Friday, January 22, 2010


Though the devastation in Haiti remains the most important thing happening in the world, like many in America your proprietor has become absorbed in the drama unfolding late night on NBC.

I'm old enough to remember the bitter feud and controversy surrounding the first Late Shift, with David Letterman denied the Tonight Show, then accepting an offer from CBS for the rival time slot. A rich and fascinating conflict, with weirdly Shakespearean overtones.

But the conflict surrounding the ousting of Conan O'Brien from the Tonight Show, to be replaced by previous host Jay Leno, has become a full-tilt, five-act Elizabethan history play, with a larger cast of characters and set of subplots. Unfortunately for the powers that be at NBC, late night television has become a larger playing field in the years since LSI, with shows hosted by comedians who came up in the circuit that quickly shunned Leno. So we have Leno enjoying the privilege that he sold out for, being given five hours of prime-time after relinquishing his seat to O'Brien, and then being given the seat back by NBC execs. You have O'Brien getting screwed out of the Tonight Show (which, given its rich history and remaining reputation as a touchstone of television tradition, is a hell of a loss).

And crucially, you have a whole field of comedians with their own shows and time to fill on their own shows, and none of them are supporting Leno. Jimmy Kimmel did an entire show as Leno, spoofing his relentlessly middle-brow comedy. Leno even tried damage control and interviewed Kimmel on his own show, and Kimmel fucking slaughtered him. Letterman, naturally, hasn't remained quiet on the issue; Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have voiced their support for O'Brien and disdain for NBC. And somewhere around III, v, Craig Ferguson emphasized the gravity of the Haiti situation over the Late Shift (but found himself deep in act IV ad-libbing jabs at NBC).

Most importantly, O'Brien has found himself the subject of sympathy from celebrities and non-celebrities alike. Notwithstanding the fact that on Monday he'll be an unemployed millionaire (with fine prospects), he's become something of a mascot for recession-related unrest. After all, he's not the only one unemployed by or otherwise at the whim of executives trimming fat and dismissing employees who have suddenly become expendable.

O'Brien's final show is tonight on NBC. His mission statement for his final hours: "Let's have fun on television."

I worked at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a San Francisco arts center, for seven years, before being axed along with the chief curator (my boss) and ten others by a new executive director faced with a budget crisis (at least that was the excuse at the time). I spent my final weeks hanging out with Richard Stanley (whose brilliant DUST DEVIL screened at the Center), preparing my own solo performance, and bowling with my boss.

Part of what's making O'Brien's final shows so appealing is the recognition of my own angst inside his. At this moment he's the funniest and most-relatable person on television, for me and many others. Thousands of us only wish we could have played our final pre-unemployment hail-Mary out on national television, but there's a stronger subtext at play here, and I think it's why LSII is proving to have such a fascinating allure. And there's a lesson in it to be learned by our nation's executives. If the reputation of one of the last great holdouts of 20th century is going to be tarnished beyond repair, maybe it'll offer a beneficial lesson for the shaping of the 21st.

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