Why Jay Leno is returning to 11:30.

What you're watching.
Jan. 8 2010 1:09 PM

Jay-Woww

What just happened with Leno and Conan?

Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien.
Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien

Not four months after bringing five hours of The Jay Leno Show to its weekly schedule—thus embracing a short-sighted, cost-cutting, affiliate-angering, producer-enraging strategy that sped the network's decline —NBC is cutting its losses and pulling the program out of prime time. The writing was on the wall last week with the news that NBC would produce a remarkable 18 pilot episodes to consider for its 2010-11 lineup. Will a remake of The Rockford Files save the network? Not in itself, no—but unlike low-rated Leno, it should have a decent chance to outperform reruns of CSI: Miami.

It is rare for NBC to acknowledge such failures as The Jay Leno Show, possibly because, under the management of the widely despised Jeff Zucker, the network's failures are so legion that to acknowledge them all would leave no time to embark on more. The new approach must have something to do with Comcast's recent deal to purchase majority ownership of the last-place network. But I'd prefer to think that it represents a final repudiation of Ben Silverman, a Zucker underling who departed NBC after a two-year tenure "during which he accomplished little more than securing a guest shot on Entourage and serving as a chew toy for entertainment-industry blogzilla Nikki Finke."

This story is moving quickly, but at this writing, the most persuasive reporting has it that NBC wants to truncate The Jay Leno Show to a half-hour of mediocrity airing at 11:35 p.m. Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show—a ratings disappointment, partly because Leno was a lousy lead-in, partly because Conan's Harvard-sophomore horseplay is a coterie item, partly because Stephen Colbert (on at 11:30) has built a rapport with 1.2 million people—Tonight would shift to 12:05. If, that is, O'Brien doesn't bolt to another network. TMZ says he's "pissed"—and also, obliquely, makes the suggestion that he could take his act to FX. Intriguing. Going to a racy cable channel would allow Conan to resume (and to expand on) his weirder and wickeder bits. Paging Vomiting Kermit.

No matter how it all shakes out, these events have already changed the history of television comedy forever: Last night, amazingly and without precedent, Jay Leno's monologue was funny. He was exultant, energized, and borderline hostile. With the whole matter seeming uncertain at taping time, Leno riffed on the possibility that he himself would be leaving NBC, tearing through a half dozen well-built jokes. "Hey, Kev," he asked his bandleader. "What does NBC stand for? Never Believe your Contract." He was almost Dangerfieldish when noting that the Comcast deal is subject to an "antitrust review—which is the relationship I have with NBC." But then he reverted to boring form when sitting down with Denzel Washington, who carried the interview by way of practiced charm and responded handsomely to a query about whether, with the kids grown and out of the house, his wife dressed up like a pirate wench for sex. Denzel was plugging The Book of Eli, which opens next week *  and looks like The Road as reimagined by Michael Bay. Which might be an improvement, come to think of it.

Meanwhile, a wan Conan looked just a bit like a Beckett character during last night's monologue. The show can't go on; the show must go on. The writing was even flatter than the performance. About inclement weather in China, Conan said that the snow was so heavy that "most children couldn't get to work"—a line clearly less sharp than Leno's identically structured joke on the same topic, which specified "six-year-olds" and "factory jobs." Conan didn't breathe a word about NBC. An Arab proverb: "Silence is medication for sorrow."

Correction, Jan. 11, 2010: This article originally stated the wrong release date for The Book of Eli. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 23 2014 6:00 AM Naked and Afraid Prudie offers advice on whether a young boy should sleep in the same room with his nude grandfather.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Books
Sept. 23 2014 7:14 AM Fighting the Sophomore Slump, Five Novels at a Time Announcing the Slate/Whiting Second Novel List.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 7:00 AM I Stand with Emma Watson
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.