How a Harvard Grad’s Strange Decision Damaged Late Night TV – And Affected Four Hosts With New England Ties
Editor's note: This article was written by a Townsquare Media Northern New England contributor and may contain the individual's views, opinions, or personal experiences.
To quote Conan O'Brien's sidekick, Andy Richter: "Remember this?"
I sure do! I was just starting my eighth of what would be nine years of writing for Jimmy Fallon at Late Night and The Tonight Show. And I’ll never forget the morning when the top news was…Jimmy Fallon (to hear an interview I did with Jimmy last fall, CLICK HERE).
Up until that moment that seemed to ruffle “both sides,” we could do no wrong. Which makes it purely surreal to see that TV writers are now on strike, and late night has shut down production completely.
“Comedy/Variety,” as it’s formally known, is a chief issue in the 2023 Writers Guild of America work stoppage. And if you really want to get into the weeds of it all, you can trace some of its downfall to five people – each with significant ties to New England.
In 2004, Jeff Zucker, a Harvard graduate, was President of NBC and decided #1 in Late Night just wasn’t good enough. He seemingly wanted a stranglehold on that boast indefinitely. So, he made the then-puzzling/now-infamous decision to essentially fire the guy who got them to number one in favor of an heir apparent.
Long before he was joyriding through Maine with Martha Stewart (and well after he was looking for places to tell jokes in Boston’s seedy Combat Zone), the Andover native was King of Late Night. He was understandably hurt when he was told the job he had done so well would be handed to another host who grew up in Massachusetts (to hear an interview I did with Jay Leno, CLICK HERE).
It had long been the Brookline native’s dream to host The Tonight Show – so much so, he turned down a massive deal with Fox and agreed to a bizarre arrangement wherein he would remain as host of Late Night for five years…then take the baton from Jay. But as we know, a lot can change in five years. And by 2009, Conan’s promotion almost seemed overdue – while Leno had gotten better and even more popular. This left NBC in a position Bill Belichick would kill for – picking between two quarterbacks.
THE ZUCK UP
Realizing he was about to lose Leno to another network, Zucker offered him a primetime talk show at 10 p.m. to “lead in” to O’Brien’s new Tonight Show. In a precursor of tastes to come, there wasn’t much desire for what were essentially two Tonights, and O’Brien saw his ratings fall while Leno’s barely got off the ground. This led to a public and bitter feud between Leno and O’Brien – widely regarded as two of the nicest guys in comedy – and O’Brien departing for TBS.
In addition to meeting his wife in Boston while filming Fever Pitch (and spending summers up in Wolfeboro), Jimmy Fallon hosted a legendary talk show. I’m biased, but steadfast in my belief that Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is top three all-time. We were amazing, from top to bottom. A tremendous staff that produced rock-solid monologues (my department), classic sketches such as “Head Swap" (created by Harvard grads Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin), memorable interviews, and fuse-blowing music performances.
But as we learned on the day of the infamous (and overblown) Hair Tussle, we were good...but not necessarily ready. Maybe we could’ve used a little more time. Conan had been on the air since 1993 and dealt with The Donald all his career. In an election, you need someone who is incredibly seasoned to handle interviews with any and all candidates. In 2016, there was nobody in late night truly capable of doing so. Except, perhaps, a writer and comic from New Hampshire.
A native of Manchester (but still not the first Granite State-native to read the fake news on SNL), Meyers is seen by many as a lone wolf in a sea of pandering. Someone who will hold people accountable during interviews and create the type of moments David Letterman made famous. He is Mr. Checks & Balances. Unfortunately, he is the undeserved victim of NBC's fall, which goes all the way back to 2004; despite critical acclaim and often the best show in late night, Meyers has been asked for nearly three years to lay off writers to save the network money. In fact, the New York Times published a leak that his show may be on borrowed time (because why would you want the best political show on the air during, you know, a Presidential Election?).
THE ALTERNATE TIMELINE
Here’s how I think things would’ve gone if Jeff Zucker, the grand Harvard grad, hadn’t brought two dates to the prom (maybe I'll head down to Hampton Beach and see if I can snag a spare DeLorean...).
With an offer to leave for Fox in 2004, Conan would have made a late night show his own, much the way Letterman did when he created The Late Show for CBS in the '90s. In fact, we’d likely have Conan in retirement as he is now with a new host at the helm (perhaps someone who isn’t the same demographically as the four we have in 2023).
Leno would have probably kept on going until about the same time or bowed out a bit sooner. Jay likes Jimmy, and Jimmy likes Jay, and you would’ve gotten the same respectful torch-passing we eventually got in 2014.
Jimmy would’ve probably gotten Late Night in 2005 and had plenty of time to practice for a “touch-my-hair” moment. By 2016, he’s nearly a decade in – and again, who knows? Given Trump’s history with Conan, maybe that’s where the “stunt” PR stop goes down.
I think Seth probably takes another route whenever he departs Saturday Night Live. He was a wire-to-wire, solid Weekend Update anchor. So, if he’s still going strong as the show’s Head Writer when Jimmy gets Tonight, who’s to say he stays in late night? I always thought (and still think) Seth would be a great Meet the Press host (and that John Mulaney – who’s told many a tale of his grandmother in Marblehead – would’ve probably done a strong show at 12:30).
But we'll never know. Unless that's the next mission Maine's Stephen King has in mind for Jake and Sadie...