them for their fame and for the famous guests who come to them. We know where they are every night, and we like knowing they’re there.
What we call “late night” is an institution that began on NBC more than a half-century ago. NBC’s Steve Allen invented it, down to the desk and sofa. Then puckish, unpredictable Jack Paar stepped in for several years. Then, for a 30-year span, Carson reigned as the King of Late Night. Then he stepped away forever.
After Friday, Conan will be gone from NBC. In his final shows, we have relished the ceremony, poignance and zingers lobbed at NBC brass and at Jay, who on March 1 will reclaim the ‘Tonight Show’ crown.
Nielsen numbers say O’Brien didn’t cut the mustard (he’s been averaging about half the audience Leno was bringing to ‘Tonight’ a year ago). He leaves NBC enriched by more than $30 million. He could be back on the air with another show as soon as September. But he is the designated victim, at least to most observers.
The way they see it, O’Brien has taken a tragic, spectacular fall.
He’s been trashed before he had the chance to prove himself at ‘Tonight’ (which he reverentially described as the greatest franchise “in the history of broadcasting” in refusing to uproot his show to accommodate Leno as his lead-in).
He’s been robbed of the chance to repeat history at NBC, which 17 years ago plucked him from obscurity to host ‘Late Night,’ where, against all odds, he triumphed.
Back then, he was a 30-year-old writer-comedian with a gangly frame, rust-colored pompadour and almost no on-camera experience.
“Nobody knows this guy, nobody’s seen him, and I thought you might want to say hello,” said Leno, introducing O’Brien to the world on ‘The Tonight Show’ in April 1993.
O’Brien exclaimed that, only hours before, he had learned he got the gig to take over from Letterman.
Five months later, he eagerly threw himself to the wolves with his premiere. On ‘Late Night’ he was greeted with critical slams, a meager audience and a startling lack of support from NBC which, for two years, parceled out renewals in miserly 13-week increments.
Then he caught fire.
By 2004, NBC didn’t want to lose this highly prized star. In a boneheaded move, the network guaranteed O’Brien the ‘Tonight Show’ host job five years hence. Leno endorsed the plan by renewing his own contract to bridge the gap.
But after Leno’s orchestrated kiss-off from ‘Tonight,’ his future was unclear. Whether he would even stay at NBC remained in doubt until late 2008, when the prime-time ‘Jay Leno Show‘ was announced.
Now it’s Conan’s future that’s in doubt, while Jay, after what amounts to a prime-time sabbatical, is set to return to ‘The Tonight Show’ just nine months after shoving off.
He may return stigmatized as a guy who reneged on his arrangement with Conan, even played a role in squeezing Conan out. But Leno will probably rejuvenate the ratings for ‘Tonight.’ That’s what counts.
Meanwhile, we know O’Brien will surely find gainful employment, never mind his wisecracks about job-hunting on Craigslist or working children’s parties.
But no matter what happens, ‘The Tonight Show’ is a long way from the bygone years of Carson, Paar and Allen. There’s no point getting misty-eyed about its glorious past. Long before this shake up on a fallen network, ‘Tonight’ already had become just another hour in late night.