Which is worse? Network execs too scared to change a successful formula. Or network execs too willing to turn everything on its head. It’s clear that Conan’s version of NBC’s cash cow The Tonight Show is just more of the same old/same old. And that’s how O’Brien’s longtime exec producer Jeff Ross and boss Jeff Zucker want it. But while they were golfing together this weekend in a foursome at Riviera Country Club (Ross, who just moved out here, is the better player, while Zucker has a 14 handicap and can barely keep up), they both worried how to prevent primetime’s The Jay Leno Show from cannibalizing Conan’s late night show this fall. And my info is that it’s already getting ugly.
Leno’s show premieres September 14th. NBC doesn’t want Conan “freaking out” as he’s establishing himself. And the bosses know that booking wars on the same network are a recipe for disaster. So, already, NBC executives have barraged Jay with edicts. The first were the network’s recommendations on which longtime staffers to keep or let go. The network also has demanded that Leno back off booking A-list celebrities because it would encroach on O’Brien’s turf.
You’d think Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman would have already come up with a solution for this predicament of having two de facto Tonight Shows. But there’s a reason NBC is the 4th-place network, so nooooooooooo. They only know what they don’t want. So these bosses are putting Leno under pressure to think outside the box and help come up with a format significantly different from the one he’s slavishly followed for 17 years. But no one should rely on Jay for that. The last time he had an original idea, it was 1992 and it involved making his manager Helen Kushnick also The Tonight Show‘s executive producer. And we all know how well that turned out.
Most people wrongly attribute the start of Leno’s late night ratings wins to 1995 when he asked Hugh Grant, fresh from his arrest for getting a blow job with a prostitute, “What the hell were you thinking?”. But actually, in late 1993, Don Ohlmeyer was brought in to lead NBC’s troops to ratings victory. And the first thing this General Patton impersonator did was to retool Jay’s The Tonight Show by overseeing the design of a new set, adding more remote segments, using different camera angles, and recreating the artificial excitement of a comedy club by having people in those first rows pretend to mob Jay. After a see-saw battle with Letterman, Leno became No. 1 in late night.
Problem is, there are no leaders anymore atop NBC. Just pretenders. And, of course, Jay had no idea he’d take a backseat to Conan so soon. (Then again, Zucker sold him a bill of goods to make sure Leno didn’t defect to ABC.) But Leno is the one who’ll get the blame if the new show doesn’t work. Zucker and Silverman have shown they’re Teflon.
So Jay, Jeff, Ben: here’s what you need to do:
Zucker and Silverman keep spinning how NBC is now the Comedy Network. Fine, then make The Jay Leno Show into the Comedy Hour, not the Talking Heads Hour. Yes, Leno is so insecure that he abandoned The Tonight Show‘s long and noble tradition under Johnny Carson of spotlighting the kind of raw stand-up talent who went on to become household names: Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne Barr, Garry Shandling, Drew Carey, Louie Anderson, Steven Wright, Rita Rudner, Gallagher. (Well, everyone but him…) Bring back that segment. Lengthen it. Reassure Jay that this isn’t an audition for his hosting spot in 2012.
Next, I have one word: raid. Make offers to feature players on Saturday Night Live, sidekicks on NBC and other network/cable sitcoms, and second bananas co-starring in Judd Apatow-type movies, to come on Jay’s show for a week at a time and star in stuff — sketches, skits, spoofs, and other updated but low-brow Carol Burnett Show-type shtick — to help fill time and get Leno through what’s going to be the dragging 10:30 PM to 11 PM half-hour. These young and old and quirky types will be like swigs of Red Bull for the mainstream audience. (With or without the cocaine.)
Finally, rescue Amy Poehler from that loser Parks And Recreation (which I hear may start changing its dreadful mockumentary style) and make her Leno’s permanent sidekick equal. Women love her. And since most guys are too busy playing video games or watching internet porn to even sample Leno in primetime, you’ll need females to tune in. (Just don’t glam up Amy. You morons will make her look like a $10 hooker. Or, worse, Chelsea Handler.) When Jay starts whining like the pussy he is, tell him to man up and shut up.
This is a start. I’m sure DHD commenters will come up with more suggestions.