Letterman gets big laughs out of NBC’s late-night plight, but who’ll get the last laugh?

Because David Letterman tapes his Friday shows early, he didn't have a chance to weigh in on NBC's late-night TV reshuffling — or as Bill Carter of The New York Times thinks of it, his new book that'll someday make a miniseries sequel of The Late Shift — until Monday. Don't worry. Letterman wasn't going to keep quiet. And he didn't. In fact, if he didn't already have guests lined up, you almost think he might have spent the full hour taking jabs at the Peacock Network and Jay Leno. From his opening line, when Letterman deadpanned that once again, he had been passed up for The Tonight Show, through the monologue, then to the desk for a full history lesson on NBC's late-night history, it seemed, to his advice suggesting that Jay and Conan share hosting duties so Jay can "tell his little jokes" and still have time to tinker on his old truck or whatever. And of course, Letterman's staff also put together a special Top 10 List There's Signs of Trouble at NBC.

You could tell that Letterman has fondness for Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon, the two guys who have followed him on NBC's Late Night franchise at 12:30 a.m., but no such good will for Leno even after all these years. Here are three segments just from last night's Late Show with David Letterman. Roll 'em! First up, Letterman's monologue:

Letterman reminds us all what happened in previous years at NBC, and offers a couple of suggestions for what to do in 2010 and wicked impersonations of Leno as a guy who just wants to tell his little jokes and tinker on his old truck, or something:

And here's the Top Ten:

Letterman will continue to get great laughs out of this situation in the short-term. But what about the longer term? What will the late-night talk-show landscape look like for the NBC lineup after the Winter Olympics conclude in March?

Let's start with the easiest guy: Jimmy Fallon. Well, actually, Carson Daly's fate is even easier to describe — the affiliates own the 2 a.m. hour, so he cannot air then, and even if his show did stick around, it has been an odd duck ever since he ditched the semi-live studio audience format (though that was an oddity, too), and Daly always has seemed out of place whenever he strays from being the Dick Clark of our time (even if Ryan Seacrest wants to take that title from Daly). NBC still can have Daly host New Year's Eve specials and let him focus on his strength as a music guy.

As for Fallon, he's really just happy to have a TV show a year after he started on Late Night — and he even said those exact words when he was one of the more timeliest guests the NYT and Carter could have hosted for a panel discussion on Friday night. Read the Panel Nerds recap.

O'Brien joked about his various career options on last night's edition of the Tonight Show. Curiously, NBC didn't post his earlier jokes from last night's monologue online (though they're appearing on the network news this morning and elsewhere) which took a skewer at Leno. If you noticed a little bit later, Conan and his staff also made a not-so subtle reference to the situation by having his Twilight vampire personal assistant run into the sunlight and commit suicide rather than share his duties with the new Avatar alien blue personal assistant. In reality, O'Brien's options aren't easy. Carter writes in today's NYT about how FOX is pursuing him and the pros and cons of that.

NBC wants O'Brien to move to 12:05 a.m., thinking, the word goes, that Leno will go back to beating Letterman in viewership at the 11:35 p.m. half-hour, then his viewers would rather watch O'Brien afterward than whomever Letterman has booked as guests, and that domino would continue to help Fallon fend off Craig Ferguson in the ratings race. The fact that it's another slap in the face to O'Brien is less important to NBC than the economics of keeping their end of their contractual bargains with all parties concerned.

If O'Brien were to go to FOX, he'd air at 11 p.m., a full 35 minutes earlier than he is now. Despite FOX's "edgier" reputation, that time slot could be trickier for O'Brien, not only because it's earlier, but also because it would put him up head-to-head for the full hour with Comedy Central's tandem of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Conventional wisdom, ratings figures and anecdotal evidence suggests that Conan's biggest fans also are big fans of Stewart and Colbert. Remember those videos Conan shot with Colbert and Stewart a couple of years ago? Here's one to remember:

Which leaves Conan O'Brien and his staff in a bit of a pickle. They all picked up their stakes from New York City and moved their families across the country to Los Angeles and Universal City, and now what do they do? After claiming that he was their guy six years ago, NBC once again has turned back on that word by putting their money and efforts first into Leno, no matter how much it hurts Conan's rating or reputation. I'll get to Leno's side of this coin in a second. But think back just to fall 2009 through the end of the year — the network put so much time, energy and money into promoting Leno and making his 10 p.m. show a success that Conan was an afterthought. You saw billboards and TV ads for Leno all of the time, whereas the only time you could see a TV ad for Conan's show was during Leno. To a fan base that, let's face it, doesn't have a lot of overlapping demographics. Leno's audience hasn't been sticking around for the late local news, much less the extra half-hour after that for Conan. If he agrees to push back the half-hour, he continues to play second fiddle to a guy who might as well be the the fiddle-playing devil, save any Georgia references since these guys both were born and raised in the Boston area. And if Conan bolts for FOX or anywhere else, he's likely leaving behind a big pile of cash and also heading for a second time in a year into the unknown, whereas…

Jay Leno will be laughing all the way to the bank, no matter how the situation plays out. That's why his jokes in the past week really have struck a sour chord with me. Yes, Leno begrudgingly agreed several years ago to step aside for Conan, and when the time came last year, sure, he'd be willing to consider other offers. And since Leno had been making so much money for NBC, they got scared about him making that money somewhere else — combine that with the network's overall shoddy record with prime-time programming, and there he was, suddenly on at 10 p.m., getting even more attention before. Now that he's being moved again — not cancelled, but moved (do other shows that switch time slots ever call it a cancellation???) — he's mocking the network that is essentially giving him his job back. He can try to spin it as a demotion, too, but he's not going to be making less money than before. If NBC tried to can him, they couldn't stop paying him the money from his two-year contract, money that he has famously said he has never needed to touch in the 17 years NBC has been giving it to him. And if Conan were to leave, NBC would, in fact, most likely give him the full hour and the Tonight Show mantle once again. If Conan stays, Leno has to make do with only a half-hour, which means, what….no 10@10 obviously, and no inane "Earn Your Plug" moments, and probably no "Green Car Challenges," or far fewer of those. So tell me again how this is a bad deal for Leno? The only thing I worry about with Leno is that in primetime, he has given some great exposure to about a dozen stand-up comedians. I hope he keeps them in the rotation when he moves back to late-night, and if he knows what's good for him, he will.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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