You CAN Go Home Again, Again

It’s apparently become de rigeur for one-time late night hosts to grace their successors with triumphant returns.  Just before last Thanksgiving, David Letterman returned to the Ed Sullivan Theatre stage he held court on for more than two decades to spend a memorable hour with current LATE SHOW host Stephen Colbert, and naturally yours truly found a way to stay up late (or, more truthfully, DVR it and wake up early) and not only watch it, but make it the topic of one of our musings.  

So in the spirit of equal time, while I admit I wasn’t as much of a fan of Conan O’Brien’s LATE NIGHT run as I was of Letterman’s, or even his successor, Jimmy Fallon, I knew it was a consequential enough event last night to DVR and muse once again when O’Brien visited Fallon on THE TONIGHT SHOW.  And judging by the proliferation of stories that have dropped overnight from numerous online media sources, I’m apparently not alone with that thought.

In O’Brien’s case, his first visit to a program called THE TONIGHT SHOW since 2010 was not quite the emotional catharsis that Letterman’s return seemed to be; after all, his hosting stint was in Los Angeles and his departure was, in a word, confounded.  As THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Carly Thomas recapped for those too young to have seen it or now too old to remember:

O’Brien’s abrupt departure from NBC’s The Tonight Show remains one of the most unforgettable late-night exits. Though Jay Leno has already passed the Tonight torch over to O’Brien, the network began making plans for a new show with Leno in the same time slot. When O’Brien left after just seven months at the helm, Leno then came back to host until 2014 when Fallon took over.

Those plans were being made largely as a course correction for the financially motivated plan of then-NBC head Jeff Zucker to strip a talk show in the 10 PM hour and stop ordering far more expensive scripted dramas.  Ratings for many of the shows NBC had that weren’t produced by Dick Wolf had begun to crater, to some extent because of increasing competition from quality cable dramas that began to proliferate in the time slot (and, yes, I take immense pride in being associated with several of them) as well as the beginnings of increasing DVR playback from shows that aired earlier in the evening.  Look it up; the number one show at 10 PM even now is labeled “DVR Playback” in the parlance of raw Nielsen data.  But even the cost savings NBC realized were not enough to quell the anger and angst of the company’s profit center–their owned-and-operated TV stations–, not to mention their then-necessary affiliates.  Not only did Leno’s 10 PM ratings disappoint, but, even more importantly, the ratings on the late newscasts that led out of them fell even more precipitously.  It sure didn’t help tee things up for O’Brien, who was also facing off with more traditional flows from both Letterman on CBS and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC.   And even though he was hosting a show called THE TONIGHT SHOW, it was often in second position for stars and projects to promote.

And that was a master plan that had been in the works for roughly five years prior to its 2009 execution, as the NEW YORK TIMES’ Bill Carter reported when the complex “succession” plan for Leno was announced:

NBC announced today that Conan O’Brien will succeed Jay Leno as host of the “Tonight” show when Mr. Leno’s contract expires in 2009, cutting off early efforts by competitors to steal away Mr. O’Brien.

Mr. O’Brien, the host of NBC’s “Late Night” for more than 11 years, signed a new contract early today at NBC’s headquarters in Rockefeller Center. The deal guarantees Mr. O’Brien will serve at least two years as host of “Tonight,” still the leading show in late-night television, when he takes over from Mr. Leno at a yet-to-be-determined date in 2009.

That two-year deal ultimately lasted just short of eight months.  Yes, O’Brien got paid, but only after being dragged through the mud and inexplicably nuanced “negotations” where NBC contended that even when Leno’s show returned to the 11:35 PM time slot he had just vacated O’Brien’s show could just return to his old 12:35 AM time slot and still be called THE TONIGHT SHOW.  Forget the minor detail that under that scenario THE TONIGHT SHOW would be airing, well, the next day.

So O’Brien wasn’t exactly returning to a show that he had conquered, nor was he returning to the exact same stage in 30 Rock where he helmed LATE NIGHT for 16 far more memorable years before ceding that slot to Fallon, who was able to successfully utilize it as a training ground for his eventual promotion to THE TONIGHT SHOW.  But he did have very warm memories of the building and his New York years where he was able to successfully follow Letterman’s tenure with an even longer one that is fondly remembered by children of the 90s in much the same manner than 80s kids revere Dave.  DEADLINE’s Peter White described the mood last night:

“It’s weird to come back; I haven’t been in this building for such a long time. I haven’t been on this floor in forever. You have strange memories. I was here for 16 years before we went to LA. When someone else is in your studio, it feels weird,” he said. O’Brien, who lives in LA, said that when he returns to New York, it reminds him of his crazy late-night exploits. “In my life now, when I ride about Manhattan, I remember being dressed in a loincloth on that corner and dunking myself in chicken broth,” he said.

O’Brien did have an agenda last night; he is launching a new series, CONAN O’BRIEN MUST GO, a travelogue interview series, next week on MAX, the current obsession of the same company that ultimately provided him with a late night home for a decade after his NBC debacle, often despite ratings and unfavorable cost scales that paled to even his TONIGHT SHOW debacle.  But he did take time to pay Fallon praise that clearly was meaningful to him.  Per White:

As he was leaving O’Brien paid Fallon a compliment. “I’m very happy for you; I’ve had the honor of meeting every Tonight Show host going back to Steve Allen and I think what you’ve done with the show is beautiful and you made it your own, you’ve done so much great quality work and I couldn’t be happier for you,” he said. Fallon replied, “You raised the bar, you made me work hard.”

It was much the same sort of sweet sentiment he was able to muster during his final TONIGHT SHOW appearance as host, as Thomas reminded:

(H)e noted that the NBC show fulfilled his lifelong dream. He also added during his monologue at the time, “I just want to say to the kids out there watching: You can do anything you want in life. Unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.”

O’Brien is an imposing 6’4″, a fact he was able to joke about with Fallon last night, as White also recounted:  (S)ome actors were hesitant to appear on his late-night shows due to his height.  “I was told over the years that there might be guests that might not want to come on., especially male actors that are smaller because I’d tower over them,” he said.

Still basking from the standing ovation he received upon his introduction, as well as the effusive praise from his successor in two time slots, it’s doubtful he has stood taller at any point on an NBC stage than he did last night.

Until next time…


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