Who's to Blame for NBC's Late Night Disaster?

With Conan O'Brien set to receive $40 million to walk away from the "Tonight Show," the television media is circling to pin the blame for NBC's broken late night carousel. Months after moving Jay Leno to primetime, the network announced that they would return their leading chin to late night, prompting O'Brien to demand a severance deal. Is this mess all Jay's fault for sticking around, and being generally lame? Or Conan's fault for failing to capture a late night audience, and being too goofy? Or NBC's fault for coming up with the generally horrible idea in the first place?

Let's start at the beginning. The problem with late night comedy is that it's really neither late night nor comedy.

The NYT's David Carr and his daughter have been watching the Jay Leno show recently, he writes. But not on TV. On Hulu. The first problem with late night comedy is that it's no longer always late night. We can watch most television shows online at any time. But late night TV -- whose transience is literally a part of its genre title: Late Night TV-- loses all cultural currency mere hours after their hosts sign off because the news changes and the jokes stale.

That is, if the shows haven't lost all cultural currency to begin with. Carr explains:

But as things stand now, by the end of the day, we all have been bombarded by news and commentary from all manner of media, making "The Tonight Show" and its ilk increasingly seem beside the point, no matter who is delivering the monologue. In its glory days, "The Tonight Show" served as a search engine on culture, letting us know which politician had made a gaffe, which corporate evildoer had been caught doing evil and which starlet had experienced a wardrobe malfunction.

Now the search engine is the search engine -- or more likely, any number of "did-you-see" alerts received by e-mail or on Facebook, Twitter or other sites we visit from our desktops or on our cellphones.

The choice to watch late night TV used to be: Leno or Letterman. Now it's Leno, or Letterman, or Community on NBC.com, or CSI on Hulu, or Arrested Development on DVD, and so forth. Late night TV used to live in the alpine wilderness of midnight television, where no primetime dramas dared to tread. Now it's fighting to survive in a jungle where every show on TV is, technically speaking, "on."

The second problem with late night comedy is that it's not comedy -- at least not to me and everybody I know. I can't remember the last time somebody recited a Jay Leno joke, or sent along a David Letterman monologue, or implored me to watch last night's Conan O'Brien - Andy Richter interaction. But I get Daily Show clips sent to me all the time. Precisely because late night comedy is designed to appeal to everyone and offend as little as possible, it inevitably appeals to no one and surprises as little as possible. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart -- the real heirs to late night comedy as a brand of actual comedy -- peddle media satire and criticism with an edge of partisanship. They're funny because they're unpredictable yet purposeful, incendiary with a point.

Late night television has lost more than an audience, or a host. It's lost its reason to exist.