...can he break out of the "Tonight Show" rut?

O'Brien should shatter the rules that limit 'Tonight'




Ever since it was announced that Conan O’Brien would take over NBC's "The Tonight Show", I’ve been rooting for him--and still am. But I worry that he will be held prisoner inside the show’s ironclad format.

Of the last three hosts of the show, O’Brien is the most innately, instinctively funny (well, funny looking anyway) than anyone since the original host, Steve Allen. O’Brien seems the least wired, most freeform and best equipped comic to turn it into something new. The question is: Can he and, if he can, does he dare to?

Or will he, like Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, feel a responsibility to maintain the rigid decorum that Carson instituted but that has kept Leno and Letterman, plus all the little Lenos and Lettermans (Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson) who dot the late-night skies, from forging a new path and making “Tonight” truly his own?

I’ve been watching “Tonight” ever since Allen invented it in 1954, and took it to its imaginative, even surreal, heights. But for years I haven’t felt a need to watch it a lot beyond the opening monologue. For its last 17 years under Leno it’s been pretty much the same show every night, Carson 2.0. Maybe one reason Leno decided to step down is that he started feeling he could do the show in his sleep--and some nights he appeared to be doing exactly that.

Letterman and Leno are clever guys who gradually morphed into merely facile, efficient joke deliverers, content to sit at their increasingly humdrum desks and make the smallest of talk with movie, TV and pop stars peddling their latest gig. It seemed clear that the hosts’ hearts haven’t been in it for years.

What first made them cutting-edge stand-up comics was slowly flattened out into polite hostmanship, mainly a matter of holding down the franchise. They seemed afraid or unable to bust loose and fly on their own comic whims, which O’Brien needs to do if he hopes to keep from being just the show’s next comic custodian. Longtime O’Brien fans have already despaired, saying that the host has been straitjacketed by the network responsibilities of his new time slot.

All the late-night shows by now feel pretty interchangeable. Nobody seems to want to--or knows how to--break free of that frozen format, stuck somewhere in the late `80s.

Allen created the show in his own image (a wonderfully unpredictable mix of literate and wacky). When Allen left, Jack Paar made it over into his image--quirky, irritating, prickly, self-pitying, ego-driven, but at least interesting. At least you couldn’t guess what might happen next, as you pretty much can now.

Carson’s version became the template that no host since has been able to crack. Carson was a brilliant sit-down comic who occasionally did goofy characters, albeit often stolen from other comics (Aunt Blabby from Jonathan Winters’ Maude Frickert, the late-night TV pitchman from Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton). Carson, gifted as he was at repartee, was too much the traditionalist to take the show to new places, and after awhile he was content simply to mind the show like a comic company man.

It’s time for a new host with a vivid imagination, and a little bravado, to remake the entire format--get rid of the glum desk and couch, create or hire new characters, dare to fashion literate bits and satirical sketches. Allen (with writers Stan Burns, Herb Sargent and Bill Dana) was forever coming up with more than easy jokes about the President, or the jerk of the day in the news. Allen didn’t even really do a monologue--that was Paar’s idea.

Paar wasn’t really a funny guy but at least he cared about his guests. The new guys don’t seem to care who they’re babbling with.

With Allen, you never knew what was coming next, and with everyone from Carson on you pretty much know what (and who) to expect (Tom Hanks! Dana Carvey! Angelina Jolie! Who cares!). It’s surprising that the hosts are so willing to play along, as if they’re really interested about that week’s Great New Movie; the late night (and early morning) have become shameless promotional branches of the movie industry.

It would be refreshing if O’Brien involved the stars in more than banal chitchat, maybe play off their images as Allen’s sketches did, or bring on an actual or off-the-wall character, like Gypsy Boots, the health food nut who became an Allen regular. And enough already with the forced band leader banter, which Carson and Doc Severensen ran into the ground.

Carson turned the show into a routine exercise whose predictability worked for him for decades, but every late-night show since has looked and felt like road show Carson; the hosts may look different but they’re just mini-Johnnys. The look and sound and feeling of the talk shows are so similar you needn’t watch any of them anymore, and they all may well have outlived themselves, victims of booking inertia.

Maybe Conan O’Brien can turn things around. He has the right anything-goes Steve Allen spirit that Leno lacked. He’s clearly bright enough to engage the occasional author, politician or at least non-pop star, a card that Jon Stewart has played pretty smartly. One always had the sense that Leno was just happy to have a national platform for his nightly monologue and didn’t care a lot about what came afterwards. He’s still basically a stand-up comic. Brilliantly funny as he was, Allen was never just that--everything interested him, and he famously blazed the trail for countless new cutting edge comics, just as Paar did. That truly edgy and intelligent quality has been lost ever since Carson left, and even long before he left.

Letterman, like Leno, usually seems bored with his guests (as well he should be), just gamely playing along; his heart (and head) clearly are not in it. Steve Allen appeared to be plugged in every night to what was happening, always lively and instinctively funny and eager himself to see what would happen on the show that night, almost like a guest on his own show.

Paar was equally engaged and alive, even if he could be a pain in the neck--by turns cloying and bitchy--and truly seemed to care about his guests, many of them witty raconteurs (a word now totally out of fashion), people like Oscar Levant, Alexander King and Robert Morley. Allen cherished wit, and had tons of it to burn; Paar loved other wits, whom he fawned over. Leno, Letterman, Kimmel, Fallon, Ferguson and the others seem mostly interested in just fronting a show, not recreating it anew each night.
At the end, Leno was just going through the motions, fooled by the hyped-up studio audiences, ecstatic just to be in his presence. It’s hard to image what Leno will do to amuse himself, and us, on his new 10 p.m. primetime version. Many suspect (and fear) it will just be an earlier “Tonight” show, and either fold quickly as a shaggy redundancy or drain away the energy and audience from O’Brien’s later piggyback version.

Which might be the best thing to happen to "The Tonight Show" since Allen left it, forcing O’Brien to take chances and maybe return the show to its original inspired roots.

©2009 by Gerald Nachman. This column first posted July 13, 2009.

Gerald Nachman, one of the original founders of, is the author of “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s” and “Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan’s America”, to be published this fall.


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