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The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic blogs at TVWeek.com with wit, humor and strong opinion.

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Tom Shales



A Modest Proposal: NBC Should Put Leno in Prime Time

July 25, 2008 10:49 AM

Jay Leno has arguably never been funnier—but why argue about it? As the date approaches (albeit slowly) for his exit from NBC’s “Tonight Show,” Leno is reveling in the role of Peck’s Bad Boy, tweaking NBC executives in jokes and asides, as when during a “Headlines” segment he displayed had a typo that had him appearing on ABC—and jokingly called it “a headline from the future.”

Here is a plan by which NBC could hold on to Leno and still give Conan O’Brien the 11:35 spot he has been promised in 2009: Strip “Leno” Mondays through Fridays at 10 p.m., calling it “The Jay Leno Hour” or something other than “The Tonight Show” and preserving the format pretty much as it is now—the most important ingredient being Leno’s rock ’n’ rollick monologue, which appears to be the only part of the show he really cares about anyway. That is by far its best element.

NBC could move its few successful 10 o’clock shows to 9 o’clock, already having given the 8 o’clock hour over to game and reality shows—i.e., junk, if sometimes amusing junk. Putting Leno and his topical monologue in prime time would give it a potentially larger audience than any “Tonight Show” host has ever had, a great showcase, really, for a master monologist.

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be ironic if CBS decided to make Leno an offer for an 11:30 show on the grounds that Dave Letterman’s ratings stink a little more each year, and Letterman himself appears less and less interested in doing the show, and CBS honcho Les Moonves hates him anyway?

Letterman’s heart does not appear to be in his work, and the show is suffering from advanced torpor. Rumors have it that Letterman no longer bothers to drop by for rehearsals. His monologue is only three or four jokes long, perfunctorily read off cue cards. Then he sits lazily at a desk and introduces pretaped segments like “Great Presidential Speeches,” reading the intros off cue cards.

The show revolves around him, but he never seems very involved in it.

ABC reports that “Nightline,” even without the vaunted Ted Koppel, has been clobbering Letterman in the ratings this summer, both in the 25-54 demographic (admittedly not Letterman’s target audience) and in total viewers. For the record, Leno has slipped somewhat, too. It could be there are just too many late-night jokesters. And “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” get the jump on them with their scheduling on Comedy Central.

Potential solution: Give Leno the last hour of prime time each night Monday through Friday on NBC and see what happens. Costs would be lower than for a filmed, scripted, prime-time show and the profit margin way higher. And it might even make Leno happy, though, like all these late-night prima donnas, he exists largely to complain. Then again, so do critics (ahem).

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Comments (13)

Personally I fail to see the wisdom or insight in this proposal. Ever since Johnny Carson left, the show has become more and more irrelevant; due primarily to Jay Leno's incessant habit of repeating punch lines two or three times...
almost as if he really didn't think the audnence got it the first time. By the way I don't Conan Obrien as any 'improvement' either. Surely there must be some local station "host" somewhere who could bring back the camera-loving spontaniety of a Carson, or even a Steve Allen. Come on, NBC, you can do better; in fact your future is riding on this.

eric:

this country would never tune in to a genius like steve allen or even dick cavett in large enough 'network' numbers to make it possible. leno in primetime wont happen because it would be too expensive for NBCGE. nbc made their pitch which offered leno the 'top gear' program and a prime-time 'show'. leno will go to abc. nightline will go to cnn as a coproduction, conan and jimmy fallon will bring a younger demo to nbc latenight and letterman will be gone in 2010 when his deal is up and replaced by jon stewart. that just leaves fox who will be getting back into latenight in 2010 also.

Like I told Marianne on another section, perhaps they should give Leno the 7 PM slot, between the Nightly News and the primetime slot. Yes, I know the network already has alotted that to local affiliates, but I think they could return the fourth hour of Today to them (honestly, the Today show is two hours too long in the first place).

It'd be live, it would be first with the punchlines from the news of the day, and it'll help boost the audience of primetime as a valuable lead-in. And isn't that the most important thing in the end, keeping ad-men happy?

Otherwise, NBC could have put him on, say, USA or give him a syndicated late-night series. Or Leno could have just refused to quit when they even suggested that to him. He had a choice.

OK, sports fans, here's the real poop.

Leno leaves NBC next May and does assorted specials for another network, (broadcast or cable).

Conan goes into the 11:35 slot and lays a big stink'in egg and is cancelled within a year, paid off and gone.

Letterman finishes his two years and thru World Wide Pants produces new, very exciting different fair.

One of the less acidic cable hosts takes over for the Peacock at 11:35 and surprises everyone with a really terrific relevance and following.

Kimmel stays where he is and does well...Nightline prevails too.

CBS finally rids itself of the Moonves ego and his minimally talented wife.

Ferguson remains at 12:35 and does well, CBS at 11:35 after Letterman leaves....TBA.

That's the real poop. I'm Peter Bright and I'm stick'in to it.

>> ABC reports that “Nightline,” even without the vaunted Ted Koppel, has been clobbering Letterman in the ratings this summer, both in the 25-54 demographic (admittedly not Letterman’s target audience) and in total viewers

Good Lord - what's his target demographic - over 54?

Chris:

Wow. I guess some people, even celebrated TV critics who should know the difference between good TV and otherwise, will never get David Letterman. To watch Letterman now, more than ever before, is to be sucked in to an ultra-evocative, blissfully idiosyncratic worldview of a singularly talented TV legend. But I'm not even vexed that you don't now "get" (and perhaps never got) Letterman. To each his own.

No...what's truly disturbing about your piece is the praise you heap upon the totally inane and shockingly unfunny Leno monologue. Really...what are you watching that generates laughs in that monologue?

Mike S:

I've been waiting for years for one of the big networks to hand over the 10 PM hour to a talk show, if only to level the playing field with Fox.
If NBC can talk Leno into it, this is a golden opportunity for them. Will his ego allow it, or does he need to prove that he's still viable at 11:30? I don't care for his show - I think Letterman and Carson are/were far better at the job, but that's beside the point. He certainly remains popular.

David Carroll:

Thanks Tom...you echoed my thoughts from a guest column in TV Week in July of 2007.

http://www.tvweek.com/news/2007/07/guest_commentary_late_shift_co.php

Greg.:

Lately, Dave seems to be more engaged with news and political figures, maybe he could be a 60 minutes correspondent. Kill two birds (safer and rooney) with one stone.

Peter Bright is a prescient guy. He knows.

Well, it's not like I know him or anything, just what he writes.

I don't know about a nightly hour, but certainly a Sunday big event show with Leno as a host would be a draw.

If I were ABC, I'd give him the 8:00 Sunday hour for a big variety, interview show with comic elements including, possibly, a weekly "at home with Jay" comic element.

But certainly, Jimmy won't be too upset moving back to 12:30 if Nightline goes and Jay slides into their schedule.

Kenton:

Just because a show gets higher ratings doesn't make it better than the competition. The quote from famous PR Leone Baxter comes to mind: "Americans like corn more than caviar."

Leno was once a really great stand-up comic, but his monologue on the Tonight Show is not, and has never been, funny. If you disagree, it just means that you haven't yet developed a taste for caviar.

Letterman on Late Night is classic TV; some of the best comedy, late night or other, ever. Letterman on the Late Show may not be as great, but he's better than everything else on at that hour, including the new (and not improved) Nightline.

Recent examples include:

- Letterman's wildly entertaining deconstruction of Shannon Ice and her "new summer toys" segment. On other shows, this segment would be a mindless plug for "stuff to buy your kids." In Letterman's hands, it's "found" performance art at its finest.

- another of Letterman's classic interviews with Richard Simmons, fresh from his testimony before Congress. Letterman egged on Simmons by suggesting that humans are supposed to weigh 600 pounds; Simmons expressed his desire to see "Mamma Mia" with Letterman.

- Letterman's remembrance of Hiram Bullock, the original guitarist on Late Night, who recently died of throat cancer.

- Letterman's sweet interview with Teri Garr, who continues to be upbeat and funny, and the perfect Letterman foil, even while suffering the ravages of MS and a recent stroke.

- Letterman's serious-minded interview with Neil Young, promoting the controversial documentary about the "Living with War" tour. I always thought that Letterman would make a great Sunday morning news host after he got sick of the Late Show, and this proves it.

- his annihilation of Spencer Pratt, the talentless and pretentious star of "the Hills." Hey, even Paul jumped in on the fun!

- great comedy segments, like Lyle the Intern (is that a James Spader impression that guy is doing?); Francis Albert Lincoln, Johnny Twain, and Andy Kindler remotes (the one where Andy falls off a pogo stick and does serious damage to his back is particularly memorable).

Leno may do better in the ratings, but let's just remember: Blink 182 has sold more albums than the Ramones, but no one can tell me that they're actually better. So there!

Clark:

I know I'm in the minority in our celebrity obbessed culture, but I would like to see a half hour Leno show that is mostly monologue and skit, maybe one guest. His weakest part is the interaction with the guests anyways, just get rid of it or limit it to a movie preview.

Nate Gordon:

Wow--Tom--I am writing this on Monday night, December 8--You, sir, know your business.

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