NBC's Tonight Show debacle is extremely frustrating. Everyone joining an "I'm with Coco" group or tweeting about #teamconan is fully aware that the man is funnier on an off day than shambling, dead-eyed Leno is at his best. Amid all of the ink being spilled over the Late Night Wars, there really isn't much of a public dispute taking place regarding the comedic talents of the parties involved. Fact is fact. The best thing that could be said of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was that sometimes it would be on while Letterman went to commercial, to pass the time. The less said about The Jay Leno Show, the better. (Forget seeing if it makes you laugh--just count how many times a Leno joke even makes you crack a smile.) His most famous bits involve reading newspapers, and talking to random stupid people. Conan's most famous bit just might be the Masturbating Bear. Or maybe the delightfully nonsensical look at the future, "In the Year 2000" (tragically dumbed down to 3000 for the Tonight crowd). Even the house band bears no comparison. Has no one pointed out to Kevin Eubanks that his painfully fake laughter only highlights how devoid of mirth Jay's jokes are? Frankly, he doesn't even look like he likes Jay. He, like the viewer, is just putting in time before he goes to bed every night. Max Weinberg, meanwhile, along with being a famous musician in his own right, can hold his own in the comedy department. La Bamba is a hilarious one-man festival of the bizarre.
Yet Conan undeniably lost this battle.
The problem is that there is a very real silent majority that just doesn't get it. Baby Boomers. They're your parents, and they, not Jay or NBC, are the real villains here. Because they're getting old, and they like the comfort of the familiar. (Some aren't even that old, and some might be funny people in their own right--but they're not part of the Conan generation. And among those for whom actual laughter is an important part of a comedy show, well, they were watching Letterman all along.) Here, "I'm with Coco" and #teamconan are meaningless noise. They are useless preaching to the converted, because the old heathens aren't on the facebooks and all they know about tweets is that CNN thinks they're somehow important.
The Boomers' appreciation of comedy has grown stale, and they're not receptive to any message which might set them straight, 'cause ultimately they don't really care. The world revolves around them. They have the big money. They're the ones buying Cialis and cruise vacations, so they're the ones at whom all the expensive ads are aimed. But they can't get their heads around Conan O'Brien's inherent weirdness, because his jokes aren't lazy and obvious like Leno's, so the ads for mutual fund companies and Cadillacs aren't being seen by enough eyes to warrant the spending. Ratings drop, then ad revenue drops, and then a funny guy loses the job he clearly dreamed of having his whole life.
Sure, NBC probably wishes it could let creative people do funny things all night, but when the money only flows from the mediocrity, what are they to do? The peacock network is a massive corporation, owned by an even more massive corporation that needs to see results, or somewhere down the line people will lose their jobs. There's no time to slowly nurture the network's flagship show back into healthy numbers, as it deserves. Unbearably, but reliably, Leno puts old-person-asses in seats. The man can sell a GE lightbulb. And sometimes to keep your 30 Rocks afloat, you have to suck it up and make a Biggest Loser.
Certainly, NBC and Leno are not devoid of blame. Far from it. Seven months was obviously not enough time for Conan to get into the groove of a show that he could probably have hosted for over a decade. Further, leading in to the news with the dreadful Jay Leno Show was rightfully complained-about by NBC affiliates across the country, and was a solid way to make sure that everybody wandered away at 10:00 to do the dishes and play Scrabble. But it's not like everybody was watching ER back in the old days. The news was still on at 11:00, and the Tonight Show followed. Conan had that format to work with, but the Boomers and their wallets just weren't there any more. Ultimately, your parents' failure to recognize comedic brilliance is to blame for the imminent return of Jay Leno to Tonight.
In some ways, Conan will be better off. Likely finding a new home on Fox in September, expectations will be more in line with his comedic sensibilities. But the viewership numbers still won't be stratospheric, and, as Conan has sadly pointed out throughout the week, he won't be part of one of the most respected institutions in television history. He'll be a sad footnote in that institution's story.
EDIT, 15 April 2010 | More proof that Conan was lost on his own generation: try explaining to your dad why Conan-as-Dick-Van-Dyke-as-Thom-Yorke is funny and cool.