Late night talk show guests: January 11-17 (plus a breakdown of the big mess at NBC!)

Boy oh boy, do we have things to talk about! This past week has brought late night TV into the top headlines, as NBC is looking to shake things up once again by moving Jay Leno back into his old post-news slot, potentially screwing over Conan O'Brien in the process. My assessment isn't emotionless, and it isn't without bias, but it is based on nearly 20 years of devoted late night television viewing, and a pretty good handle on TV as a whole. This is going to be long, so if you don't have the time, just skip ahead to the guest listings down below.

NBC is by far the worst-run network on television -- and I say this despite the fact that I personally love 5 of their prime time shows (Community, 30 Rock, The Office, Parks & Recreation, Chuck) 3 of their late night shows (The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live), and even still watch Heroes! But just because they've made a few shows that I personally watch, doesn't mean they know how to run a network (and by "they", I specifically mean Jeff Zucker). In the last 10 years, Jeff Zucker's leadership has carried NBC from the #1 network on television to a #4 that isn't even close to FOX, CBS, and ABC. All those shows that I mentioned that I love? Nobody really watches them, so it's irrelevant. NBC has continued to make a mix of critically-acclaimed shows that don't have mass appeal, and horrible pieces of TV trash.

But we should bring this all back to the current late night issue. 6 years ago, Conan O'Brien's contract with Late Night was almost up, and FOX was showing significant interest in the hot late night commodity. NBC obviously didn't want to lose him, and Conan wanted to remain loyal to NBC as long as he was assured he would eventually get a shot at hosting The Tonight Show, the same show hosted by Johnny Carson that he remembers watching with his father as a child. So with all of that, Jay Leno agreed that 5 years from then (at age 59) he would graciously leave The Tonight Show and hand over the reins of the long-running franchise to Conan. He said at the time that he wished to avoid all the choas, hurt feelings, and broken friendships that took place in 1992 when NBC chose Jay Leno to succeed Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show instead of Carson's personal choice, David Letterman (who then left his Late Night gig on NBC for an earlier slot on CBS).

Fast forward to a year ago, and Jay starts making jokes on his show and to the press about how NBC was cancelling him and "pushing him out", despite his #1 ratings. How he was being pushed out when he agreed to sign the agreement 5 years previous is anybody's guess. Regardless, NBC began to get worried that when Jay ceded The Tonight Show to Conan, he'd then bolt to FOX or ABC to directly compete with their new guy. So they frantically put together a plan to keep Jay at NBC, giving him a 5-nights-a-week talk show in prime time. This boneheaded decision immediately undermined Conan's new Tonight Show (and the long-running show's legacy in general) by making it a second-tier talk show on the network. The fact that NBC endlessly promoted the new Jay Leno Show's fall launch right after Conan took over The Tonight Show, while barely giving a mention to Conan, didn't help either. Then there was the creative community, who were (rightfully) upset that NBC was taking 5 hours of their weekly schedule away from potential new scripted shows in place of the cheap talk show alternative. Finally, there were the angry affiliates, who had to deal with a relatively low-rated talk show as the lead-in to their evening news programs rather than the typical 10pm drama. Their collective ratings have dropped between 5 and 25% since Leno launched in September. It's really the affiliates that have strong-armed NBC to cancel the 10pm Jay Leno Show. But the affiliates haven't made NBC try to put Jay back in late night.

Yes, Conan's ratings haven't been as strong as Jay Leno's were a year ago. But Jay Leno built that audience over 16 years, and nobody in their right mind would think that Jay and Conan attracted largely the same viewing audience. Plus, if people were watching Jay Leno at 11:35pm, and most people will likely watch only one talk show a night, they could just watch Jay an hour earlier and skip the new Tonight Show altogether. Jay spent several years after he took over from Johnny Carson building his audience until he finally began regularly beating Letterman in the ratings. Conan himself took a few years to grow into his spot on Late Night in its earlier years, growing from mixed reactions and only a cult following to critical acclaim and ratings successes. There was no reason for anyone to think Conan would be able to bring in the same numbers during his first couple years on The Tonight Show, yet somehow the media and NBC ignored history and the circumstances, and have branded him a failure. This, despite every indication that over time, Conan would be able to bring his numbers up while finding his footing on the new show.

Instead, NBC now wants to move Jay Leno back to 11:35pm for a half-hour version of The Jay Leno Show, push Conan's Tonight Show back until 12:05am, and push Jimmy Fallon's ever-improving Late Night back to 1:05am. Conan now has to make a decision: keep hosting the celebrated (if now slightly tarnished) Tonight Show a half hour later than it's aired in half a century, or bolt from the network he's shown extreme loyalty to and look for work elsewhere, potentially leaving his entire staff -- who along with Conan, moved their families across the country from New York to Los Angeles for the new show earlier this year -- without jobs until he found a new home. It's a tough decision!

Creatively, I think Conan should leave. Besides the fact that NBC has rewarded his loyalty with a big F U (and somehow rewarded Jay's weak numbers in prime time with his old time slot), he could also probably do a lot more interesting things on, say, FOX at 11pm, or even on HBO. However, he will still get to host The Tonight Show if he stays. He'll still have his huge contract. His staff will all still have guaranteed jobs. And he won't have to become the answer to the trivia question, "Who hosted The Tonight Show for the shortest stint in history, before being replaced by its former host?"

We could endlessly debate who is funnier -- it's obviously Conan O'Brien and his writing staff -- but people still want to watch Jay Leno for whatever reason. Not enough people for prime time, mind you, but humourless individuals out there do still want to tune into his middle-of-the-road "comedy". I just wish that Jay didn't want to feed his ego so much that he insisted on still being on TV every day past the age of 60, ignoring his supposed desire 6 years ago to avoid the same painful transition to The Tonight Show he experienced when taking over for Johnny Carson. I wish Jay wasn't so self-involved that he is seemingly blind to what his decision in 2004, reversal of that decision in 2009, and then hostile takeover of the 11:35pm time slot in 2010 has done to his reputation and the comedy community as a whole. NBC may ultimately be the ones to blame for this whole mess, but Jay Leno played a significant part -- and for a guy considered "the nicest guy on TV", he's showing more and more that it might've all been an act.

Further Developments:

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien (NBC)

  • Mon 01/11: Gary Oldman, Dax Shepard, Vampire Weekend
  • Tue 01/12: Tom Brokaw, Zachary Levi, Rosanne Cash
  • Wed 01/13: Ricky Gervais, Bryce Dallas Howard, Whitney Cummings
  • Thu 01/14: Rob Lowe, Jane Krakowski
  • Fri 01/15: Jeff Bridges, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Lifehouse

The Late Show with David Letterman (CBS)

  • Mon 01/11: Jennifer Connelly, Paul Teutul Sr., Ryan Bingham
  • Tue 01/12: Findlay Brown
  • Wed 01/13: Kiefer Sutherland, the Hotrats
  • Thu 01/14: Denzel Washington, the Low Anthem
  • Fri 01/15: Glenn Close, Eddie Brill, Matt Morris

The Jay Leno Show (NBC)

  • Mon 01/11: Bill Cosby
  • Tue 01/12: Sandra Bullock
  • Wed 01/13: Dwayne Johnson, Kourtney Kardashian
  • Thu 01/14: Justin Long
  • Fri 01/15: Julianne Moore

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (NBC)

  • Mon 01/11: Maggie Gyllenhaal, David Ortiz, Lenny Clarke
  • Tue 01/12: Ringo Starr
  • Wed 01/13: Ke$ha
  • Thu 01/14: Sigourney Weaver, Jeremy Renner
  • Fri 01/15: Kiefer Sutherland, the Hotrats

The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (CBS)

  • Mon 01/11: Mila Kunis, Nellie McKay
  • Tue 01/12: Carey Mulligan, Paula Poundstone
  • Wed 01/13: Richard Lewis, Amber Valletta
  • Thu 01/14: Julie Andrews, Vampire Weekend
  • Fri 01/15: Tom Lennon, Shiri Appleby, Luke Bryan

Jimmy Kimmel Live (ABC)

  • Mon 01/11: Ray Romano, Kim Kardashian, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (Repeat)
  • Tue 01/12: Chevy Chase, Elisha Cuthbert, Melanie Fiona
  • Wed 01/13: Aziz Ansari, Larry Gatlin
  • Thu 01/14: Kobe Bryant, Katharine McPhee
  • Fri 01/15: Joan Rivers, Dax Shepard

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central, CTV)

  • Mon 01/11: John Yoo
  • Tue 01/12: Paul Ingrassia
  • Wed 01/13: Ringo Starr & the Ben Harper Band
  • Thu 01/14: Tom Brokaw

The Colbert Report (Comedy Central, CTV)

  • Mon 01/11: Eugene Jarecki, Morgan Freeman
  • Tue 01/12: Raj Patel
  • Wed 01/13: John Farmer
  • Thu 01/14: Kathleen Sebelius

Last Call with Carson Daly (NBC)

  • Mon 01/11: David Gray (Repeat)
  • Tue 01/12: Bill Simmons, Dmitriy Salita, the Raveonettes (Repeat)
  • Wed 01/13: Morena Baccarin, Lisa Hannigan (Repeat)
  • Thu 01/14: Donald Glover, Ellery Hollingsworth, Pete Yorn (Repeat)
  • Fri 01/15: Olivia Munn, Jordy Smith, Paolo Nutini (Repeat)

Lopez Tonight (TBS)

  • Mon 01/11: Jackie Chan, Ke$ha
  • Tue 01/12: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Pitbull
  • Wed 01/13: Charles Barkley, Carrie Ann Inaba
  • Thu 01/14: Snoop Dogg, Saoirse Ronan

The Hour with George Stroumboloupoulos (CBC)

  • Mon 01/11: David McKeown, The Kids in the Hall
  • Tue 01/12: Peter Tinsley, Timothy Olyphant
  • Wed 01/13: Jody Mitic, James McGowan
  • Thu 01/14: John Cassidy, Saoirse Ronan

Kevin Pollak's Chat Show (Online)

  • Sun 01/17: Adam Busch, Amber Benson, and members of the cast (and crew) of Drones

Tags: The Tonight Show, The Jay Leno Show, Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno, NBC, Late Night, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, Kevin Pollak, talk shows

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Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found putting on and promoting music and comedy events with The Purple Room in Winnipeg, or co-producing the live comedy game shows Pants on Fire and The Great Patio Showdown. (@comedygeek)

Original Comments Posted (2)

Hutch says...

Good article, though clearly you're very emotionally biased, and I think that might show even to a reader who doesn't know you. But on the plus side, at least you didn't use the word "bolt" too often! :P

Jan 12, 2010 10:32am

thetaskmaster says...

thank you thank you thank you!
that was much appreciated.
man, I never liked Leno, and with him returning I started to dislike him a fair bit, but now..... wow.

Jan 19, 2010 6:43am

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