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Columnist – Vir Sanghvi;The power of the stand-up comedian on American TV

The late-night talk show is not an institution that has much resonance with the majority of Indian viewers. Only now, because satellite channels have carried Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, do we have some sense of what the fuss is about.

In the US, the Tonight Show has long been the stuff of legend. In the 1960s, when the mercurial Jack Parr was the host, his battles with the network were legendary and often Parr walked off the show in a fit of anger.

The Tonight Show only came into its own, however, when Johnny Carson took it over. There was a phase, in the 70s, when Carson was one of the most popular entertainers in the US despite being largely unknown in the rest of the world. If Carson walked down a street in Los Angeles, he was mobbed. If he walked down a street in London, he was ignored.

Though Tonight is a talk show, its real appeal lies in its stand-up comedy element. The show begins with the anchor walking out in front of the audience and then delivering what is known as the monologue, a non-stop series of jokes.

If the monologue works, so does the show. If it fails, the show dies. Each network spends millions on hiring scores of writers to ensure that the jokes in the monologue are funny. In Carson’s time, for every joke he used on camera, there were 12 he rejected. With that kind of ratio, it is not difficult to write a laugh-generating monologue.

The problem, therefore, is one of star quality and timing. When Carson retired, most people imagined that his successor would be David Letterman. Instead, NBC went with a potato-headed comic called Jay Leno. For many months afterwards, Leno was plagued by rumours that he would be sacked because, in the early days, he was regularly beaten by Letterman who went to a rival network.

Despite the stormy relationship with NBC, Leno stuck it out, defeating Letterman and restoring Tonight to its Carson-era glory. (What does NBC stand for, Leno once cracked. It stands for ‘Never Believe your Contract’.)

Long before Leno retired (unwillingly), Tonight had been promised to Conan O’Brien, who followed him in the NBC schedule. When the time for the handover came last year, Leno fans protested so much that NBC offered Leno a new show in an earlier time slot. But the network stuck with Conan for Tonight, arguing that he attracted a hipper, younger demographic.

“I cannot think of a single Indian channel that would have allowed an anchor to abuse it on air in the manner in which first Leno and then Conan have done.”
As you probably know, it hasn’t worked out that way. For the last six weeks, NBC has plotted and schemed to shift Conan out of Tonight and to give the show back to Leno.

Conan has refused to go quietly. Each night he has taunted NBC mercilessly on camera, making fun of the network’s dismal performance in the ratings (it isn’t just the Tonight show that rates badly). One evening, he joked that NBC wanted to put him in a time slot where nobody watched him. But, he pointed out, nobody watched NBC in any time slot anyway.

As the battle went on, Conan’s supporters organized rallies and poster campaigns on his behalf. All these were covered on Tonight and their abuse of NBC was faithfully broadcast – on NBC itself.

Finally, a few days ago, NBC paid Conan to go away. It is estimated that he got around 30 million dollars as a personal pay-off and that his team got another 12 to 14 million to share. The money will buy a paid vacation. By November, Conan will probably be back on the air on another channel.

As the story has unwound, I have watched with horrified fascination and wondered about the contrast with the situation in India.

First of all, which TV host would ever have the kind of power over Indian audiences that Conan and Leno have on Americans? Secondly, which TV star can expect to earn so much money for an hour’s work, five nights a week?

Of late, I have been impressed by how far American networks let their anchors go. I cannot think of a single Indian channel that would have allowed an anchor to abuse it on air in the manner in which first Leno and then Conan have done.

And finally, there is the matter of the pay-off. In India, an anchor who bombed would be sacked and told to leave his office. In America, he is paid millions just to go away.

Those who say that the media have too much power in India should look at the example of America. Our TV stars get a much worse deal than American anchors.

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January 27, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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