What just happened with Leno and Conan?

Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien

Not four months after bringing five hours of The Jay Leno Show to its weekly schedule—thus embracing a short-sighted, cost-cutting, affiliate-angering, producer-enraging strategy that sped the network’s decline —NBC is cutting its losses and pulling the program out of prime time. The writing was on the wall last week with the news that NBC would produce a remarkable 18 pilot episodes to consider for its 2010-11 lineup. Will a remake of The Rockford Files save the network? Not in itself, no—but unlike low-rated Leno, it should have a decent chance to outperform reruns of CSI: Miami.

It is rare for NBC to acknowledge such failures as The Jay Leno Show, possibly because, under the management of the widely despised Jeff Zucker, the network’s failures are so legion that to acknowledge them all would leave no time to embark on more. The new approach must have something to do with Comcast’s recent deal to purchase majority ownership of the last-place network. But I’d prefer to think that it represents a final repudiation of Ben Silverman, a Zucker underling who departed NBC after a two-year tenure “during which he accomplished little more than securing a guest shot on Entourage and serving as a chew toy for entertainment-industry blogzilla Nikki Finke.”

This story is moving quickly, but at this writing, the most persuasive reporting has it that NBC wants to truncate The Jay Leno Show to a half-hour of mediocrity airing at 11:35 p.m. Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show—a ratings disappointment, partly because Leno was a lousy lead-in, partly because Conan’s Harvard-sophomore horseplay is a coterie item, partly because Stephen Colbert (on at 11:30) has built a rapport with 1.2 million people—Tonight would shift to 12:05. If, that is, O’Brien doesn’t bolt to another network. TMZ says he’s “pissed“—and also, obliquely, makes the suggestion that he could take his act to FX. Intriguing. Going to a racy cable channel would allow Conan to resume (and to expand on) his weirder and wickeder bits. Paging Vomiting Kermit.

No matter how it all shakes out, these events have already changed the history of television comedy forever: Last night, amazingly and without precedent, Jay Leno’s monologue was funny. He was exultant, energized, and borderline hostile. With the whole matter seeming uncertain at taping time, Leno riffed on the possibility that he himself would be leaving NBC, tearing through a half dozen well-built jokes. “Hey, Kev,” he asked his bandleader. “What does NBC stand for? Never Believe your Contract.” He was almost Dangerfieldish when noting that the Comcast deal is subject to an “antitrust review—which is the relationship I have with NBC.” But then he reverted to boring form when sitting down with Denzel Washington, who carried the interview by way of practiced charm and responded handsomely to a query about whether, with the kids grown and out of the house, his wife dressed up like a pirate wench for sex. Denzel was plugging The Book of Eli, which opens next week *  and looks like The Road as reimagined by Michael Bay. Which might be an improvement, come to think of it.

Meanwhile, a wan Conan looked just a bit like a Beckett character during last night’s monologue. The show can’t go on; the show must go on. The writing was even flatter than the performance. About inclement weather in China, Conan said that the snow was so heavy that “most children couldn’t get to work”—a line clearly less sharp than Leno’s identically structured joke on the same topic, which specified “six-year-olds” and “factory jobs.” Conan didn’t breathe a word about NBC. An Arab proverb: “Silence is medication for sorrow.”

Correction, Jan. 11, 2010: This article originally stated the wrong release date for The Book of Eli. (Return to the corrected sentence.)