The Dancing HitlersNow I don't want to get off on a rant here, as Dennis Miller would say, but if you were Don Ohlmeyer, would you want to be alone in a dark Brentwood garden with O.J. Simpson?
Let me explain. Don Ohlmeyer is NBC's president of west coast operations, and the man partially responsible for Warren Littlefield, the programming genius who brought us "Must See TV" and other annoying marketing strategies, such as always programming good shows on the hour and terrible shows (hello, Jonathan Silverman and Brooke Shields) during the half-hours in between.
But there are two facts about Don Ohlmeyer that you must know: he's a friend of O.J. Simpson, and as president of NBC's west coast operations, he's also got close ties to Jay Leno, lantern-jawed host of NBC's cure for insomnia, The Tonight Show. So when Newsweek this week asked Ohlmeyer about possibly influencing coverage of his buddy O.J., Ohlmeyer's response was: "Probably no show skewered O.J. more than 'The Tonight Show.'"
Evidently Ohlmeyer's taste in television comedy matches his taste in friends. But this isn't going to be a rant about O.J., even though -- who are we kidding? -- he tried to cut his ex-wife's head off and gutted Ron Goldman just to pick up the spare.
No, Ohlmeyer's comment reminds me just how deluded NBC is about the quality of its late-night leader, Tonight. Because if I recall correctly, Tonight's contribution to the O.J. case was the Dancing Itos. In other words, the trial about a brutal double murder became a wacky musical romp. If I were O.J., I'd be happy to have comedy about my trial center around a parody of Solid Gold ("That Marilyn McCoo is fan-tastic!") instead of the grotesque spectacle of a Hall of Fame football player draining the lifeblood out of two innocent people in a jealous rage.
But the Dancing Itos say a lot about Leno's Tonight Show, a show which has taken the man who was once the best stand-up comedian in America and turned him into the master of ceremonies for a show that's bland, dull, and deeply unfunny. Ironically, in the old days people would tune in to watch David Letterman because Jay Leno was on his show -- now people tune in to watch David Letterman because Jay Leno's on the other channel. (Leno leads in overall ratings, but Letterman remains a more attractive advertising buy, because Leno's lead is essentially made up of what's left of Johnny Carson's aging audience.)
How has this happened to Leno? The easy answer may be that he's gotten so used to sucking up to people (a skill he excels at -- one reason why he's got the NBC gig, while Letterman had to jump to CBS), he now has a hard time offending anybody. But fearing offense can't be enough, because Letterman doesn't seem to want to offend anyone these days, and yet his show is much funnier than Leno's.
Maybe it comes down to creativity. Granted, Letterman's doing the same old routines he was doing 10 years ago at NBC. The problem is, Leno's also doing the same routines Letterman was doing 10 years ago at NBC. Every time I've tuned into Leno, I've seen him pinch something Letterman has done, and done better. Maybe that says something about how influential Letterman has become, that now late-night talk shows are more like Letterman's show than they are like Carson's. But if we were to accept that theory, then Conan O'Brien's show should fit, but it doesn't -- it's a very different show, and it's also a very funny show. But like George Bush, who ran for president because it was the next logical step, even though he had no idea what he'd actually do in the job, Jay Leno didn't know what to do with the Tonight Show job when he finally got it.
You'd think Leno would have a better monologue than Letterman, whose monologues are so painfully bad that one would hope Letterman himself would decide to give 'em up and go back to the "opening remarks" format he used to use at NBC. But Leno's monologue really breaks even with Letterman's -- the jokes are hokey, stale, and sometimes smell like they were left over from the Carson era. Even during the Olympics, an opportunity for Leno to reach millions of viewers who had never sampled him regularly, his monologue-only shows stiffed.
The Dancing Itos were one of the most offensive things I've ever seen on TV. Offensive because the best the Tonight Show writers could do was turn the Simpson trial into a recurring character, like SNL's Copy Machine Guy, but not as clever. I realize that we can't look to television (except The Simpsons) for subversive satire, but just about everyone did a better job of covering the Simpson trial than Leno. Even suggesting the obvious, that O.J. did it, became subversive enough to get a laugh. My favorite trial joke on T.V. came on Saturday Night Live, where Norm MacDonald reported that Judge Ito had instructed attorneys that if they didn't move their arguments along more quickly, he'd order O.J. to kill them.
Uh, Norm? I've got a pal of Don Ohlmeyer's here with me, and he wants to have a word with you out in the back yard...
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