Late night television and other bed time stories


I go on vacation for a week and NBC starts making decisions without my approval.

Conan O’’Brien is the wrong choice as a successor to Jay Leno on the Tonight Show. 

O’Brien is a good comic.  But he lacks the single most important quality required for the Tonight Show post: smoothness.  Johnny Carson wasn’’t very smart, very gifted or even very funny.  But he was the picture of self possession.  David Letterman by some appearances is smart, gifted and funny but what establishes his position as a late night host and a fixture of contemporary culture is his aplomb. 

Why does self possession count for so much on late night TV?  It’s because whatever else happens on a show, we want to know we have put the last moments of the day in the hands of a man who is in control of things.  Jokes, be damned.  Late night television is the adult equivalent of a bed time story.  It is designed to make the world seem ok.  It is designed to assure us that we depart this world for the little death called sleep with our soul or at least the world in order. 

O’’Brien is quirky and it’s a physical quirkiness—he looks as if he wants to crawl out of his skin.  He growls, he mugs, he twitches.  It’’s shtick, to be sure, but it is an unsettled performance and not at all self possessed.  O’’Brien is not quite as bad as, say, the late Sam Kinison screaming us to sleep.  But he’s not much better. 

So O’’Brien is wrong.  Apparently, NBC executives are thrilled that the average age of O’’Brien’s viewers is a full decade younger than Leno’s.  No doubt they think they have made the hip and edgy choice.  But edgy is unsettling, and unsettling does not work on late night TV. 

Now, it’s possible that O’’Brien intends to transform himself for the job as thoroughly as Leno did.  This was one of the great acts of compromise of pop culture.  Leno was one of the really funny comics to come up in a newly competitive era of comedy.  To take the Tonight Show post, he dumbed himself down. 

More to the point, he smoothed himself out.  Remember his early performances on the Tonight Show stage: elbows pumping, head bobbing, he was a snickering, ingratiating mess.  Not any more.  Now his performance is as smooth as the jokes are predictable.  Ah, the warm bath of bad comedy.  Nothing difficult here.  "Now I lay me down to sleep.”

O’’Brien can dumb down the jokes, but can he smooth out the performance?  Can he master the "palaver”" effect: that air of self congratulation that says, "I think so well of myself, I don’’t care how bad this joke is, or what you think of me for telling it”?"  I don’’t think so.  O’Brien doesn’t’ start till 2009, but I predict he will be gone by 2010. 


I am not sure whether friends of "This blog sits at" will recognize "Now I lay me down to sleep."  In 1950s Canada, they sent us to bed with a little prayer:

"Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
And if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

10 thoughts on “Late night television and other bed time stories

  1. Brian Hawkins

    Don’t you think the formula for successful late night TV changes with the generations that watch it? I’ll admit I haven’t seen much of the really old Tonight Show to back up this assertion, but I’d imagine that Steve Allen’s typical viewer would find even the terminally boring Leno to be downright wacky.

    I’d like to think that most of the people my age (27) who prefer O’Brien to Leno aren’t going to settle down that much in a mere decade…

    But I suppose I’ll find out soon enough.

  2. Grant

    Brian, that’s certainly true, and I haven’t seen enough of Steve Allen’s to be sure of this, but my sense is that Allen’s show had a certain freshness and unpredictability to it. (Whether this was his preference or a simple artifact of the early days of TV, a world before formula, as it were, isn’t clear.) So it’s not clear whether the Late night format is getting more wacky or less.

    But it is odd that Late Night is so formulaic when so much of contemporary culture (certain music, certain films) is opening up. Can this merely be the compression caused by the ratings game? I am still tempted by the idea that it is formulaic because that’s what everyone wants as their bed time story. Thanks for a great comment! Grant

  3. Ennis Q. Public

    I wonder … one of the big late night shows for younger viewers is the Cartoon Channel’s adult swim, a hodgepodge of recycled anime. While this is soothing on some levels, it’s quite edgy on others. The cartoons are dark, and often a bit visually unsettling. Could it be that the late night show was best suited to the depression and baby boomers, and that kids who grew up with MTV want something snarkier and more frenetic?

  4. Grant

    Ennis, great point, as always, maybe the native children of the global village have something else in mind when it comes to bed time viewing. Thanks, Grant

  5. Steve Portigal

    So much of contemporary culture is opening up? But so much of it is shutting down. Movies are remakes or sequels – or the latest innovation, prequels. We all use “franchise” to describe the flim properties. Or maybe they are adaptations of 70s TV shows.

    As with anything, there is all sorts of great stuff out there if you seek it out, but the mainstream seems pretty sad.

    Of course, I have no objectivity about whether it was more sad before – things are always going to hell, aren’t they?

  6. Xofis

    Conan isn’t a big dog. We want the generals of social order on late night, party hosts and presidents and secret agents of a snarky sort, the Sean Connerys of the TV world. Conan ain’t it.

  7. Grant

    Steve: thanks for this comment, it gave me an idea for a post, forthcoming. This is a big question: are we contracted or expanding. I think we are doing both. But more later. Thanks, Grant

    Xofis: I like the phrase “generals of social order” very much. Thanks, Grant

    Amoeda, I need to catch up on the shows in question. What should I be watching. As to Conan, I don’t think he will mellow. I think the twitchiness is built in. And, yes, good point, what the hosts don’t supply in the way of tedium, the guests can be relied upon to supply. Thanks, Grant

    Harold: Thanks for the spell check. That’s interesting about Carson. I did not know that, to coin a phrase. Isn’t it odd how the fresh freezes into formulae. Thanks, Grant

  8. Steve

    Grant: People will recognize the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer from Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” which is, surely, a staple of your readers’ listening habits.

  9. jay

    well, i think grant hit the nail on the head with regards to the comfort and safety factor.
    late night talk is a means to have a potentially humorous guest, not requiring too much attention, talk world weary citizens to sleep each evening.
    as for conan, well, he’ll be five years older and he’s a father now.
    he is a smart fellow, after all, he wrote some classic simpson’s episodes.
    hopefully his transformation will be ‘natural’ and not forced.
    he won’t be able to keep it so ‘college-ish’ (clearly i couldn’t come up with a better word) and have it last in an earlier timeslot.

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