‘Tonight Show’ Woes Suggest a Seismic Late Shift Is Underway

Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman (NBC/CBS)

Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman (NBC/CBS)

Jay Leno in trouble? Unthinkable.

Or is it?

Late-night TV appears poised for another one of its periodic shakeouts when anything is possible. And the whole thing begins and ends with Jay Leno and David Letterman, whose rivalry is TV’s longest-running epic story.

Now, after years of finishing in second place behind Jay (ever since the summer of 1995, to be exact), Dave could be on the verge of moving into first place – if he can continue the momentum his and CBS’ ‘Late Show‘ seems to be building over the first half of this year.

Leno’s Ratings Lowest Since Letterman’s CBS Debut

What happened? Simply put, Dave’s energized, Jay is not, and viewers have taken notice. For months now, long-time Leno watchers have observed that he has yet to return to the top of his game since his return to the helm of NBC’s ‘The Tonight Show‘ on March 1. It’s as if the entire drama of failing at 10 pm and then getting tagged as Public Enemy No. 1 by Conan O’Brien fans left him so diminished that it undermined his enthusiasm and effectiveness.

Have you sensed that something’s off about Leno’s monologues? Letterman fans are so loyal to Dave that they hate it when you praise Leno like this, but the truth is, Leno’s monologues were once the richest, funniest monologues in late-night – yes, with writing even sharper than Dave’s. But in the last few months, Leno’s monologues – once the strongest portion of his show – seem weaker, the jokes more frequently met with what comics call “mercy applause” rather than sincere laughter. Listen to a recent Leno monologue and you’ll hear what I mean.

Also: Doesn’t Leno look increasingly lost at sea on that huge stage? It’s the same one NBC built for his ill-fated 10 o’clock show and it was always too big, particularly in the way it set Jay’s friendly, likable sidekick, Kevin Eubanks, far off to one side – so far away that no camera could capture the two of them in a single shot.

Now, even Kevin is gone, having finally left in May, and with him his entire band – including drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith and vocalist Vicki Randle, personalities with whom viewers had become familiar over so many years. So far, there’s zero chemistry between Leno and new bandleader Rickey Minor. Doesn’t it seem like the two of them are perfect strangers?

Letterman Ties Leno For The First Time Since Jay’s Return

Meanwhile, at CBS….

Letterman and his bandleader, Paul Shaffer, have worked together so long that they finish each other’s sentences. In fact, the entire ‘Late Show’ production team puts on a nightly show that runs like a well-oiled machine. Nowadays, it’s CBS’ ‘Late Show,’ not NBC’s ‘Tonight Show,’ that comes across as late-night TV’s most venerable talker – a veritable Rock of Gibraltar compared to the scrambling underway at NBC.

Not only is Leno struggling at 11:35, but Jimmy Fallon is gasping for breath at 12:35. That’s too bad for Jimmy because he does a very capable, creative job on ‘Late Night,’ which is suffering only because of the tumult that precedes it.

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Yes, late-night is at a crossroads – again. It has become entirely possible to envision a scenario unfolding soon that will have Letterman and Craig Ferguson in first place in their time slots, seizing NBC’s traditional top spot in late-night and holding onto it, with Jimmy Kimmel continuing his rise on ABC and perhaps surpassing both NBC late-night shows (in the half-hours in which he intersects with them).

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And after that, who knows? In just a few short years, Jon Stewart – who this week hinted at his ‘Daily Show’ days being numbered – could succeed Letterman on ‘Late Show’ and maintain the program’s lead even as he contends with Kimmel and Conan O’Brien (whose TBS show will then be well-established).

Even Leno has to retire someday (perhaps sooner than later if the ratings don’t improve), and what’ll NBC do then? They got rid of Conan. Now who will they get to replace Leno? Any ideas?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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