Sunday, March 24, 2013


I vividly remember the first The Tonight Show debuting in 1954 on NBC though it happened about when I was making my exodus from Texas to Rhode Island.  Not that late night television was a big deal for an eleven year old – it wasn’t - especially in a homestead with an early lights-out policy. TV was the big deal! Occasionally I was allowed to watch the show though rarely in Rhode Island.  While we had TV in Dallas, the big stand up radio by the fireplace in The Cottage in Pawtucket was our only entertainment option for some time.  Well, OK, we had Uncle Dick’s drums and the old Victrola…

The evolving drama and legacy of The Tonight Show didn’t escape me and most notably that an important tradition was now in place for late night TV.  Given the previous success and idiosyncratic behaviors of icons and trailblazers Steve Allen and the always imaginative and unpredictable Ernie Kovacs (my favorite & a real artist), late night TV’s The Tonight Show established a standard that is now conceded as, “the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.” So, I have been a follower ever since though it seems that the owners of the show can never seem to get it right for long (at least they don’t think so). Maybe its entertainment’s version of a retail reset though seemingly without a planogram.  

The recently speculated, much anticipated changes in The Tonight Show reflecting a switch from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon signals once and for all time the death of the old Texas philosophy "dance with the one what brung you” and the inferred right, aye privilege, of folks like Johnny Carson to “pick their successor.”  We are 21st century now and nothing is sacred – nor ever will be in entertainment.  Seems that in business whatever the industry it’s all about real or perceived metrics, the almighty dollar and what seems to be ugly, short term perspectives.  Fallon and Kimmel need not feel comfortable for too long… live by the sword, die by the sword.

As if the Leno-O’Brien-Leno Transitions weren’t ugly and contentious enough, it would appear that NBC Brass never learned their lesson and have once again opted to vomit all over themselves and the viewing public. Seems they tore a page out of the Congressional playbook anxious to emulate the ongoing negative behaviors in Washington DC.  Instead of addressing the issues straight forward, “unidentified network executives” conveniently and anonymously leak little tidbits of their deliberations and the ultimate decision to replace the still very successful and popular Leno with Fallon.  So, instead of collaborating with Leno and negotiating a friendly and harmonious separation, they foment controversy and confrontation and provide fodder for fitting and well-deserved Leno metaphorical one-liners comparing NBC Executives to the “snakes from Ireland” or that “knife in the back.” They deserve all they get (and then some) though we suspect they’re probably reveling in all the attention.

Ironically, this move appears to have been precipitated by the success of Jimmy Kimmel and his late night ascension at ABC.  His show is funny, edgy and he brings fresh perspectives on just about everything.  His success prompted this latest rush by NBC to not only capitalize on the emerging youth market but fear of losing that demographic to Kimmel and a lack of confidence in Leno to continue to do just that.  Enter Fallon already in the wings with his equally fresh and upbeat presentations. With the new found emphasis on social media and “Followers”- both on Twitter and Facebook, NBC despite their current, convincing late night ratings lead (#1 in the all-important 18-49 demographic and total viewers) finds comfort in Fallon’s millions of Tweet Followers vs. Leno’s less impressive numbers.  Perhaps Leno’s demographics represent viewers who don’t think it important who follows who or what on Twitter or Facebook?  I don’t feel inclined to follow either on those social media sites yet I consider myself a Follower.  Do we now have to publicly declare our allegiances in social media to make something relevant?
So, how do I really feel about this?

It’s a given that with his Scottish Mother (Catherine Muir) and northeastern roots, I would really like Jay Leno.  I generally start my late night TV with his show though I am prone to surf between all late night offerings before I fall asleep. While he is still great, Jay’s monologues of late seem a little stiff, staged and scripted with less spontaneity until he hits his desk where his true gift of ad lib humor excels. Having said that he is huge in Vegas-style stand-up where he is the reigning comedy king.  No, he’s not going to starve… and will have plenty of cash to add to his already impressive car and motorcycle collection.  Despite all the hullabaloo and rhetoric surrounding the Conan transition/untransition, Jay is a good guy who deserves respect from all quarters. So, we ask NBC: What to do if they sever ties with Leno who then takes his viewers to another network?  Oops!

Johnny Carson designate David Letterman (no, I don’t think that’s him running) seems to be getting longer and longer in the tooth and more dry, sarcastic and eccentric every day.  While he remains bright as hell and somewhat edgy, much of what he does has a visual component now and that’s OK though sometimes he appears more controlling, self-centered and look-at-me rather than sharing with the WE of his demographic (that includes me).  Thank God he has cohort band leader Paul Shaffer who is a great foil and incredible musician, the best of late night TV.  Yea, I like David too though his dwindling numbers might result in his departure at the end of his current contract in 2014. We hope not.

And all this probably leaves room for their successors including Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson and whoever emerges as the next great kid on the block. Most were all heavily influenced by Leno, Letterman and their mentor – Johnny Carson who was in turn influenced by Jack Parr, Steve Allen, Jack Benny, George Burns, George Gobel and Ernie Kovacs, among others. Fallon appears to have been heavily influenced by his old Saturday Night Live (SNL) buddies and “Weird Al” Yankovic. OK, makes sense

Fallon has garnered some keen tributes already and especially so by the highly regarded Lorne Michaels, Executive Producer of NBC’s SNL and Fallon’s own Late Night. Michaels commented recently on Fallon taking over for Leno, “I'm not allowed to say it—yet. But I think there's inevitability to it. He's the closest to Carson that I've seen of this generation.”

I like both Kimmel and Fallon and after late night forays into the worlds of Leno and Letterman, sometimes settle in on Kimmel if I don’t go back to Leno.  Kimmel is genuinely funny and his show and format are familiar and comfortable to The Tonight Show devotees.  There is one aspect of his show, however, that makes me uncomfortable at times.  That would be Kimmel’s interaction with his sidekick and former parking lot security guard at their Hollywood Blvd studios, Guillermo Díaz Rodriguez. I find Kimmel’s banter with Guillermo sometime tinged with a racial/cultural innuendo that I just don’t like.  With his paycheck soaring we suspect that Guillermo will smile and do whatever they tell him maybe even try to take back his Guinness underwear record.

Now we may not be in that all-important 18-49 demographic though can assure those new decision makers at Comcast/NBC that they better not continue to underestimate Jay Leno or any of us 60-somethings.  There are some style and class points yet to be earned and there is still time for all the players to take the high road. So, get it right! Yes, completely and unequivocally the digital age is now all here and the epicenter of 21st century media is at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

And as for our graphic above?  We just like it and know it’s good advice for everybody, including NBC executives.  We feel the need to relax, keep calm and listen to the pipes – maybe a little Liam O'Flynn and Out to the Other Side   That’s where we are now.


Ned Buxton

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