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Late night wars: medieval edition

Watershed Down

Once upon a time, a noble flame-haired comedian was groomed and promoted to take over the kingdom of The Tonight Show. But a dragon older than time itself ruled The Tonight Show. And this dragon blew so much hot air at network executives that they felt no choice but to give him a new show to prevent him from jumping to another channel. And even though the two comedians had agreed on no take backs, by March of 2010, Jay Leno was back in his original throne, for he was a master of the game of thrones. Following this desolation, Conan was exiled to the realm of basic cable, to the kingdom of Tee-bee-ess where he continues to do well for himself, raising his own dragons in secret until one day, when they will be old enough to exact his revenge.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, a new knight is being primed to enter the holy land of The Tonight Show. And, unlike a game of chess, there’s a pretty good chance that this knight is not going to get sacrificed this time out.

Enter Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy Fallon is simply a great host. If you haven’t seen Jimmy since his frequent laughing fits on Saturday Night Live, then you’ve missed out on the development of a worthy successor to the legacy of Johnny Carson. As seen on Late Night, Fallon understands the under-30 crowd and has enough impressions of aging folk stars to keep the oldest television viewers entertained. Fallon likes making references to common cultural touchstones of the ‘80s and ‘90s, like Thundercats and video games and Reading Rainbow.

When Jay Leno talks about reading rainbows, he normally refers to how he used to use the sky to communicate because pictograms hadn’t been invented yet. And Fallon has cultivated a set of recurring sketches and formats that can be successfully moved back an hour, unlike some of Conan’s more post-bedtime characters.

Best of all, Fallon will be returning The Tonight Show to its birthplace, New York City. And this means that his house band, The Roots, will probably be staying with him as well. Who would have thought that hiring an actual band to be the house band would turn a cliché into an integral part of the comedy?

At this point, Leno’s shtick is just old. When Internet commentators cite Saturday Night Live as the most tired part of NBC’s late night programming, it is hard to believe that they are overlooking Leno, who hasn’t tried anything new since the Clinton administration.
Admittedly, I am not part of Leno’s target audience because I am under 50 and can read newspaper headlines for myself. But tried-and-true formats like “Jaywalking” – where Jay asks stupid questions to young people who can’t remember how many states there are or who the president is— aren’t shocking anymore because we all know that stupidity is a national epidemic. At any time on basic cable, characters like Chumlee and Snooki are making brands from their cultural ignorance.

One proposed reason for Fallon’s upgrade relates to Jimmy Kimmel Live, which was recently moved up to start at the same time as The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman. Like Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel is putting out a consistently entertaining show that is a lot more hip than whatever plastic thing is in Leno’s coxa.

Moving Fallon up now would prevent ABC and Kimmel from monopolizing the younger viewers that networks need to drive strong advertising sales. Both Fallon and Kimmel will be able to exist side-by-side. And until Letterman decides to throw in his towel sometime in the next 10 years we’ll be left with an impeccably strong lineup of competing comics.

Jimmy Fallon may be taking over The Tonight Show as early as next fall. So let’s all celebrate the start of a new late night dynasty, one that lacks the animosity and bitterness that has tainted Leno’s return to the desk. And let’s pray that this time somebody remembers to Leno-proof the studio so he can’t take it back. Remember that Leno has collected an airplane hangar’s worth of sports cars to drive around in his long-overdue retirement. It will be hard to feel sorry for Jay. At least until Conan’s dragons go torch his place.

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