Thursday, March 21st, 2013

What Moving 'The Tonight Show' Will Mean for New York's Comedy Scene

As we reported yesterday, it seems Jimmy Fallon is set to take over for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show next year, and even more interestingly, move the show back to its birthplace of New York City. The show has been based in LA since 1972, when Johnny Carson felt that moving to the Hollywood would bring more big-name guests to the show, as well as a more laidback lifestyle for himself. It's a huge shift for one of America's most iconic TV shows, and the ripples will be felt throughout the industry.

Most obviously, this move is symbolic, an affirmation that comedy falls under New York's purview. But practically speaking, it’s possible that the number of available opportunities for New York comics is unlikely to change much. With all the buzz prompted by the New York Times article, as well as the lingering bitterness over Conan O'Brien's treatment, it's tempting to see everything related to The Tonight Show as hugely influential. But despite's Leno's still impressive numbers, the cultural influence is so diminished that it's almost impossible to imagine its return path to relevance. There will never be another night when all the comics at a comedy club gather around a TV to watch a fellow comic do standup on The Tonight Show, as Steven Wright's Boston buddies did during his first Carson appearance.

In fact, there's a good chance that The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon won't be a game changer. Conan's nine months on the job give clues as to what might happen under Fallon's watch—a drop off in ratings when Leno's devotees bail, a flailing 12:35 staff trying to find an 11:35 sensibility, and ultimately, a move towards the big-tent mentality that has characterized The Tonight Show for the past few decades.

But Fallon's history at NBC has many promising elements. Though Fallon has done standup, he's not a veteran like Leno and thus doesn't mind featuring young standups on his show, a Tonight Show tradition that has suffered greatly under Leno's reign. If Fallon continues to feature the relatively regular standups that he does now at 11:35, it could be a prominent spot for young New York comics to get network TV exposure.

And at Late Night, Fallon's team has done well in picking young writers from places like UCB and CollegeHumor for both the show and its admirable web presence. “This is a great opportunity for our alums who currently write for the show and it's exciting for people who might go on to perform on or write for the show in the future,” says UCB New York’s Associate Artistic Director, John Frusciante. “We have a strong relationship with the talent department there and while they generally cast their bits in house they have occasionally used UCBTNY actors for bits. Also, several people on their writing staff are UCBT performers and frequently used in bits.”

There are other, less predictable possibilities. As Kathy Griffin discussed, comics are often last minute fill-in guests on late night shows, which might mean that whoever is hanging around could end up on The Tonight Show if a guest bails at the last minute. With SNL in the building and so many great comedians around the city who are definitely free at 6:30 in the evening, Fallon's show could become a great place to feature New York comics as guests as well.

But in truth, the real potential may lie in whoever (or whatever) succeeds Fallon at Late Night. Though there are rumors that the show could return to 90 minutes (a frankly baffling proposition in an era where I'm often bored halfway through a 6-second Vine video), the future of the Late Night franchise is worth considering. In all likelihood, it would be considered too difficult to keep both shows in New York, and Late Night will move to Los Angeles. (Although, how cool would it be if Late Night broke that LA-NY binary and went some place else? For a show that airs at the more approachable time of 11:35pm in the Central time zone, it would be awesome to see a Chicago- or Austin-based Late Night.)

But imagine, somehow, that Late Night also stays in New York at 30 Rock. The shows would ostensibly be competing for guests, much like the Leno vs. Conan situation of 2009, but here, there would be no debate—The Tonight Show wins every time. So that could leave room for less famous or glamorous guests like, let's face it, comedians to do panel on Late Night. There would also be the obvious need for writers and featured players that having back-to-back New York shows would create, a need the would return over and over as the shows' staffs refresh.

The most interesting way that Late Night could have a major impact on the New York comedy scene is if (and it’s a huge if) NBC keeps letting Fallon do his show his way—light-hearted, goofy, and internet-savvy. Late Night has always been a place for ideas too young, weird, or stupid for The Tonight Show, and with Fallon at the wheel at 11:35, the later show could explore some truly bizarre, interesting comedy because hey, their lead-in just had charades with Amy Poehler. This is also an obvious chance for NBC to break out of its straight-white-guys-in-their-30s tradition of Late Night hosts, and even seemingly-surface changes like that can shift the mindset of a show, creating chances for oft-overlooked comics to get noticed.

For now, with no real information from NBC and the network's disastrous history with late night transitions, it’s hard to view this next switch with anything but a trepidation verging on nausea. But if NBC's new Comcast bosses are really interested in investing in the future of the network's late night franchises, now is the time to bring in distinct, inventive comedy to draw that coveted young audience back to network television. The New York comedy scene is as strong as it’s been in decades, and the network would be foolish to waste all that immense talent at its feet. Maybe, for the first time in a very long time, NBC will get this right.

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  • Steve

    Well thought out article. I think it would not be advantagious to have both major 11:30 shows to compete for guests in NYC while leaving Kimmel and Conan to book anyone in LA.

  • Anonymous for obvious reasons

    My predictions as in interested observer:
    NYC's fractured comedy scene will become more fractured. Alt-comics and improvisors will be pushed to the forefront. Club comics will become even more marginalized. Urban comics will become even more of an afterthought.

    NYC's comedy scene overall is not as edgy as its reputation holds it to be. Safe comedy abounds. No one takes chances(other than the nightly improv scene that takes it there). Stand ups only want the approval of their open mic cadre and spot swapping buddies. All we'll get from stand ups are transplanted NYC residents originally from the Midwest talking about their crappy roommate, their lack of healthcare, and making fun of the homeless/mentally ill person they saw on the F train. It's gotten pretty boring.

    The problem in NYC comedy is that:

    1)the gatekeepers of the standup realm who can get good comics put on and booked are for the most part of similar background (not all of them) – entitled women who have politically correct axe to grind. When the comedy powers that be have little heterogeneity, only a certain type of comedy is allowed to pass through their approval filter. This stifles voices who should be heard as much as the beta males who drone on about nouveau-hack premises. Let the free market of ideas pick the winners of the stand up game.

    2)The improv community is clique-y as hell. Moving up requires kissing ass. And the fact that people only believe there is one "good" improv theater doesn't help. The 2 "other" theaters put up some damn good shows but get very little praise or acclaim.

    3)The sketch community is no where near as strong as it could be. Potentially due to the issues stated in gripe 2.

    4)There are huge racial disparities and divides in the NYC comedy scene which I personally see as not being alleviated any time soon. Look at the percentages of the city as a total and honestly tell me those are congruent with the percentages within the comedy scene. Minorities are discouraged in the lower levels of comedy. The game for them is assimilate or die. Gender issues, gallantly, are being alleviated by show bookers who encourage women, allowing female comics to develop their comedic competency and find their voices. Minority issues are not the same priority in the most diverse city in the world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasonfarr Jason Farr

    "There will never be another night when all the comics at a comedy club gather around a TV to watch a fellow comic do standup on The Tonight Show"
    Never say never. I know my comedy friends and I have all watched when someone we knew was on Conan. If we all happened to be in the same place while one of the up-and-coming comics we know was debuting on the Tonight Show, we'd huddle around that TV. Especially if one of us got to that point.
    But your overall point about the TS not being as big of a deal as it was in the 80's is true. It's why I was so excited when Conan was taking over cause I thought it had a chance of coming back to that stature.
    Anyway, good article! Love this site!