— The dust has settled on the Second Great Late-Night War, with Jay Leno once again emerging victorious, having rope-a-doped Conan O'Brien for seven months before snatching back what he seemed to consider rightfully his. We all know the story and are now left to consider the aftermath.
Jay's future is clear (Headlines! Jaywalking!), David Letterman remains a glorious curmudgeon and the Kimmel-Ferguson-Fallon triumvirate will keep fighting for Jay and Dave's scraps. That leaves us with the dethroned O'Brien, whose ousting from NBC mustered a parade of good will and gaudy ratings for his final handful of “Tonight Shows.” So what will O'Brien do now?
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As per NBC's termination agreement, O'Brien must remain in hibernation until Sept. 1, at which point he can return to television in any capacity he desires. The assumed destination is Fox, though various cable outlets have also expressed interest (TBS, HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central among them). However, anytime O'Brien's next potential home comes up, the discussion inevitably returns to Fox, and for good reason.
Fox has long hungered for a late-night star of its own. Though all attempts at launching such a franchise have failed (remember Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase?), Conan has a lot more going for him than others who have attempted the same feat at the network. While no official talks have taken place, Fox appears eager to land him, even if there are a number of stumbling blocks to consider.
With all this in mind, I must make a plea: Don't do it, Conan. Avoid Fox's lusty gaze.
A big risk
It's not that Conan wouldn't creatively thrive at Fox. I suspect he would. The problem with moving to Fox and taking Leno and Letterman head on is one of risk.
What are the chances Conan will succeed on Fox? It depends on what you mean by success. Even if Fox manages to correctly temper its ratings expectations and everything with the Fox affiliates ends up working out, there's still a chance that network boss Rupert Murdoch kills Conan's show within a few years. (Fox has a notoriously itchy trigger finger with its programming and, as we witnessed with the recent NBC debacle, even the best laid plans are susceptible to implosion.)
You can blame Conan's poor “Tonight Show” ratings on “The Jay Leno Show” and its trickle-down effect on the local news lead-ins all you want. It may have been the sole reason for Conan's underwhelming viewership, but we can't know for sure.
If we disregard his last two weeks at “The Tonight Show” desk, his ratings weren't good. It's entirely possible that he doesn't have the appeal to succeed at 11 or 11:30 p.m. Conan isn't for everyone. We know this. Even in his neutered state on “The Tonight Show,” where he clearly attempted to expand his appeal and toned down a number of his more absurd “Late Night” trademarks, Conan's humor didn't stick with the masses.
If we accept the possibility that he isn't fit for late-night hosting at the ratings bar set by Leno and Letterman, then Conan potentially joining Fox is an enormous risk. Much has been made of Conan riding the momentum of his last two weeks as “The Tonight Show” host to big ratings the moment he returns to television. This is nonsense. Our society is a fickle one. Seven months from now, Conan's momentum will have long been stricken from our cultural memory.
Old versus young
Now is not the right time for him to joust with late-night royalty. The repercussions of Conan failing at Fox would be significant. For O'Brien himself, it would most likely end his late-night hosting career. What network would hitch their wagon to Conan after washing out at both NBC and Fox? Even if he did land another hosting gig, crapping out at Fox would be a devastating blow to his legacy.
Furthermore, the success of Conan is tied to the comedy of the young. If the old guard is to cede the late-night power to the youth, Conan will need to prosper. There are no other worthy torchbearers. Jimmy Fallon? Maybe in 10 years. Craig Ferguson? This is 'Merica, damn it. We will not entrust our comic future to a Scot. Jimmy Kimmel? As young and hip as he wants to appear, his show is cut from the old-school cloth, his humor populist, his appeal unappetizingly broad.
We're talking humor for the Internet age, humor the kids appreciate. During his years at “Late Night,” Conan cultivated a style entirely his own. There was no premise too insane, no character too offensive. The idea was that when Conan took over “The Tonight Show,” he would usher in a new kind of late-night comedy, one that your parents might not appreciate but one that would represent the changing of the guard.
NBC's inability to think long-term and need to please their affiliates torpedoed the symbolic Jay-Conan transition. Thankfully, Conan has another chance to make it happen, to turn the late-night paradigm on its side. But Fox is not the venue he should choose.
Conan should sign on with HBO, Showtime or Comedy Central, a place that will give him total creative freedom, a place where ratings won't be as big of an issue. As we witnessed in Conan's lame-duck weeks at “The Tonight Show,” Conan unleashed is Conan at his best.
Sure, a cable show won't give him as big of a budget as a network would, and he wouldn't be able to retain his entire “Tonight Show” staff. He might have to say goodbye to his band. So be it. Hey, maybe Conan does a few years on cable, builds his loyal audience back up and eventually takes over for Letterman when Dave tires of hosting “The Late Show.” At the very least, moving to cable keeps his options open, it's less risky and it will help cement Conan's legacy.
The comedian is a sacred profession, and the Late Night Host is an important species in the Comedian phylum, a warming presence, one we count on night after night. Like all species, if the Late Night Host doesn't evolve, it will eventually die off. Conan is the next step, the evolutionary Letterman. If Conan moves to Fox, extinction becomes a possibility, and I don't think anyone wants that.