Tonight, the National Broadcasting Company will air the last "Tonight Show." Hereafter, the replacement show will fall back into the vortex created by a corporation that seems to know nothing about comedy but everything about irony. To be clear, the title of the show appearing at 11:35 PM, 10:35 PM Mountain, will be "The Tonight Show," but make no mistake: It will be The Jay Leno Show.
It was never the Steve Allen Show. Or The Jack Parr Show. Even Johnny Carson was happy, perhaps even relieved, to have his name after "with your host." As Conan O'Brien has suggested, "The Tonight Show" is a broadcasting institution, the third longest-running entertainment program in U.S. television history, after "Guiding Light" and "Hallmark Hall of Fame." In the legacy of hosts of the "Tonight Show," even Ernie Kovacs was given a year of Monday and Thursday nights to get his act together. NBC wanted Steve Allen to get busy on a Sunday evening show that would compete with the Ed Sullivan Show. For six months, they even scrapped the variety show aspect of the show and turned into a late night "Today Show" clone, featuring news and features for those who couldn't get enough of that kind of thing at seven in the morning.
As much as I would love to blame Jay Leno for this debacle, the onus is squarely on the back of "the pinheads at GE," as former NBC employee David Letterman once referred to them. Would they have been better off if they had never rushed Jay to the door in the first place? Maybe. Could Conan have found his way and forged a new, younger audience for the ever-aging demographic that Jay delivers? Leno's first few months behind the "Tonight Show" desk were so tenuous that there was a plan in the works to stage a coup and bring Letterman back to the fold. Seven months to become a fixture on late-night TV? It seems more than a little daunting. Is it worth forty-five million dollars to get Conan off the air? In the end, it won't matter, since the right thing to do was never on the table. It was always the NBC way. No Body Cares.
Farewell, Coco, and godspeed.