THE BLOG
03/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Conan Does Not Go Gentle Into That Good Tonight

First, my heartfelt apologies to the estate of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas for taking the title of, perhaps, his most famous poem and parodying it for the title of this post. Sorry, DT.

But it is sort of apt, I think. Conan O'Brien, obviously not long for the peacock network, has clearly opted for a scorched earth policy and is taking no prisoners in his battle with NBC. And, he has never been funnier. Anger and revenge make excellent ingredients for humor.

In the past, I always had the feeling that he was holding back. And while NBC executives reportedly once tried to get him to be even more tame to win over the audience in what we on the two coasts often refer to as "those fly-over states," the fact is, recent evidence suggests they probably would have done better encouraging him to be even more outrageous in his college humor.

I came across an article this morning written by the Kansas City Star Editorial Page columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah that sort of explains why O'Brien never really did capture the middle part of the nation.

He writes that he much prefers "Letterman's wit to Leno's old jokes and O'Brien's 'Look at me, I'm so witty' attempts at humor," and goes on to say that by being pushed out of NBC, the red-headed comic will be "free to peddle his juvenile humor elsewhere."

Guess it is fair to say that Mr. Abouhalkah is no fan of Conan O'Brien!

Oddly, although David Letterman has always thought of himself as the heir apparent to former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson (and, apparently, Carson thought so, too) O'Brien, it seems to me, has always been the far more inventive, and, therefore, funny, host.

Since his "troubles" began, and then escalated with his NBC bosses, O'Brien has been set free. I can't help thinking that had he been performing at this speed in the previous seven months, his Tonight Show would have easily beaten Letterman in the all important ratings game, despite the weak lead-in his show was getting from local news and, of course, from the 10 p.m. Jay Leno Show, which was destined to fail, I think, from day one.

I keep reading that Leno was a better Tonight Show host because his old-school humor is more winning to mid-west audiences. That may be true, but, while Carson was from the mid-west (born in Iowa and grew up in Nebraska), his humor was always sprinkled with just enough sophistication to make him captivating to audiences in New York and Los Angeles (and other major urban areas) as well.

Certainly, both Jack Paar and Steve Allen (for those too young to remember, they were both hosts of the Tonight Show even before Johnny Carson) displayed a type of urbane wit (though Allen could be really silly, too) that appealed to the coasts as well as to the middle. Of course, in those days, the mass medium of television was not nearly as mass as it is today.

What I have read little about is the economic impact the Tonight Show debacle might have on the Los Angeles economy.

While O'Brien will reportedly walk away from his Universal stage with a nice bit of change, he imported many people with him here when he made the move from New York. My guess is, not all of them will so easily secure new employment.

And, while some scriptwriters are probably giving one another high-fives and fist bumps at various Starbucks from Burbank to West Hollywood -- thinking the late night shuffle will lead to a renaissance of scripted drama shows at 10 p.m. -- I'm not so sure that will be the case long range.

Initially, yes, NBC will have to fill the hour vacated by the departed corpse of The Jay Leno Show, but, remember, there was a powerful economic reason why NBC experimented with Leno in that time slot to begin with: Network ratings are on the decline and the cost of producing scripted hours is very high. And, as NBC likes to keep pointing out, while its affiliates hated the Leno show at 10 p.m. because it was lowering the ratings of the local news shows that followed, the network was actually making money on the Leno show because it was so cheap to produce. Don't think for a second that NBC still won't try to figure out a way to program its prime time without spending tons of money. Leno wasn't the answer; a return to scripted dramas at that hour may not be, either?

Anyway, over the next few days, I strongly urge one and all to catch what would seem to be O'Brien's last few broadcasts: The irony is, they just may go down in television history as some of the funniest shows ever broadcast in late night.

Oh, and, again, sorry, DT, for abusing your poem title. But it was for a good cause.

Charles Feldman is a journalist, media consultant and co-author of the book, "No Time To Think-The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-Hour Media Cycle." He has covered police and politics in Los Angeles since 1995 (which makes him well equipped to comment on comedy shows!!!). And, he contributes investigative reporting on a regular basis to KNX 1070 Newsradio