Saturday, January 16, 2010

The ongoing "Tonight Show" bitterness: A footnote

This week, Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, took time out from putting the finishing touches on NBC's destined-to-lose-money coverage of the 2010 Olympics to call Conan O'Brien "chicken-hearted," "gutless," and an "astounding failure"--mainly, it appears, for not following Ebersol's advice about humor:

Mr. Ebersol chided Mr. O’Brien for declining to take advice about how to adjust his show to the 11:35 p.m. slot from the style he had used on NBC’s 12:35 a.m. “Late Night” show for 16 years.

He said he had met personally with the host three weeks before he stepped behind the “Tonight” desk for the first time to urge him to take steps to expand the appeal he had built up in his “Late Night” years, saying that NBC hosts beginning with Johnny Carson had recognized the importance of making the show appealing first and foremost to cities in the central time zone like Chicago and Des Moines.

You might recall that Ebersol, who dined out for years on the story that he had been the one with the vision to recommend Lorne Michaels to produce "Saturday Night Live" in the first place, was the executive producer of SNL in the early 1980s, during four of the five seasons since the beginning of the series when Michaels didn't hold that job.

Then again, you might not recall that, since the episodes from the Ebersol era haven't been seen in syndication for years. And there's no indication they've been missed. Anyone from the cast and crew of the Ebersol years who is known today is known for something other than SNL--e.g., Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Christopher Guest, Martin Short, and Billy Crystal.

In short, this is not someone whose opinions about comedy as a craft or a career O'Brien should be listening to, and apparently he's not listening. So that's a good thing.

Here's the promised footnote:

When Ebersol took over SNL from 12-episode disaster Jean Doumanian in 1981, he was desperate to create a link in the public mind back to the Michaels SNL era--when, not to put too fine a point on it, the show was still good. To this end, he sought out Michaels for his blessing, rehired some of the show's original writers, and brought back some of the old cast as guests.

Ebersol's first SNL episode had Chevy Chase as host. And there was also this moment:
Later in the show, Al Franken appeared on Weekend Update. He too addressed the traditions of the past, but in considerably harsher terms. He began by saying that he had "suffered countless instances of personal embarrassment" when people stopped him on the street to ask if he was still in volved with Saturday Night Live. He wanted everyone to know he had nothing to do with it, which prompted the audience to break into a hearty round of congratulatory applause. Then, resurrecting the style he'd used in his old Al Franken Decade commentaries, he went on to give his own version of what had happened to the show.
You see, he said, "Lorne Michaels the producer of Saturday Night, decided after last season that it was time to go on to different things. Now, he figured the first season had been great. Then Chevy left, and the show of course got even better. Then after the fourth year, Danny and John left. Now them, them we missed. So after five golden years, Lorne decided to leave, and so did those close to him, including me, Al Franken. So NBC had to pick a new producer. Now most knowledgeable people, as you might imagine, hoped it would be me, Al Franken. But instead, without consulting the show's staff or cast, NBC picked Jean Doumanian, an associate producer on the show. Now I don't want to be cruel to Jean, because it might make you think less of me, Al Franken. Anyway, it took NBC twelve shows to figure out their horrendous mistake, and a month ago they fired Jean.

"Okay, now who do they pick to rectify the original error? Someone who knows what he's doing, someone like me, Al Franken? No, they picked Dick Ebersol. Now I know Dick because he was a network executive in charge of late-night programming when Saturday Night started, and as such was the first person to steal credit for the success of Saturday Night. Credit which should rightfully go to Lorne Michaels, and me, Al Franken. Now let me give you some background on Dick 'Mr. Humor' Ebersol. His credits [as a network executive] include the Waverly Wonders starring Joe Namath, Roller Girls, and a show show called Joe and Valerie, about a kid from Brooklyn who dances every night at a disco. Now, to this day Dick claims that he never saw Saturday Night Fever and it was all an amazing coincidence. Anyway, I know Dick, and I can tell you that he doesn't know dick.

"Okay. Now the show's going to be a little better. No English-speaking person could do a worse job than Jean. But it's clearly time to yank this tired old format off the air. So if you're wondering what you can do for me, Al Franken, please write a card or a letter to 'Put SNL to Sleep,' 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, New York, 10020. Let's put this show out of its misery. You'll be doing a great favor for yourselves, and for me, Al Franken. Thank you. (Franken tacked on a plug for the next week's show, which he and his partner Tom Davis were set to host. "Watch next week," he said, "but not after that.")

And, again, that was 1981. Franken's now a United States Senator, and O'Brien's host of the "Tonight Show" which, even after the Leno era, is still one of NBC's most valuable properties. (O'Brien was in fact a writer for SNL, hired by Michaels a few years after his return and Ebersol's departure.)

Ebersol has spent the last twenty years in sports. His plans after after returning SNL to Michaels in 1985 involved producing pro wrestling specials to fill the SNL time slot during the one Saturday night each month when the show was on break.

I think Conan can probably look after his own career.

1 comment:

namie said...

Never put off till tomorrow what may be done today..........................