The most damning number connected to Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show isn’t the ratings—which, at last check, trailed both Letterman and Nightline—but rather this number: one. That’s the amount, by my count, of comedy bits from Conan’s three-month gig that have really gone viral on the web. His invitation to William Shatner to give a dramatic reading of Sarah Palin’s farewell speech was inspired comedy and, even better, it was potent blog-nip, the kind of thing everyone linked to, and watched, and forwarded, the next day. (Okay, there was also that clip in which Conan blasted wax statues of Tom Cruise and the Fonz out of cannons. Not exactly Dick in a Box Part 2, but we applaud the effort.) Question: Did you see that Shatner-reads-Palin bit? And if you did, did you watch it the night it aired, tucked in cozily to your bed? Or did you watch it online later, maybe at work?
It may well be that you’re one of those nostalgic holdouts who still settles in on the sofa with hot cocoa and waits for the horn-blast of The Tonight Show theme to kick in. But I’m going to guess that, at some point this year, you watched at least a few bits from Letterman or Conan or Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Kimmel Live! (remember 2008’s “I’m Fucking Matt Damon”?) on a computer screen somewhere. The late-night shows remain big business by delivering valuable viewers in a time slot that offers little competition (save for other late-night shows). This exact economic principle is what keeps Saturday Night Live profitable. But what keeps SNL relevant are all the YouTube-friendly mini-clips it generates. Late-night shows are especially vulnerable to the new habits of younger viewers, who don’t watch TV, let alone stay up late (or stay home) to watch it. But by dint of its Palin impressions and Samberg digital shorts, SNL is now well built to bounce around on the Internet for weeks. As for the talk shows—especially those in a self-consciously classic mode, such as Conan’s Tonight Show and, presumably, the upcoming Jay Leno show—they’ve yet to fully embrace this reality. They need to, and fast.
The classic late-night formula aspired to a tone of irreverent gentility. The show should be funny, yes, and surprising (but not too surprising, unless you’re Letterman, circa 1986), but above all, the host had to be a welcome guest in your home as you drifted off to sleep. Of course, when it came to hitting this note, Carson had perfect pitch; he’d make you chuckle, then tuck you in for the night. But no one now is looking to be tucked in while at work or watching their iPhone on the subway—which is why it’s the most bracing bits of late-night shows (stand-alone sketches, awkward interviews, rousing takedowns) that have a robust half-life on the web.
Now let’s imagine The Jay Leno Show. One acknowledged goal of this new, five-times-a-week prime-time talk-variety program is to be “DVR-proof”: It’s appointment TV that can react quickly to the news of the day. Leno’s already hinted that, in addition to trusty old bits like his Jaywalking street interviews, his new show will feature stunts like having celebrities—say, Shaq and Cameron Diaz—race each other around a track. (I got less interested in this when I learned they’d be doing this in cars, not on foot or horseback.) But in formulating this show, Leno’s main pitch seems to be: It’s more of the Leno you love. Which is to say, more of Leno aping Carson. I’d argue that he should turn his eye, at least for a moment, to a different model: Jimmy Fallon, of all people.
Fallon’s Late Night has been a moderate ratings success, and after the requisite shaky first week, the flop sweat’s evaporated nicely. In its place, we have Fallon, who understands that his audience is both young (ergo, gags about beer pong) and just as likely to be watching his show sometime in the future minced up into digital bits. So he serves up gimmicky nuggets like Head Swap—a smart send-up of traditional late-night celebrity bits—and elaborate self-contained production numbers like his Tu-Spock rap video. Not all these bits are ringers, of course. But Fallon seems to understand that the modern role of the late-night host is to act more like the ringleader for a three-ring circus of modular gags and less like a master of ceremonies for the nation’s bedtime rituals.
SNL (Fallon’s prep school) lucked into its Internet-friendly format, and Letterman, who now wears his king-of-late-night irascibility like a perfectly tailored tuxedo, has evolved, as a by-product, into a kind of YouTube-friendly factory of clips (as with his brilliant Joaquin Phoenix interview). It’s a lesson Leno and Conan still have to learn. Carson was king, but he ruled another age. The late-night host can no longer act the part of the classic suave bachelor, the guy who smoothly seduces you, sweeps you into the sheets, then never once has to worry about keeping you entertained during daylight hours.