Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why The Tonight Show Sucks

The entertainment media has been in a flurry lately, as you know if you're one of those people who follows celebrity news as a substitute for authentic human contact: The Tonight Show is getting a new host again, or more accurately it's getting an old host again, or even more accurately, Jay Leno is returning to his old host because Jay Leno is a parasite.

Supposedly, the conflict between Leno and Conan is a battle as timeless and important as the battle between Mordor and Minas Tirith. On one hand you have a big-chinned doofus custom made for Middle America, who tells jokes everyone can understand and enjoys the simpler pleasures in life, like having hundreds of breathtakingly expensive cars. On the other hand, you have this weird, tall, red-headed dork, who has a strange, jerky energy to him and does “edgy” things, like having a bear masturbate on his show. If you are a mouth-breathing tea-partier who buys tacky Jesus paintings, you like Leno. If you are a smarter-than-thou, pot-smoking, humanities-degree-holding 20-something who knows who Amy Poehler is and cares about the decline of The Simpsons, you like Conan, but you probably didn't watch his show all that much, which is why he got canned.

Which brings up the central problem with the media brouhaha over The Tonight Show—like baseball, we're supposed to care about network talk shows because of its history (blah blah Johnny Carson David Letterman blah blah), but also like baseball, if you sit down and actually watch it you'll discover that it's pretty fucking dull unless you're on mushrooms.

Here's how talk shows go: the host comes out (applause) and stands in front of a curtain and tells jokes about current events and weird news stories, some of which are funny. Then he goes down and sits at his desk while a band plays some generic riffs (why is he sitting down? Is he tired? Why couldn't he tell jokes at his desk?). Then he performs a “desk piece,” where he pulls out some semi-humorous props and displays like a more dignified Carrot Top, or they do a “remote,” a pre-taped segment where the host or someone else goes to a farm or a donut factory or a boxing gym and learns how to ride a horse or kickbox while cracking wise.

Then the whole purpose of the show: celebrity interviews! Sometimes, the celebrity will be a comedian, in which case he'll run through his material while the host nods, laughs, and goes, “That's hilarious!” once in a while. If the celebrity isn't a comedian, he'll tell a personal anecdote or talk about working with (insert name here). If the guest is a woman, there might be some mild flirting. All of this, of course, is in the name of promoting the movie/book/comedy album that the guest is putting out. Occasionally, things get weird, but this doesn't happen often enough to be a reason to tune in. At the end, sometimes there's a musical guest who plays a song, usually a middle-of-the-road rock or pop number that sort of reminds everyone who's still awake of Counting Crows.

It's not a bad format, and it's probably a fine way to promote movies that are bankrolled by the same companies that own the talk shows. But from a 21st century viewer's perspective, it leaves a lot to be desired. When Carson was doing it, there weren't many options—if you were watching TV at 11:30 pm, you were pretty much watching Tonight. Now you can watch whatever you want whenever you want, thanks to the internet and Netflix, so it's not a surprise that Conan's ratings weren't very good. What's surprising is that millions of people are still watching Conan and Leno run through the same thirty-year-old format night after night after night.

If you're one of those people who really likes Conan and was sorry to see him treated so badly by NBC (although they might be giving him 40 million dollars for his trouble, so maybe “badly” isn't the word), be honest: do you give a shit about The Tonight Show, beyond wishing bad things would happen to Leno? There are many, many comedy shows more interesting than Tonight out there, and just because we're supposed to care about late night talk shows doesn't mean we should.

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