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When Johnny Carson began doing The Tonight Show in 1962, NBC required him to be on the air for an incredible 105 minutes a night. Back then a number of network affiliates did 15-minute late newscasts, while others did 30 minutes. In those pre-satellite days the only way to accommodate both groups was to start the Carson show at 11:15 for the first batch of stations, then pause at 11:30 to let in the rest.
This arrangement annoyed the hell out of Johnny. It meant doing a monologue that was twice as long as necessary, and do it knowing that the first 15 minutes would air in Abilene but not Amarillo, in L.A. but not K.C. By 1965 he was a huge star and could tell NBC executives to start the show whenever they wanted — but he wouldn’t be going on until 11:30.
For the next 16 years The Tonight Show was 90 minutes long, as were all the wannabes, hosted by the likes of Steve Allen, Merv Griffin, and Dick Cavett. When I was growing up in the Seventies, the 90-minute late-night talk show seemed as foreordained as the order of Mass. The energy started out strong and then slowly ebbed as America nodded off to sleep.
In between vanquishing his rivals, Johnny used his enormous clout to renegotiate ever-more-lucrative contracts, each one stipulating more money and more days off than the one before. In 1980, the head of NBC Entertainment stupidly told a reporter that his late-night star was taking too many nights off. Mind you, NBC was last in the prime-time ratings then, and the Carson show generated 17 percent of the network’s entire profit.
Johnny retaliated as only Johnny could — by threatening to retire. Desperate to keep him happy, the network signed off on the mother of all showbiz deals. Besides more money and vacation time, Johnny got full ownership of The Tonight Show, which is still pulling in good numbers in reruns on Antenna TV.
Continuing his habit of working as little as possible, Johnny also demanded The Tonight Show be cut from 90 minutes a night to 60 minutes. In hindsight this turned out to be the key point in Johnny’s 1981 contract, because it ushered in a new chapter of late-night TV.
At first, NBC executives only reluctantly agreed to this demand. Soon, though, they realized that this was a concession Johnny had made to them, not the other way around. Now instead of watching ratings sink into the abyss between 12:30 and 1 a.m., the network could start a new show at 12:30, one aimed at a younger audience. Enter David Letterman.
For the next dozen years, NBC had two prosperous hourlong shows in late night. CBS finally got in the game in 1993, hiring away Letterman when Jay Leno got Johnny’s gig. Conan O’Brien got Dave’s old gig. Eventually ABC started a one-hour show with Jimmy Kimmel. Thus was the 60-minute late-night comedy show ingrained in a generation of viewers’ minds.
Regardless of network or host, the show was always the same. “The format has always been Guest 1, Guest 2 and Guest 3, and maybe two acts of comedy,” Conan O’Brien said last fall. “That is what I was handed in 1993.”
Conan was explaining to reporters why he had just agreed to reduce the nightly running time of his late-night show Conan. For 25 years, first on NBC and since 2010 on TBS, he had done the one-hour format about as well as anyone in the history of the medium, including Carson and Letterman.
But now, the Conan show would be just 30 minutes long, would feature only one guest a night, and would be mostly comedy. He proclaimed that he was glad to do it. “At this stage in my career I’d like to do much more of the stuff I love and am passionate about,” he explained, “and less of this format I inherited.”
Most reporters at the time spun this as a good thing, but it sure didn’t seem that way to me. For one thing, this isn’t 1980, and Conan O’Brien isn’t looking to take time off. Fans hate reruns, and the only time you see guest hosts anymore is when the host or his son is having heart surgery.
Surrendering 30 minutes of show time to TBS meant deep cuts to Conan’s production budget. The most obvious sign was evident in the new show’s opening seconds. The fabulous house band that had been blowing the roof off the dump for 25 years — first under Max Weinberg’s leadership and then Jimmy Vivino — was gone. That took some getting used to.
And yet, after several weeks of off-and-on viewing, I’m starting to think this latest career pivot is the best one Conan has made since leaving The Simpsons. The new Conan, as advertised, has taken the legacy format and distilled it to 99 percent pure comedy. Guests know the drill, know him, and by and large they come to deliver the goods. Sidekick Andy Richter assists splendidly, his out-of-nowhere punchlines and asides more vital than ever.
Apparently suit coats and pants are only for 60-minute shows, because O’Brien has now dispensed with the traditional late-night wardrobe in favor of a getup consisting of a leather (or denim) jacket, dress shirt, too-short necktie, and jeans. Jeff Goldblum, one of the show’s more sartorially-minded guests, likened it to a uniform worn by a Depression-era gas station attendant. But, of course, it works because it remains true to the sunny, hilarious, self-deprecating dork persona that Conan has perfected over a quarter century.
During the show’s hiatus his Team Coco production company launched a podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend — and it’s exhilarating. The absence of a camera and studio audience creates a wonderful reverse-Heisenberg effect whereby Conan, unconcerned about his looks or the clock, riffs as long as he wants about whatever he wants.
The interviews are reliably great, with old allies like Lisa Kudrow and Dana Carvey seemingly delighted to drop by for 45 minutes of loose, spirited banter. (Timothy Olyphant, another longtime friend, showed his well-concealed hilarious side on the podcast.) The live commercial reads are even a hoot, with sponsors like State Farm apparently happy to pay good money for Conan to ignore their ad copy and spend the entire time trying to make his longtime assistant Sona Movsesian laugh.
So now the funniest man in late night has the funniest podcast as well, a website that (thanks to a recent acquisition from NBC) contains his funniest remotes from 25 years in late night — and he won’t have to do a Guest 3 interview for the rest of his life.
Hopefully Conan can remind himself of these blessings whenever he has to take a backseat to Samantha Bee, host of another TBS late-night show, Full Frontal, which only airs once a week. (A couple of years ago a TBS executive carelessly suggested that Conan might also have to go to once a week, a comment the network quickly walked back.)
Besides, I feel pretty sure that Conan will not be the only late-night host paring back. A quick glance at the ratings suggests a reckoning is due. The one-hour network shows are packed with scripted laughs — Jimmy Fallon playing party games with guests, Stephen Colbert bouncing Game of Thrones jokes off Kit Harington — yet viewers keep bailing during the second half. Late night is now as crowded and competitive as prime time. And you don’t see many one-hour sitcoms.
So it may be the beginning of the end of a chapter in television history that began 40 years ago, when Johnny Carson decided he’d like to get home earlier. Conan O’Brien doesn’t have the temperament to go home early. After all these years he still has a zest for this business and will do what it takes to stay relevant in it. I think Conan has seen the future of late-night comedy, and it isn’t a 60-minute show.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter at @tvbarnagain.