Tuesday, June 2, 2009

If you didn't know: Jay Leno

Jay Leno moves to make space for a fresh face, Conan, for the revered late night brand, The Tonight Show. That is just the last page in the voluminous book documenting the high-stakes talk show. Some of the following, you will find interesting if you watched Leno, including the censored and delayed version on Zee Cafe.

Pre-1992, The Tonight Show was hosted by Johnny Carson, who was absolute king, beating all his competitors by the mile. David Letterman hosted the hour after this show, called Late Night. Jay Leno was a frequent guest host for Johny and a frequent guest on David's show.

Such was the charisma of Johnny and the then Tonight Show that everyone wanted to emulate him, and obviously succeed him. Letterman thought he was the rightful heir; Jay too wanted that job. Now NBC, the owner of both Tonight Show and Late Night, didn't want to lose both Leno and Letterman to a rival broadcaster. Apparently Leno had better clout with NBC, giving him the job, even hiding in a cupboard to listen in on a meeting of executives.

Obviously Letterman agreed to move to CBS, where he had a higher rating till 1995. That was when Leno welcomed a guest with a very embarassing crimesheet, the ink just drying up. Ever since Leno has been the leader, straight for 14 years. That is no small feat.

History repeats itself: in 2004, Conan gets good offers from other broadcasters; NBC guarantees he will get to succeed Leno in 2009. At the time Leno didn't know what 5 years would do to his prime standing, and then as time came near to hand over the baton, NBC was yet again in the same spot: if they let Leno out, other networks, like ABC, would definitely put him against Conan at the same time slot. They wanted to keep both in the network, so the solution was to put Leno in some other time slot, to which he agreed.

The announcement of new show which Leno will do shook the foundations of broadcast networks, because the 10 pm slot is 'primetime' which drama-based high-voltage shows occupied. The 'justification' provided by NBC for replacing drama based shows, which attract higher audiences and more revenues, is that for the cost of one drama episode, 5 Leno shows can be made, thereby reducing the stakes for the required advertising and the ratings.

The biggest loser in all of this is undoubtedly Conan, for now. For 16 years he followed Leno's show; now too, he will have to follow Leno's 10 pm show with his starting at 11.35 pm. Maybe people will not watch his show because it might have a similar monologue and a similar show. The biggest winner, in my opinion, is Leno, because he wins in all ways: he still remains the attention getter with a prime time slot.

Many say Leno is not as popular on the coasts as Letterman, who is more snarky, but I staunchly like Leno for his intelligent jokes while the other can be at times silly. Leno's jokes are highly observational - so election times are real fun, non-news days can be really boring.

Leno, or rather his writers, very accurately reflect the pop culture in the country, which is one of the reasons he still is so popular. Leno's style relies much on language, while Conan has based his show on skits and mannerisms. I prefer the clever Leno to the others(oh, about Craig Ferguson, that is another story altogether).

I never liked Conan, Leno at 10 pm won't make much of a difference for those who don't have a TV, but the bar is so low that any good ratings will be claimed as a victory.

Will be very interesting to watch how Leno fares at 10pm. Good luck to this highly respected selfless man.