The War for 'The Tonight Show' Is Ugly, Unfunny, and Maybe Moving on to Fox

The Atlantic Wire

Late night television has once again become a battleground: NBC's mad at Jay Leno for bashing the network and there's renewed talk about a Jimmy Fallon takeover at The Tonight Show. Leno, of course, is not going quietly. But this week we learned that the new late night war will be waged in a surprisingly formulaic way, with bad jokes and big cities and plenty of power players, on these fronts:

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Host Versus Host

Both Leno and Fallon returned to their oblique and unfunny references to the maneuvers in their monologues Thursday night. And once again Fallon was pretty subtle about it while Leno was not. The soon-to-be former Tonight Show host opening up with this: "You all excited about March Madness? You into March Madness? People talk about who's in, who's out, who's going to be eliminated. And that's just here at NBC." He added: "I have never been in the paper this much, it's fantastic." Really, Jay? Have you completely forgot Conan O'Brien existed

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Speaking of Conan, Fallon managed to drop a reference to O'Brien's time hosting The Tonight Show into a joke about the Miami Heat: 

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Doesn't quite sting with the same bitterness as Leno's stinker, now does it? 

City Versus City

Another bombshell in Bill Carter's New York Times report on Wednesday was that the Fallon's Tonight Show would head to New York, a move that is angering the mayor of Burbank, where Johnny Carson and Leno have filmed the show for about 41 years (with a little Conan in between). Robin Abcarian of the Los Angeles Times reports that the mayor, Dave Golonski, has been joking—we think—that hewill go on a "hunger strike" if NBC moves the show to the East Coast. Golonski elaborated: "No, actually, we are drafting a letter asking NBC to reconsider."

But New York is apparently making things look very good for The Tonight Show. Kenneth Lovett of the New York Daily News reports that a provision in the state budget "would make state tax credits available for the producers of 'a talk or variety program that filmed at least five seasons outside the state prior to its first relocated season in New York,' budget documents show." According to the provision, Tonight Show "episodes 'must be filmed before a studio audience' of at least 200 people. And the program must have an annual production budget of at least $30 million or incur at least $10 million a year in capital expenses." That sounds pretty much like a direct appeal to get the highest rated late night show to move East, but Lovett reports that aides to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo insist that it's not. But do we believe them? No.

Network Versus Network

Okay, well this one is obvious, but now another network is jumping in the game. A report from Sean Daly of the New York Post places Leno at Fox when he leaves The Tonight Show. (He will apparently stay at NBC until his contract runs out in September of 2014.) The Post claims that Fox wants Leno to fill its empty hour: "The head of Fox's powerful affiliate board — who represents the majority of the 206 Fox stations around the country, said yesterday he favors building a new late-night show — starting at 11 o’clock — around the departing 'Tonight Show' host." 

That would make this late night game a four-way battle—though this Fox proposal starts about a half an hour earlier than Fallon, who would be moving into position against Letterman and the no-longer-midnight man in the middle, Jimmy Kimmel.

Meanwhile, the Post is also reporting that NBC is looking to make Fallon's current show an SNL post-grad experience with Seth Meyers taking over the helm. So much for Howard Stern—he's almost as expensive as Leno's bad jokes.

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