Saturday, January 23, 2010

Late Night wars

Last night was Conan O'Brien's farewell. And, as expected, he took more than a few parting shots at NBC along the way. So, from now until after the Olympics, we will be treated with Tonight Show re-runs until Jay Leno resumes his seat as host of this long-standing television franchise. We'll get to see then if the late show "wars," at least in words, continues betweens the two remaining combatants--Leno and David Letterman.

The man who lorded over the Tonight Show franchise for many, many years--Johnny Carson--would have shaken his head at the past few weeks of late night sniping, according to an opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal. Raymond Siller, a writer for Carson during his time in New York and Los Angeles, offered up two examples where Carson took the high road, even though he had the same chances as our present day late night hosts to crack wise and use a situation as fodder for jokes.

For years, Joan Rivers served as Carson's permanent guest host until 1986 when Rivers held a press conference announcing that she'd signed on with Fox in order to host her own late night show. Carson was caught unawares--he had no clue that Rivers was going off to do her own gig. Rather than call Rivers out, Carson took the high road, scrambling to find other guest hosts to fill in--he never uttered a public word about the betrayal he felt.

In another example, a guest on Carson's show once made a negative comment about Dick Cavett. At the time, Cavett was opposite Carson with a show on ABC. After the taping, Carson immediately phoned Cavett to warn him of the comment and to apologize for the remark. He did it in time for Cavett to know before the segment aired later that evening on the East Coast.

The current late night wars have become truly that--wars waged with words and back-office negotiations. Letterman has called out Leno, and often in a mocking, mean-spirited way. Leno has fired back with his own shots. And, O'Brien's initial humorous remarks about NBC have turned more and more pointed, as has his remarks about former buddy Leno.

Carson, the man all three of these hosts say they revere, would not like the current state of affairs. As Siller wrote, Carson "played in pain through divorces and depositions, deaths and tabloid whoppers--without whining. Carson's late night successors consider him the gold standard, the template for how it's done. If Johnny were still around, I can envision him whispering in their ears: 'Guys, come up!'"

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