I've just read Conan O'Brien's letter to the People of Earth about the Tonight Show mess, and I think he has a point. The implication of his letter is that there is only one Tonight Show, and NBC should just decide who will host it. That sounds right.
Hopefully, Conan's hard-hitting letter will bring NBC to its senses, and the network will make the difficult but obviously correct decision about who is most qualified to host the Tonight Show, and give the job to Tina Fey.
But unless that happens, nothing about this controversy will make any sense to me.
First, there is the matter of what, exactly, is at stake. You might think Conan and Leno are fighting over the right to host the late-night talk show known as The Tonight Show.
But there are so many late-night talk shows, all of them with the same format, and only slight variations on the same name, and none of them starring Johnny Carson, that it's hard to tell what makes the Tonight Show the Tonight Show anymore. From what I can tell, the two things that make The Tonight Show The Tonight Show are that it is called The Tonight Show (well, that seems obvious) and that it airs at 11:30 eastern time on NBC.
This theory fits with what NBC has done, which is take the only two essential qualities of The Tonight Show and split them, giving one to each of the show's two potential hosts, thereby destroying whatever was actually left of The Tonight Show, and, as Letterman said, making The Tonight Show The Tomorrow Show, which was a real show, actually, hosted by Tom Snyder.
All of which leaves us with a show called The Tonight Show, which airs at midnight, and therefore cannot be The Tonight Show, and another show, in the time slot of The Tonight Show, with The Tonight Show's format, and even its former host, but that is not called the Tonight Show, and therefore ALSO cannot be The Tonight Show.
You can see how confusing all of this is, and how, the more you think about it, the harder it becomes to care too much about it.
Why not let them both call their show The Tonight Show? Who says there can be only one Tonight Show? If you can have more than one Tonight Show in a week, why can't you have more than one in a night?
I mean, let's say NBC airs The Tonight Show with Jay Leno at 10:30, and, at 11:35 The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. Is anyone really going to notice? Or even care?
I suspect Conan and Leno are really fighting over the 11:30 time slot. But that is even more confusing, because it suggests that any late-night talk show, no matter how good, can only get a decent audience in that one hour. Which means that viewers won't make time to watch their favorite talk show, they will just tune into the best talk show that happens to air at 11:30.
In other words, there's a one-hour window in our biological clocks, from 11:30 to 12:30 at night, when our body wants a talk show. Move our favorite show from that one hour, and we won't watch it. It isn't television that's programmed, it's us! Television programming is only accommodating itself to our schedule.
This whole Leno / Conan thing gets creepy and strange when you dive into it.
Think about the implications: at 11 pm our bodies must crave bad local news. In the mid-morning and mid-afternoon, what we want most is dramatic shows on cheap sets with broken families fighting over nonsense. At 8pm, we crave structured narrative, preferably a show in which a group of friends gather in an office or a coffee shop. At least once a week, we have to have a cop show.
I'm willing to bet, though, that there is no time of the day when our bodies actually want reality television. I'm pretty sure of that.
One last thing I don't understand: Conan said in his letter that since 2004 he has spent "literally hundreds of hours" thinking of ways to extend The Tonight Show's legacy. Um, hundreds of hours? Since 2004? That has to be a mistake. "Hundreds" of hours in five years works out to maybe 100 hours a year, which is, like, two hours a week. It has to have been more than that. I think Conan meant "countless hours," which literally means we don't know how many, but that it was a LOT.
Conan, if you're reading this, at your press conference it's "countless." Countless hours devoted to the Tonight Show. Countless.