It may just be coincidence, but The Tonight Show somehow seems to know when America is going through a generational moment. Johnny Carson took over the show in Camelot-era 1962, after J.F.K. became the first greatest-generation President. Jay Leno replaced him in 1992, just before baby boomer Bill Clinton defeated our last greatest-generation President. Now, just after Barack Obama’s Inauguration, NBC has put another tall, skinny young guy, Conan O’Brien, behind the desk.
Conan, at 46, is coming into his own in a way typical of a post-boomer. Like the rest of his age cohort in all walks of life, he’s taking over an institution just as it has become diminished. Network TV, newspapers, Social Security, American hegemony all seem to have stuck around just long enough to crap out on the post-boomers. The Tonight Show is still a lucrative platform, but it’s not the singular cultural voice it was when Jay took over. Conan competes for attention with Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman, Stephen Colbert and more plus whatever happens to be on TiVo, Xbox or the Internet. And like a good post-boomer, Conan got promoted only to discover that his baby-boomer predecessor is not so keen on retiring after all. Come Sept. 14, Jay, 59, starts his own talk show on NBC at 10 p.m. E.T., where it will compete for guest bookings and suck up media attention. This made Jay’s final Tonight an odd experience: a classy, warm goodbye, coupled with reminders that he wasn’t going anywhere. Like his generational peer and best source of material Bill Clinton, Jay believes in staying active. Hey, you’re only as old as you feel, baby! Of course, like Clinton, Jay who got his 10 p.m. show for fear he would jump to ABC has a wee bit more clout than the average elder boomer pushed out for a younger employee. Conan simply by having wanted forever to host The Tonight Show is something of a throwback. The very idea of caring about big-network late shows is retro, now that Comedy Central has so much buzz. Conan’s comic style also owes heavily to his elder, and now competitor, the 62-year-old Letterman. Nonetheless, the handoff between Jay and Conan, like a presidential transition, marks a change in style and in the office itself. On the simplest level, the two have different ideas of what’s funny. Jay is a master of the topical joke who worked tirelessly on lengthy pulled-from-the-headlines monologues. On his final show, he thanked “all the people who made it possible: Michael Jackson, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton.” Conan’s sensibility is less newsy and more surreal, scatological and self-referential. And he has a big self-deprecating streak: on his second show, he had a cash-strapped NBC send him on a wardrobe-shopping spree on Rodeo Road in South Central, where he bought a cornrow wig and a belt buckle that reads BITCH. Conan, in other words, revels in being the outsider, the underdog, the geek. This is both a defining Gen X trait think Judd Apatow’s movies and Beck’s “Loser” and a sensibility suited to the 12:30 p.m. Late Night, the slacker sibling to The Tonight Show. Some doubters wonder if that can translate to a broader 11:30 audience. By promoting Conan and moving Jay, NBC is betting that this broad audience has become very different, if it still exists at all. So far, Conan seems determined not to change his style for an older audience. The idea is if people connect with the host’s authenticity, they’ll get used to his comedy. But “you can’t please all of the people” is more than just an artistic principle here. It’s also a recognition that in this fragmented media era, there is no more “all of the people.” And ironically, although Jay is a much more middle-of-the-road comic, his new show is an even more radical experiment. NBC is arguing that broadcast TV has become too small to support expensive scripted shows three hours a night. Though a nightly variety show is the most ancient kind of TV, the boomer’s project may define the medium’s future. So the next time Obama does a media blitz, does he do Jay or Conan Will he need to do all of them In the end, the Jay/Conan schism may be less a generational tug-of-war than a recognition that the audience is too diffuse for any one host. Thus, as J.F.K. said, the torch has been passed to a new generation. But it’s now more like a Bic lighter. See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.
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