My column in the print TIME magazine looks at the late-night changeover that I’ve been writing about all this week, as a sign of changing eras—not just in the hosts’ sensibilities but in the medium itself:
It may just be coincidence, but The Tonight Show somehow seems to know when America is going through a generational moment. Johnny Carson took over the show in Camelot-era 1962, after J.F.K. became the first greatest-generation President. Jay Leno replaced him in 1992, just before baby boomer Bill Clinton defeated our last greatest-generation President. Now, just after Barack Obama’s Inauguration, NBC has put another tall, skinny young guy, Conan O’Brien, behind the desk. (O’Brien and Obama, who did a guest bit on Conan’s second night, may be technically a hair shy of Gen X status — but as the saying goes in the TV biz, they skew young.)
Conan, at 46, is coming into his own in a way typical of a post-boomer. Like the rest of his age cohort in all walks of life, he’s taking over an institution just as it has become diminished. Network TV, newspapers, Social Security, American hegemony — all seem to have stuck around just long enough to crap out on the post-boomers. …
Now, as I say in the column, it’s too simplistic—as sweeping generational statements always are—to attribute the differences between Jay and Conan solely to when they were born. Conan’s humor owes a lot to his elder David Letterman, whose style itself differs plenty from Jay’s.
Still, I don’t think it’s coincidence that much of the criticism from people who don’t like Conan on The Tonight Show references age: “childish,” “like a seven-year-old,” etc. Yes, I know Jay has young fans and Conan has older ones, and for plenty of people my age Johnny Carson was the man, even though he started hosting before I was born. But the fact remains that NBC is experimenting with, essentially, splitting The Tonight Show into two. We’ll have to see this fall if the sum of the parts ends up being greater than the whole.