The last time I saw Conan O'Brien in person, he looked at me like a man hoping for intervention from a burly security guard.
The scene was a Los Angeles gathering of TV critics in January 2009; we had learned that NBC was scheduling Jay Leno at 10 p.m. that fall, after kicking him off The Tonight Show for O'Brien. My question for the carrot-topped comic was simple: Since Leno is taking his signature bits to 10 p.m., did NBC really give you The Tonight Show or a pale imitation? • A year later, O'Brien was performing his last Tonight Show after a painfully slow public ouster and I wondered why more stars don't listen to me. • So here's another try: a list of the things I would do if made Emperor of Television. Forget concerns about contracts or corporations or anything else; this is simply my blueprint for making the world of TV a little bit better.
Change No. 1: Stephen Colbert would take over The Tonight Show. (I would give the job to Jon Stewart, but he's currently the biggest wit standing between us and the unfettered, relentless mediocrity of cable TV news). Who wouldn't pay real money to see what kind of "Headlines" Colbert would mine to juice up Jay Leno's stale signature bit?
Change No. 2: Matt Lauer, the most underrated interviewer on television, would have gotten Larry King's spot on CNN. Imagine watching the guy who got George W. Bush to admit that an insult from Kanye West was a worse presidential moment than Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 carve up a different celebrity every night.
Change No. 3: CBS would build a better version of its lame-o daytime chat show The Talk featuring Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, Joan Rivers and Mo'Nique. Of course, it could only air at night. On Showtime. After everyone on the FCC has gone to sleep.
Change No. 4: American TV would find a crackling series for Wire star (and British native) Idris Elba — perhaps leading the new series ex-007 star Pierce Brosnan is developing for TV about an international private eye (really!). And Jimmy Smits would follow in David Caruso's footsteps one more time, replacing the deadly dull star of CBS's CSI: Miami, juicing that franchise.
Change No. 5: Dateline NBC would stop spending money tracking stolen iPods and figuring out if clerks at convenience stores lie about winning lottery tickets and put that prime-time journalistic muscle behind some real journalism. I hear somebody's still looking for that bin Laden guy.
Change No. 6: GOP champions Fox News and liberal lions MSNBC would stop pretending their political orientation doesn't affect their news coverage. I know why they keep up the pretense: Fans want to believe each channel's view of the world is the "true" view. But after five minutes watching Keith Olbermann bemoan GOP victories while anchoring MSNBC election coverage or seeing Fox's Megyn Kelly spend weeks growing more hysterical about the New Black Panthers, I'm thinking the cat is out of the bag for good. If you can't be honest about something this obvious, why should viewers believe anything you report?
TiVo or Ti-NO?
Skating With the Stars, debuts at 9 p.m. Monday on WFTS-Ch. 28: Motley Crue frontman Vince Neil has a secret past as a teen figure skater, and legendary basket case Sean Young signed on because a producer in Hollywood finally said he needed her. Those are just a few gems from the preview clips critics have seen of this glorious train wreck of a concept featuring folks who barely qualify as D-listers trying an icebound version of Dancing With the Stars. TiVo, if only to try to guess how badly Neil wishes he were Bret Michaels these days.