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Late night bickering

Published January 16. 2010 09:00AM

Life has it's ironies and apparently this week the Peacock network which has as one of its top rated shows "The Biggest Loser" is poising itself to be the biggest loser once again. It will place two of its top late night and prime time talents head-to-head in a move that will probably hurt NBC more in the long run than its talent as it tries to move Jay Leno back to 11:35 p.m. and push "The Tonight Show" back a half-hour causing Conan O'Brien to threaten to leave NBC.

"The Tonight Show" has had its share of controversies throughout the years but one thing that remained constant until this past week was its time slot give or take 15 minutes. The long running late night entertainment program began in 1954 with its first host Steve Allen taking the chair.

Allen's reign was relatively short due to NBC giving him a prime-time program to compete against the Ed Sullivan Show. As a result, Allen shared host duties with Ernie Kovacs until NBC ordered him to concentrate on his show and removed him as the host.

Allen was replaced by a news show in January 1957 but it did not do well and consequently was returned to an entertainment variety format hosted by Jack Paar in July 1957. Paar was a difficult star and gave NBC a run for its money during his tenure there first as the host of the Tonight Show and later as a prime-time star. His most famous incident in Tonight Show history was when he got angry at censors who edited a joke about a "water closet" and stormed off the show in February 1960. His final statement during the opening monologue was "I'm leaving the Tonight Show. There's got to be a better way to make a living than this" leaving his announcer to finish the 90 minute program.

Apparently Paar had second thoughts and returned to the show a month later strolling onstage saying "As I was saying before I was interrupted" which got a round of applause. He also said, "When I walked off, I said there must be a better way to make a living than this. Well, I looked and there isn't."

Paar turned the reins over to Johnny Carson in 1962, but Carson had an ABC contract that kept him there for several months resulting in the venerable show being hosted by guests for several months. Carson shot barbs at ABC in much the same way as Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien have been doing this week. One comment was "I'd like to welcome you to ABC, the network with a heart."

When he finally left after the contract expired and joined the Tonight Show, Carson became one of the longest running talk show hosts on television. In 1972, the show moved to Hollywood where it remained until Conan took over and the studio where the Tonight Show was taped was moved to a new location.

While the transitions up to Carson were relatively smooth the last two have been anything but smooth. In the months before Carson's retirement, many people expected David Letterman, whose own show followed Carson's, to assume the helm of the flagship program. Many sources report that Carson fully expected Letterman to be his successor, but NBC decided to give the show to long-time guest host Jay Leno. The move incensed Letterman enough to make him move to CBS where his show has competed against the Tonight Show through the present.

Leno's Tonight Show continued the tradition until last year when NBC, in a move that most people described as being a way to limit prime-time costs, announced Leno would be moving to prime-time opening the Tonight Show to Letterman's replacement Conan O'Brien. O'Brien moved to Hollywood and assumed host duties on June 1, 2009. In a New York Times interview last August, Leno said he was happy where he was indicating it was NBC's decision to move him. Fast forward five months later and we find out NBC is a fickle master who realized they made a really dumb move that has cost them dearly in advertising revenues.

Hoping to repair the damage and mitigate their talent's happiness, the network brass decided to move Jay to the 11:35 time slot and the "Tonight Show" to 12:05 a.m. slot giving O'Brien's and the historic slot to another show for the first time in 50-plus years.

Obviously O'Brien was understandably furious and told NBC if they did it he was going to walk and as of press time for this column, NBC basically thumbed their nose at the talk show's host. We will have to wait and see how this all unfolds and what the final result is, but it seems to be a shame that a late night institution like the "Tonight Show" will be a sacrificial lamb because of NBC brass' incompetence. It remains to be seen the full fallout of this latest round in the "Late Night Wars".

Speaking of the Tonight Show, most people can name the hosts, but how many announcers can you name? Who was the first band leader of the Tonight Show? What band member of that orchestra eventually became the band leader himself? Who was the audience member forced to join the Actor's union after several appearances during Steve Allen's tenure? "Who were the final guests on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson"? What was the last song sung on that show?

Til next time…

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