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And the Winner of the Late-Night Wars Is -- Jimmy Fallon?

By Dustin Rowles | TV | January 14, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | January 14, 2010 |

I really don’t know how much the rest of you folks are really paying attention to the late-night wars. I know, from Facebook, Twitter, and the comments we get on late-night posts we run that almost all of the sympathy lies with Conan O’Brien, and none of it lies with Jay Leno, although occasionally, someone will mention that Leno was the first to be pushed out. That’s a little erroneous, I think, as Leno agreed to retire back in 2004, which is when this entire mess should’ve been taken care of in the first place. It was then that Conan first had the opportunity to leave, and it was then that NBC negotiated his transition to “The Tonight Show,” which Leno agreed to, for whatever reason, only to pull a last-minute Favre when it came time to actually retire.

Leno has always been a weaselly little ass-kisser, first engineering Dave’s ouster and taking over “The Tonight Show,” against Johnny Carson’s wishes (and Carson, inarguably the gold standard for late-night host, remained upset about it, refusing to revisit “The Tonight Show,” though he did meet with Dave a few times). Leno is and always has been a corporate kiss-ass, but let’s be honest about something else, too: He gets the ratings. He has broader appeal. He’s a no-talent hack, but he’s probably the only host that could’ve gained 5 million viewers a night in prime time, even if it was a huge disaster for the local NBC affiliates, which saw a 25 percent decrease in ratings over the last four months (and upwards of 45 percent in NYC, LA, and Philly). Let it be noted, however, that NBC attempted the same ploy with Dave back in the day, and he turned down the opportunity to do a five-night-a-week prime time show (I mention that only because everyone talks about what a novel idea it was to move Leno to prime time, despite the fact that they first came up with the idea 18 years ago).

Anyway, late night talk is a lucrative business, I suppose, but in the grand scheme, these shows are only getting between two and five million viewers a night, which is obviously a fairly small percentage of the American population (Jon Stewart’s ratings are even lower). Most people don’t watch any of the late-night shows, except when they are rocked by scandal, which can often elevate their ratings to the six or seven million range, or about what My Own Worst Enemy rates on ABC.

I happen to be one who does watch late-night television and, up until the revelations about Dave’s affairs (which took some of his mystique away for me), I watched his show religiously for 20 years (now, only semi-regularly). And during the last week or so, I’ve been watching a lot of talk shows, before I go to sleep and again when I wake up, where the first thing I usually do is watch all the coverage over on Gawker (I wish I had the gadgets to rip all the shows and create clips for our readers, too).

The latest? Word that NBC’s Jeff Zucker is determined not just to boot Conan from his “Tonight Show” post, but to freeze him out of another network, for up to three-and-a-half years, proof positive that NBC cares only for the bottom line, and makes me wish that their Thursday night block of comedies could find a new network so I could turn off NBC all together. Conan’s camp countered that this could soon end up in front of a judge, which isn’t good for anybody. (Update: Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons, tweeted that “next week is Conan’s final week hosting the Tonight Show. His staff is trying to book big guests so he goes out with a bang. It’s true.”)

It’s interesting to see all the late-night hosts’ approach to the controversy, and make no mistake, every single one of them are talking about it (Jimmy Kimmell, even, did an entire show two nights ago dressed as Leno). You might be surprised, however, as to who — at least in my opinion — has fared the best through it all.

It’s Jimmy Fallon, believe it or not.

This is how it’s pretty much shaken up: Jay has continued to make mostly lame jokes, tried to position himself as the victim here (poorly, I might add), and has even taken a couple of swipes at Conan, which is petty as hell, in my opinion (last night, he took issue with Conan’s complaint that Conan had only seven months to prove himself, noting that he was given only four to prove himself in the prime time slot, never mind the fact that it’s been abundantly clear that Leno has been angling to get his old job back the entire time). Conan’s take has been mostly self-deprecating, to the point — really — where it’s almost uncomfortable. Like everyone, I really appreciated his open letter to “The People of the Earth,” but he’s not really showing any of that fighting spirit on his show — he’s resigned himself to the inevitable, which is an ungraceful exit, which will probably come any day now (and he may not even get a lame-duck tenure, as I feel like NBC is probably going to just pull him without even allowing him a proper goodbye, as soon as — perhaps — tonight.). If you’re a huge fan of Conan, you’d best be watching his show this week, as these episodes may be his last for a very long while.

Dave’s approach has been interesting, if only because he understands what Conan is experiencing, having been through the same wringer, although I get the feeling that Dave would’ve told NBC to cram it in their cram-hole a lot earlier and bolted. It’s kind of strange to see Dave sympathizing with his main competition (at least for the moment), and taking plenty of shots at Jay (and poor Carson Daly, who is something of an innocent bystander in this whole mess). Dave, however, is really relishing the moment, I think, because it’s further revealed Leno for what he is: A scheming son of a bitch who cares only about his own self interests (as Dave remarked last night, “When Johnny retired, he retired). I think it’s opening up a few old wounds for Dave, too, because — make no mistake — “The Tonight Show” was his dream job, and all he ever wanted was to follow his idol, Johnny Carson, which is what should’ve happened all along (if NBC had chosen Dave or Leno 18 years ago, they’d still have complete late-night supremacy, and there likely wouldn’t been the three-way competition there is now. “The Tonight Show” would probably have the same impenetrable foothold that “SNL” has over Saturday nights). At any rate, Dave’s been candid about it, self-deprecating, and extremely sympathetic to Conan, but the joy he’s taking in the destruction of late-night NBC is a little off-putting, even if it is understandable. (Dave’s Leno impersonation is to die for, however).

Meanwhile, both Jimmy Kimmell and Craig Ferguson, as outside observers, have been fairly entertaining as well. Kimmell has directed a lot of his show to exposing the absurdity of NBC’s choices and, really, Leno’s lack of talent (you can bet your ass that none of the other hosts would have have so easily mocked Dave — even during the sex scandal, most of the other hosts were mum, save for Leno who threw a few softballs, not that he’s capable of anything more). Meanwhile, Craig Ferguson has mostly just been critical of the way NBC has handled the situation, their disloyalty, and their generally shitty treatment of Conan. Worldwide Pants — which runs both Dave and Craig’s show — has often been critical of CBS, but they have to be feeling awfully goddamn good that they’re not over on NBC right now).

And then there’s Fallon. I’ve been watching a lot of Jimmy Fallon’s show of late (even before this debacle) and — while I doubt that many who don’t watch it, or never have will believe this — he’s really finding his way over on “Late Night,” and is proving to be a worthy successor to both Conan and Dave. He’s giving the show the same off-the-wall spirit as his predecessors, and — realizing he has nothing to lose, and only an audience to gain — is doing quite a bit of experimenting.

Here’s the thing, though: If Dave and Leno are cut from the same cloth as Carson, most of the rest of them are clearly molded after Dave — Conan’s more eggheaded, Ferguson is more acerbic, and Kimmell is more meat-headed, but they all seem to have a similar self-deprecating, mainstream edgy approach (Carson was self-deprecating, too, but it was far more genteel in nature, closer to the way the Leno is now).Their shows are all nearly identical, as if they’ve simply put their own spin and personality on the same format that has been in the works for 50 years: Monologue, segment, personal anecdote, interviews, musical guest, credits.

And while Fallon has borrowed a lot of those elements, he’s put a strangely refreshing post-irony spin on them. He’s amiable and awkwardly charming in the way that the way the others are not, save for the first few years of the Conan-era. I never really liked Fallon on “SNL” and God knows, I loathe his contributions to the big screen. But on late-night, he’s really made the fact that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing work for him, much like Conan did, coming out of nowhere to succeed Letterman. The difference is that Conan was an unknown, while Fallon is known, and generally viewed skeptically (as he was by me before I gave him an honest chance), which makes it an ever harder position to be in. On Fallon’s “Late Night,” there’s no smugness; there’s never any condescension; and there’s not an ounce of mean-spiritedness. For decades, late-night shows have capitalized at the expense of others. The first half-hour of any late-night show is really about making topical jokes (usually very bad ones) about politicians and celebrities, usually mixed in with a lot of self-deprecating humor, a little sarcasm, and maybe even a little smugness (save for Ferguson, who wouldn’t know smug if it swallowed him whole).

But Fallon: He’s trying new things. Lots of new things. They fail as often as they work, but he’s trying. And so far, at least from what I’ve seen, he’s not trotting out the same gimmicks to the point of tiresomeness (Headlines, Will It Float, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog). Fallon, on the other hand, cracks out Taboo, and brings his audience members in to play it with guests. He appeals to the younger demographic, but not in the phony way that Leno is aiming to do, which is to air a segment of YouTube videos or occasionally pay lip service to Facebook. Social networking and modern technology isn’t a novelty to Fallon — it’s just part of daily life to him, and it’s given no special treatment. Sure, Fallon gets nervous around his guests, and while it can create an awkward interview, that awkwardness is strangely endearing. He asks unusual questions (which can often elicit blank stares), and he’s always deferential. He’s not trying to pry; he’s not trying to elicit private details; he’s trying to have a good time with his guests. And in a backwards sort of way, it works — he’s so disarming, that his guests open up even more, as if to ease the awkwardness. They don’t feel threatened by him, the way so many do with Dave, or with Leno, who actively attempts to wheedle out the gossip. (And as much as I do like Conan, he’s never gotten past his weakness for interrupting his guests to make his own, usually self-deprecating jokes, the way that Jon Stewart often does, as well. Even when they’re talking to other people, they often want to keep the focus on themselves).

Let’s not forget, either, that Fallon has the best house band of any of the shows, in The Roots, who he actually uses, not as punchlines to his jokes, but as equals. They’re not sidekicks or comic foils — they are an intricate part of the show. And they are awesome, y’all. Fuck Weinberg, Paul Schaffer, Kevin Eubanks, and the rest of them; The Roots really fucking bring it, and if you’re a musical act, Jimmy Fallon’s show is where you want to play, because it’s the only place where you can get the backing of The Roots.

Finally, I think that Fallon’s approach to the late-night controversy is ultimately what’s been so revealing about the character and personality of his new show — he’s not trying to bring down anyone. He’s not trying to score points. He’s not trying to say something during his tapings that will hit YouTube before the show airs. He’s cordial. He’s grateful. And he’s appreciative (for evidence of that, check Fallon’s second clip, here). Most of us, even those who don’t regularly watch late-night television, tend to align with a particular host, often out of simple loyalty to what we grew up with. But we often forget that these men are paid millions of dollars to do what they do (and no one is claiming they don’t deserve it, except for Leno). But most of them do seem to have a small sense of entitlement, even Conan, who feels (and rightfully so, perhaps) that he’s owed that opportunity to find an audience (never mind that NBC never gave Dave the seven months that Conan has had to prove himself). But there is none of that in Fallon’s attitude, and perhaps that has a lot to do with his status as the newcomer. But it doesn’t make it any less refreshing. He’s like a little puppy trying to gain your affection — sure, he tries too hard sometimes. But it’s cute. And I, for one, appreciate the effort, and the fact that he is trying to win us over, instead of just assuming we’ll return night after night out of rote loyalty.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.