The Conan Travesty, Part 3: Jay Leno’s Story

On Monday night’s The Jay Leno Show, Leno finally took the time to seriously address the confusion over at NBC. Predictably, the statement received a lot of attention, and has certainly helped boost the arguments of the new group of Leno-defenders. While certainly not the as good as the dignified masterpiece Conan O’Brien penned a week ago, Leno’s comments do go a long way toward rectifying his “nice guy” persona and showing that Jeff Zucker and his band of NBC idiots, and not Leno himself, are really to blame.

But it would be disingenuous to let Leno off the hook. The logic he employed in his statement, while reasonable, was not exactly airtight, and a closer look may show why the public has taken Conan’s side so decisively.

Leno began his statement by discussing what happened in 2004: NBC asked him to step down to make room for Conan as host of The Tonight Show in 2009. This was, of course, where NBC made its initial screw-up. After all, Leno had been #1 in late-night ratings for a decade, and wasn’t showing any signs of fading. Why not, as Leno said in his statement, wait for the ratings to dip before changing the face of the show? The five-year transition plan was clearly a case of NBC wanting to have its cake and eat it too, to keep Conan O’Brien from leaving while also keeping the status quo for five more years.

But, at the same time, nobody put a gun to Leno’s head and made him accept this deal. If he didn’t want to retire, then he shouldn’t have agreed to the transition in the first place. As Conan has shown, you don’t have to do something just because NBC wants you to do it.

This acquiescence is really why it’s hard for people to sympathize with Leno (that and the fact that he actually gets to keep his job in all this): Through this fiasco, he seems like a classic Company Man—more bluntly, a stooge. He has gone along with every dumb plan NBC suggested, making him seem like a cog in a horribly inefficient machine.

Such a perception is reinforced by Leno’s professed skepticism about the prime-time experiment: “It didn’t seem like a good idea, but I said ‘Alright!’” If it didn’t seem like a good idea, then why did he agree? Conan didn’t think moving The Tonight Show to after midnight was a good idea, so he refused to go along with it. It’s hard to completely accept Leno’s explanation when so much of it relies on the “I was just following orders” defense.

Leno’s acquiescence to NBC’s word and decision-making is at its worst in his depiction of NBC’s decision to move his show to 11:35:

I said, ‘I’m not crazy about doing a half-hour, but OK. What do you want to do with Conan?’ ‘We’ll put him on at midnight or 12:05. He keeps The Tonight Show, does all that, he gets the whole hour.’…I said, ‘OK, you think Conan’ll go for that?’ ‘Yes. Yes! Almost guaranteed.’

Really, Jay? You took NBC’s word on that? It was too much to ask you to pick up the phone, or shoot Conan an e-mail, to confirm that he was OK with this and not ready to quit his dream job over the decision?

Jay Leno likes to portray himself as a humble, down-to-Earth guy, reminding viewers in his statement that he has neither a manager nor an agent. But he’s not stupid. He knows how the industry works—that’s how he got The Tonight Show in the first place. He had to at least suspect that Conan might be upset by this development. If he were really as gentlemanly and nice as he claims, then the honorable thing would have been to consult O’Brien before allowing NBC to make the announcement.

Leno concluded his statement by recounting how NBC, after Conan refused to abide by their plan to move Jay to 11:35 and Tonight to midnight, asked Leno to take back The Tonight Show. He made a big show of sighing and acting like accepting this deal was done merely out of selfless devotion to NBC and a desire to solve the situation. As if the decision weren’t self-interested at all. As if he hadn’t already said multiple times, before NBC made any of these new plans, that he had never wanted to leave Tonight in the first place and that he would go back to the show if asked.

Probably the worst aspect of Leno’s explanation, though, is his attempt to do a Pontius Pilate by blaming the ratings for the whole mess: “If you don’t get the ratings, they take you off the air.” Except that’s not what’s happening. Jay Leno didn’t get ratings…and he’s getting a promotion.

As for Conan’s ratings, Leno’s statement again sought to perpetuate this myth, propagated by Dick Ebersol and Jerry Seinfeld, that O’Brien’s time at Tonight had been a failure. Seinfeld insisted that “I don’t think anyone’s preventing people from watching Conan,” and Ebersol was even harsher, calling Conan’s show “an astounding failure.” The knock against Conan is that he inherited a show that was #1 in the ratings and is now getting beat handily by David Letterman.

Well, you know who else was handed The Tonight Show at #1 and was then routinely beat by Letterman? Jay Fucking Leno. Letterman’s show had better ratings than Tonight in Leno’s early years as well. And how long did it take Leno to overtake Letterman? Three fucking years. And Leno did not have the handicap of being NBC’s second talk show of the night, or the lackluster lead in that The Jay Leno Show provided. So maybe seven months is a little too soon to be pronouncing a show a failure.

Was Conan struggling in his first months at Tonight? Yes, but Leno heard similar criticisms in his first seven months, as did Conan when he was at Late Night and Jimmy Kimmel at ABC and pretty much every other late night host. Heck, does anyone even remember Johnny Carson’s first seven months?

All of this only highlights how dumb and shortsighted NBC’s decision-making has been throughout this whole process. Jay Leno isn’t entirely to blame for this, but he does deserve some guilt by association. He’s not the main culprit, but his willingness to go along with everyone of NBC’s schemes has enabled the poor decision-making to continue. Usually, being a Company Man isn’t the worst trait you can have…unless that company is NBC.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on January 20, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    I agree on all accounts. Letterman has been blasting Leno, not Conan, and there’s a reason for that. Leno and Letterman were close in the early years of their careers and Leno was a regular guest on the first late night Letterman show. Then Leno, in his gentlemanly way, turned on Letterman, and stole The Tonight Show away from Letterman with NBC’s compliance. Sound familiar. Leno has totally compromised his comedic style (he used to be edgy and rebellious) to suit the masses and any artist will tell you that’s nothing short of a heinous act. Bottom line – Leno ain’t Mr. Nice Guy. And Johnny Carson thought Leno was an asshole – ’nuff said.

    Reply

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