So, this is it. The baton’s really moving. “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” soon will be the “Tonight Show” — without Jay Leno. After that “Tonight” duet, it really had nowhere else to go. Jimmy Fallon, here we come.
But I’m amazed by the amount of attention this continues to receive. As Linda Holmes at NPR put it, “As a writer, it is my dearest wish that the late-night wars would be packed into a box, the box would be put inside a barrel, the barrel would be doused in honey and covered with ants, the ants would carry it to a launch pad, the best available aeronautics engineers would set it on fire and strap it to a rocket, the rocket would be fired into the sun, and the sun would be snuffed out by the galactic calamity that we all know is coming someday.”
It’s so vintage. It’s like watching people compete for Sexiest Man At The Retirement Home. Yes, it’s a nice title, and after you’re crowned, a lot of elderly women will ask you to rub lotion sensually on their elbows. But even if you win, there’s not much future in it.
This time the hand-off seems likely to occur without much fisticuffs or fanfare.
It’s the occasional fixation on this sort of thing that reveals how different The Culture is now. One of the things I like most about the Internet age is what it does to things like this. It makes mainstream things that we thought were private obsessions (cat videos cat videos cat videos bacon) and reveals how small an audience the things that used to target everyone are left with.
Some things that Everyone used to watch, everyone still watches. Twitter can help gather people in a giant living room to watch the Super Bowl.
But in general, the audiences have compartmentalized themselves into ice cube trays of viewers who Know What They Like.
At the end of Johnny Carson’s tenure, the “Tonight Show” had an average of 12 million nightly viewers, according to a People magazine article in 1992. In 1969, a full 58 million tuned in to watch Tiny Tim, the ukulele singer with the high-pitched voice, marry Miss Vicki — a whopping 85 percent of the total TV viewing audience. Now Leno averages 3.42 million.
“I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing,” goes a song in the musical “[Title of Show].” It’s a laudable artistic creed, and it’s also a solid approach in our fragmented media market. Vocal groups of Veronica Martians funding movies on Kickstarter! “Arrested Development’s” triumphant fan-driven return! I’m not saying it’s a viable business model yet, because — well, clearly. But it’s where we’re heading. The People Who Make Things To Appeal To Everyone are rubbing up against the fact that Everyone Is Much Weirder Than We Initially Thought. Instead of the vague Every Person Who Wants To Watch TV Before Bed that these shows used to target, there’s an oddly specific demographic — the Jay Leno viewer, the Dave watcher, of a precise age and viewpoint. People who liked the things that were made for Everyone in the 1970s are people with one specific sense of humor — many of whom have vivid and pleasurable recollections of the ’70s themselves and don’t know how to work the channel changer.
What can you say about a medium whose acknowledged heyday was decades ago? It’s a creaky relic. It’s a nostalgic holdout from the pre-cable days when you had to take whatever was put out for you. Skits? You’d take them. Puns? (“Baja” … “What sound does a sheep make when it laughs?” “Zip-a-Dee-Doodah… How do you tell Marcello Mastroianni his doodah is open?”) You would spend 10 minutes watching someone read typos in actual print newspaper headlines — and you would like it.
I would say that it’s about as vigorous as poetry, but actually poetry is comparatively vigorous and the poets might start sending me letters again. Even comics who want to be ON the shows don’t think the format has legs. It’s a relic from the era when they didn’t know what we wanted in such detail. It’s like the Bolshoi ballet or any other format that was once a dominant form of entertainment and now caters to a few connoisseurs. The personalities are just as outsized, but the appeal has shrunk down to more manageable proportions.
Now, for better or for worse, we know what people want.
Choice rules. The dominant realization of the post-Cable, Internet age is that You Don’t Have To Be Here. There is nothing holding you here. You can click out of the window. You can wander off and eat a sandwich. Appointment viewing? You can watch it on your own time. Want to watch something before you go to bed? You can watch Anything In The World.
The fact that this was not always the case explains a lot of the most popular television in the past. You want to watch this show about David Hasselhoff and a talking car? Is anything else on? Well, fair.
We want Everything Now. I want to watch an episode of a TV show and I want to go online and be able to figure out what that thing was that Jim whispered just before the commercial break and What It All Meant For The Season Arc and I want it Immediately! And it’s there.
We live in an era where I will become actively upset that a five-minute Google search has not instantly brought me, for free, footage of an obscure television episode from the 1970s.
But then, you were at the mercy of whatever they had for you.
The one thing that I like most about the Late Night Wars and the big ballyhooed hand-off is — you can change the channel. If the success of Jimmy Fallon online has showed anything, it is that you can boil the whole late-night talk show format down into two minutes that people actually want to watch. If that. If you don’t have to be there — you won’t be.