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Six Late-Night Talk Show Hosts: Winners and Losers

by Gary Susman, posted Dec 18th 2010 2:00PM
'I'm With Coco' PosterCountdown to Festivus on Dec. 23: On the sixth day of Festivus, TV gave us to ... six late-night talk show hosts battling.

Hard to remember, but at this time a year ago, David Letterman was facing one of the biggest crises of his career in the wake of his sex-and-blackmail scandal, Conan O'Brien was just settling into his job at 'The Tonight Show,' Jay Leno was tanking in primetime and Jimmy Fallon was still finding his voice as a late-late-night host.

The late night landscape has changed a bit since then.

It was clear a year ago that there was trouble on the horizon, but few (save, perhaps, for Andy Richter) anticipated the earthquake to come. Most of the cataclysm occurred in January, when NBC decided to bring Leno back to 11:35, and O'Brien decided to take a golden parachute after just seven months on the job rather than follow Leno at 12:05.

The aftershocks from that event, which continue to this day, affected not just the two of them, but also Letterman, Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Craig Ferguson. (Not to mention a supporting cast of millions, including network bigwigs, obstinate local stations, and angry fans nationwide.)

Miraculously, all six night owls are still working -- though maybe not for much longer. How did the rollercoaster year shake out for each of them? Let's see ...

Conan O'BrienConan O'Brien: Winner. Sure, the year started with the humiliation of him losing 'The Tonight Show,' the gig he'd been promised for five years, after just seven months on the job, only to be replaced by his predecessor. And it ended with the diminished prestige and pay of hosting a show on basic cable.

But Conan won the PR war. Despite his ratings woes at 'Tonight' and the fact that the decision to leave NBC was his, he was widely seen as the wronged party. And despite a gag order that forbade him from badmouthing NBC for several months, he still got to make his case on a successful barnstorming live tour of the country.

For a time this summer, his every Tweet seemed to make news. He was portrayed as the hero in 'The War for Late Night,' Bill Carter's book about the whole fiasco, which is likely to be the definitive history of the whole mess. He even managed not to look like a mini-Leno when his hiring pushed George Lopez' TBS show back an hour to start at midnight. Plus, O'Brien got a massive buyout from NBC ($45 million, including a generous severance for his entire staff, many of whom had moved from New York to Los Angeles for what turned out to be a far-from-permanent job.)

His new cable audience is no bigger than his network audience was, but expectations are lower, and so are the benchmarks for ratings success. Best of all, he's finally free from the content shackles that made him seem stiff while he was trying to placate the less edgy 'Tonight' audience. Now he can be his sharp, loose, goofball self -- new beard and all.

Jay LenoJay Leno: Loser. Like Conan, Jay tried to spin himself as the wronged man. Not without justification; after all, NBC had promised him a year-long tryout for the 10PM 'Jay Leno Show,' but it only gave him five months. He took heaps of abuse from TV critics and other comics and talk show hosts. He portrayed himself as he always had, a loyal soldier who didn't deserve scorn for making the best of what were poor decisions by NBC management.

Still, his eagerness to return to 11:35 and displace Conan (which he expressed well before anyone at the network asked him to do so) made him seem like a usurper. His refusal to bow out gracefully also made the 60-year-old look like an old journeyman unwilling to do the classy thing and cede the spotlight to an apprentice who'd earned his stripes.

When Leno returned to 'Tonight' in March, he didn't change his show one iota (which was why comedy aficionados had criticized him as being safe, tired and unadventurous, unlike the other five network late-night hosts, who were all more experimental). But the stench of his primetime failure stuck to him; by year's end, Leno's 'Tonight Show' was doing as poorly in the ratings as O'Brien's had been 12 months earlier.

He was also running more or less even with Letterman, whom he'd routinely beaten for 14 years. O'Brien left because he said it would destroy 'The Tonight Show,' a franchise with an illustrious 50-year history, if he had to start the show at 12:05, but Leno has managed to destroy it without changing a thing.

Back in Johnny Carson's day, 'Tonight' may have been NBC's biggest moneymaker. This year, for the first time, it's going to lose money. At some point, the costly comic is going to have to take some of the blame for that.

David LettermanDavid Letterman: Winner. Dave took perverse glee in NBC's troubles. It gave him a chance to poke merciless fun at his longtime nemesis Leno, and it pushed his own sex-and-blackmail imbroglio off the front pages. (Months later, by the time Letterman's extortionist pleaded guilty, the scandal that had threatened to derail Letterman's career had been all but forgotten.)

Plus, Letterman scored the casting coup of the decade when he got Leno and Oprah Winfrey to make a secret trip to New York to film a tongue-in-cheek ad for his 'Late Show' that aired during the Super Bowl. (And then, after Jay's hatchet-burying gesture, Letterman went right on making fun of him.)

None of this helped Letterman's ratings much, but by October, Leno's ratings had fallen so far that Dave was finally beating or tying him regularly for the first time in a decade and a half. His show isn't as innovative as it once was (indeed, it's pretty much settled into a comfortable rut), but Dave's cranky, skeptical persona helps it maintain some edge.

Besides, after nearly 29 years in late night, he's an unassailable institution and the model for all the other late-night hosts who have followed (except, of course, for Jay).

Jimmy FallonJimmy Fallon: Winner. A year ago, he was still a shaky newbie; today, he's the heir apparent to 'The Tonight Show.' He didn't take sides in the Jay-Conan battle; he seemed happy just to have a job.

Now that his job is secure, he seems to have found his footing. His 'Late Night' is now the freshest and most youthful of all the wee-hours talk shows, thanks to Fallon's willingness to experiment, his creation of some irreverent signature bits (playing beer pong with famous guests, writing snarky thank-you notes), and his ability to craft short sketches that play well as viral videos. More than any other host, he seems to grasp the power of social media to increase fan involvement in his show (he even keeps a Macbook laptop on his desk).

In the ratings, he's usually about even with timeslot rival Craig Ferguson, who was beating him handily a year ago. He scored a coup a few weeks ago by landing a full hour with Bruce Springsteen, who even did a comedy bit with him. It was nice payback for Fallon's triumphant gig as host of the Emmys, where he opened the show by leading an all-star group of TV personalities in a rousing, 'Glee'-style rendition of Bruce's 'Born to Run.'

Jimmy has joked that the one thing he's learned from Dave and Conan is that being host of 'Late Night' is a sure way not to get to host 'The Tonight Show,' but really, who else is NBC going to select? And that selection will come sooner with Leno hosting than it would have if the younger O'Brien were still on the job.

Craig FergusonCraig Ferguson: Loser. Craig started the year with a classy gesture, laying off the Jay-vs.-Conan jokes because the battle between two multimillionaires seemed so trivial in light of the recent Haitian earthquake.

Indeed, Craig may be the brainiest host in late-night, he writes novels and screenplays, he's capable of holding thoughtful discussions with literate guests (like Stephen Fry, whom he had on for a full hour) and he spins dazzling, seemingly stream-of-consciousness monologues that go on for 10 minutes or more, essentially writing nearly an hour's worth of new jokes each week.

Yet he's also the silliest host, never too proud to do bathroom humor and happy to experiment with seemingly juvenile gambits (the all-puppet show, the robot-skeleton sidekick, the opening song-and-dance numbers, the 'Doctor Who' tribute episode). 'The Late Late Show' is becoming the most innovative children's show that's on too late for actual children to watch.

Ferguson may have felt comfortable trying these shenanigans because he had a solid ratings lead over Jimmy Fallon, but now, they tend to tie. Still, Craig did enjoy some milestones in 2010: he had a big part in the hit cartoon feature 'How to Train Your Dragon,' and he got to host the Discovery Channel's Shark Week.

Jimmy KimmelJimmy Kimmel: Winner. Kimmel used to be that smirky guy ABC had inexplicably imported from Comedy Central's crass 'The Man Show.' He was the whoopie cushion following the sober gravity of 'Nightline.'

Now, however, he's the sharpest, most fearless of the late-night hosts. He was harsher even than Letterman in his lampooning of Jay Leno, first doing an entire show in character as a squeaky-voiced Leno (complete with prosthetic chin), then appearing on 'The Jay Leno Show' and criticizing the host to his face. Kimmel managed to keep smiling the whole time, as he does on his own show when challenging his interview guests (as Letterman used to do).

For all his attitude, however, he's still clearly a fan, which is why it doesn't seem like he's shilling when he goes out of his way to help ABC promote its other shows, as with his post-Oscar special, his 'Lost' series finale special and his post-show debriefings of whoever just got booted off 'Dancing With the Stars.'

ABC can count on him even in extreme situations, like the show he did this year during a power outage, an episode the resourceful Kimmel filmed with his webcam. For all intents and purposes, Kimmel has become the solid, reliable face of ABC.

The great late-night wars of 2010 inflicted a lot of collateral damage. Here's how some other major players came out of it:

Jeff Zucker. The NBC chief helped create this debacle with dubious decisions, starting with the one he made in 2004 when, out of fear that O'Brien would defect, Zucker strongarmed Leno into agreeing to retire in five years. When that time came, it was the still-popular Leno whom Zucker didn't want to lose, so he moved Leno to 10PM and eliminated five hours of costly drama programming, alienating NBC's local affiliates and every TV drama scriptwriter in Hollywood. When that failed, he backed the decision to move Leno back to 11:35, with the 'Tonight' show to follow ... which led to O'Brien doing what Zucker feared he'd do six years ago -- quit. Twelve months ago, as Zucker was pushing O'Brien out of his job, he was in line for a three-year contract extension. Who'd have guessed that, after this public relations disaster for the network, it's O'Brien who still has a job (albeit elsewhere) and Zucker who's unemployed?

Lorne Michaels. O'Brien was Michaels' protégé, but the 'Late Night' producer sat out the battle between Conan and Jay. So he remained untarnished and emerged a kingmaker, since his current host, Fallon, is now next in line to inherit 'Tonight.'

TBS. Once the place for reruns of 'The Office' and 'Sex and the City,' now a major player in late-night, with both O'Brien and George Lopez.

Fox. The network could have become a late-night player (after a quarter-century of stalled attempts) if it had scooped up O'Brien after he left NBC. But local Fox affiliates didn't want to lose lucrative sitcom reruns at 11PM. So maybe Fox missed out -- or maybe it dodged a bullet by staying clear of this whole mess.

10PM dramas. A year ago, 'The Jay Leno Show' was thought to spell the death knell for scripted, grown-up dramas. And the show's quick demise could have led NBC to find cheap, quick replacements like reality shows or extra episodes of 'Dateline.' Instead, to the network's credit, it returned to such dramatic fare as 'Parenthood,' 'Chase,' Law & Order: Los Angeles,' and 'Outlaw.' They didn't all work, but at least NBC (along with CBS and ABC) now seems committed to 10PM dramas.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Having made basic cable safe for late-night comedy years ago, the Comedy Central hosts took on bigger challenges and gained greater stature. Their Washington, D.C. rally making fun of Glenn Beck started out as a lark and evolved into a genuine political event. Suddenly, Stewart was seen as a power broker, reminding us all that, whatever else late-night comedy is, it's always been about defining political consensus by letting us know which issues and powerful personalities deserve mockery. 'The Daily Show' host also reminded us that, whatever the stakes of late-night once were (money, for the most part), they are changing in ways we may not recognize even a year from now.

•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.

Yesterday on Festivus: 7 Reasons the 'Lost' Finale Was Satisfying/Disappointing
Tomorrow on Festivus: 5 Shows for the Bad Economy

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Tanya Peters-Wycoff

Gary maybe you shouldn't stay up so late, because you can't pick talk show host. Ferguson is funny!!!

October 06 2012 at 10:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As far as i'm concerned Ferguson is the ONLY winner on this list.

January 04 2011 at 12:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I suffer from insomnia caused by chronic IBS and I catch his show at least once a week. It may be the only program right now I actually laugh at! And I have a pretty sophisticated sense of humor. James Wolcott, highbrow Vanity Fair blogger, is a big fan of Fergusons as well-he alluded to Secretariat in his review of the Joffrey Ballet's Nutcracker.

December 23 2010 at 7:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Craig Ferguson is the best of the bunch of your late night hosts but you also failed to mention Lopez Tonight which has become the Arsenio Hall of a new generation. He is the freshest late night talk show host and he and Craig Ferguson are the only ones I watch, thanks to DVR I can watch both.

December 22 2010 at 9:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So Fallon is a winner "...thanks to Fallon's willingness to experiment, his creation of some irreverent signature bits (playing beer pong with famous guests, writing snarky thank-you notes)."

But Ferguson is a loser "happy to experiment with seemingly juvenile gambits (the all-puppet show, the robot-skeleton sidekick, the opening song-and-dance numbers, the 'Doctor Who' tribute episode)."

December 19 2010 at 11:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Dean's comment

Gary: With all due respect, I seriously don't think you've actually watched Ferguson past the cold open. I'm not sure how you can call Ferguson a loser in this when his style has made everyone else in the late night arena seem bland, scripted and horribly dull. From the free-flowing monologues to the tear-up-the-notes interviews, nobody has done this much to do something different in the late night arena since Letterman in his days at NBC.

But to call him a loser and ignore it. You sir are wrong.

December 20 2010 at 7:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mumbles Slam

How is Letterman a winner? His ratings are poor and his jokes are non-existent. His show is a snoozer. And Conan's new show is getting worse.

December 19 2010 at 10:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"O'Brien left because he said it would destroy 'The Tonight Show,' a franchise with an illustrious 50-year history..."

Thank you for getting this right. Forty-five mil is a lot for average Joes, but considering he took that amount to keep paying the employees who had moved out to CA with him, and started the tour with those funds, that's not a lot of money.

He's repeatedly said that The Tonight Show was his dream job. If there was any way for the show to remain untarnished and for him to keep it, he would have instead of taking the money.

Anyone doubting COB's intentions should watch his Larry King interview, or 60 Minutes interview, and read his Rolling Stone interview. Additionally, you can look up Andy Richter's interviews on both George Lopez and Regis and Kelly. Many of COB's employees will also second this information.

December 19 2010 at 3:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

His new show is really funny, funnier than his 12:30 show on NBC, which ran for over 10 years and had a large enough audience that NBC promoted him in the 1st place. The cream always rises to the top, and Conan is a winner. Give his show more than one month to attract an audience.

December 19 2010 at 2:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh Gary. I could have predicted the first two from you guys weeks ago. A spin on whatever Conan is doing and a pox on whatever Jay is doing. No mention that Nightline is now beating them all. Letterman is a solid third, yet he is the winner?
This is a business.
Making mnoney is all it was ever about. And making money is what Leno does best.
You should have trumpeted your scoop (if it's even true) that the Tonight show will lose money for the first time since its inception. I kinda doubt it. What's the source of that? And did the losing money thing start with Conan (when ratings tanked) and since recovered under Leno? Explain how Leno is to blame for Conan's failure?
The sad thing is Craigy Ferg, with a weaker lead-in, lost his ratings to Jimmy with the Leno lead-in. Ferguson s the best of the lot most nights, even when he can't get the A-listers first.
You guys are too predictably Team Conan to be considered objective. I'll wait for the real news sites to track earnings. I hope you own up to the mistake when the truth comes out.

December 19 2010 at 1:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mike's comment
Gary Susman


My source for the assertion about 'Tonight' losing money for the first time under the restored Leno is Bill Carter's new book, in which Carter says he was told this by Jeff Gaspin, who (until recently) was head of NBC Entertainment. You can read more about it here: http://www.tvsquad.com/2010/12/02/bill-carter-talks-about-the-war-for-late-night/

As for how Leno may be responsible for Conan's failure: Conan's crew blamed Leno for giving him a weak lead-in at 10PM. Now, that may not be entirely fair; maybe Conan would have struggled at 11:35 no matter what his lead-in was. But that was also the complaint of the local NBC affiliates, whose 11PM newscasts suffered during the brief run of 'The Jay Leno Show.' The threatened revolt of the affiliates led NBC to ax the Leno primetime show and move him back to 11:35, which in turn prompted O'Brien's departure.

December 19 2010 at 12:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joyce N.

If Leno is running even with Letterman, then he's still doing better than Conan. Conan's ratings stunk and that's why NBC (not Leno) got rid of him. Conan won't be around very long but Leno will continue at the helm of The Tonight show. Lopez had to move his show or Conan's wrath would have been directed at him the way it was with Leno. It's obvious that Conan's fans are again not watching him much. Conan a winner? Doesn't look like it from here, unless you're counting the cash they paid him to get rid of him.

December 18 2010 at 11:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Joyce N.'s comment

Yes Conan's overall ratings were not the greatest but he was doing well in the 18 to 39 year old demographic. Letterman was nipping at his heels but that is to be expected. When Leno started the Tonight Show, Letterman kicked is butt ratings wise for almost 2 years, and this was when NBC was the number one network in prime time. Also in today's market there is much more competition from cable and internet. Also there is another thing that seems obvious, but I have not seen any comments on, i this: There is a limited audience pool for late night. NBC had essentially 3 and half hours of late night programing every night. Leno attracts an older audience, isn't it likely that @ 10 pm he would pull away likely viewers from the Tonight Show? His audience would get their talk show fix and then likely go to bed. NBC in effect was cannibalizing their own audience.

December 19 2010 at 3:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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