Jay Leno: The Self-Styled Forrest Gump of Late Night?

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Dave told it like it is last night: yes, it’s funnnnn to watch a showbiz disaster unfold when (a) you know that nobody involved is going to be physically harmed, and more importantly (b) you’re just as certain that neither you nor anybody you know personally is involved in any way. These late-night shakeups have been one hell of an entertaining distraction for me ever since last Thursday, when everybody first encountered the rumor that NBC was close to canceling the Jay Leno Show.

And by “distraction” I’m not just talking about the time I’ve lost on Gawker.com, either. I’ve been watching both Jay and Conan regularly for the first time since either hosts’ shows debuted.

It’s not like I thought either of these were terrible shows. I didn’t get in the habit of watching Jay because he was the same guy doing the same comedy that I didn’t watch at 11:35. And I always liked Conan. But I didn’t watch his Tonight Show simply because I was very happy with my current providers of late-night comedy and I wasn’t looking to switch to a different service at this time.

That’s really what we’re talking about. For all the talk about Dave being too grumpy or Jay diluting his show to please the widest demographic or Conan being freakishly gangly and pasty, the battle between these three isn’t a question of “who’s the true King Of Late Night?” No, it’s a case of there being three very good comedy products out in front of a marketplace of people with very different entertainment needs. You’re about as likely to get me to switch from Dave or Craig as you are to get me to drop Coca-Cola for any other brand. I’ve tasted Pepsi and I acknowledge that it’s a fine beverage. But it’s just not what I’m looking for. And you were lucky to get me to sample it in the first place.

I’m watching Conan as I write this. The man’s on fire; he’s been razor-sharp all week long. I can’t say how much progress he made in the months since I watched his debut — back then, I thought he was understandably awkward, feeling his way around through the earlier time and the intimidating legacy of Johnny’s chair — but tonight I see a man who’s completely in command of his stage, who knows what he wants to accomplish with every joke, and who’s as fearless as a man who no longer knows or cares how many shows he has left.

Leno’s been swinging hard, too. Though I think he’s been misstepping pretty severely in his monologues. When Conan tells jokes about how NBC is screwing him out of a job, I can only nod in sympathy. When Jay makes those same jokes, I can only blink and wonder if he just said what I thought he said. Just what does Leno have to be upset about? He created a show that met certain minimums of profitability but which (by some estimates) was costing local affiliates’ 11 PM news shows 25% of their viewership every night. The stations were in open revolt, so NBC pulled the plug on Jay’s show and put him back on at 11:35.

And this screws him over…how?

For the very first time since Leno started appearing on Dave’s old NBC show, liking Jay Leno is requiring a certain amount of effort on my part. This past week’s events have encouraged me to think about the milestones of his late-night career in a new light:

Leno’s manager gets impatient and schemes to push Johnny Carson out of his own show. According to Bill Carter of The New York Times — the Journalist Of Record in the late-night wars — NBC was in no rush to push Johnny Carson towards retirement. Despite their concerns about his aging audience, competition from younger hosts, and the fact that CBS and others were actively courting Leno to host his own competing 11:30 show, they were apparently confident that he’d make that choice on his own before long. So Leno’s manager, Helen Kushnick, planted an embarrassing unsourced front-page screaming-headline story in the New York Post about the network’s frustrations with Carson and their desire to hand The Tonight Show to Leno, his obvious successor, as soon as possible. Carson was so steamed about the headline that he didn’t even want to stick around for his 30th anniversary with the show, nor did he bother to inform NBC in advance that he’d be using a routine presentation in front of an auditorium of NBC affiliates to announce his speedy departure.

Carter reported that Leno had asked his manager point-blank if she’d been involved in the Post story, and that she’d lied to him. He also says that their relationship was a deeply complicated one, and suggests that Jay had long-since lost interest in digging too deeply into how she got things done.

Leno agrees to give up The Tonight Show in five years’ time. I recall that when he made the announcement on his show, he cited how caustic the previous transition of hosts had been, and how longterm relationships had been damaged, and that despite the #1 rating he was pulling in as host of “Tonight,” he wanted to ensure that history wouldn’t repeat itself. From Bill Carter’s September, 2004 Times piece reporting the transition:

NBC executives said yesterday that Mr. Leno was instrumental in making the new arrangement, having agreed when he signed his latest deal in March, that he would be willing to step aside for Mr. O’Brien in 2009. He will be 59 at that point, while Mr. O’Brien will be 46.

In a statement, Mr. Leno said: “When I signed my new contract, I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor, and there is no one more qualified than Conan. Plus, I promised my wife, Mavis, I would take her out for dinner before I turned 60.”

But last November, in a widely-quoted interview with Broadcasting & Cable Magazine, Leno was singing a slightly different tune. He didn’t disagree with the interviewer’s (leading) question about being yanked off the air with his show #1 in the ratings, and talked of fighting windmills at NBC. Sure, Carson wasn’t exactly quiet about his disappointment with the network, but then again his retirement announcement wasn’t filled with romantic notions of happily stepping aside to ensure a smooth transition for the next guy.

From the interview:

Has your relationship with NBC changed throughout all this?

I have the same friends I had in high school, and these [at NBC] are acquaintances. You have a business relationship; as long as you are making money for someone, you are friends. And when you’re not making money for someone, you’re not friends. I get it….As long I’m making money for the company, I will be here. When I’m not making money for the company, I won’t be here, and I understand how that works.

At the time, the most widely-circulated line from the interview concerned his clear willingness to take back the 11:35 slot:

Do you want to go back to 11:35?

If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that’s what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to.

Would you rather do that than this [the 10 PM show] ?

I don’t know. Would I take it? I guess. But it’s not my decision to make; it’s really not. I don’t know.

Jay Leno has been interviewed more in one week than I will in my entire lifetime. And even I know that the only correct answer to that question was “I’m really just focused on 10 PM.” Was Jay just exhausted, and incredibly careless? Or was he already seeing his abdication of “Tonight” as a problem that he hoped NBC would find a way to solve, as opposed to a regret that he couldn’t do anything about?

I can’t say. But I wonder.

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Which takes us to this week.

NBC announces that “The Jay Leno Show” will move to 11:35, bumping the entire late-night lineup by a half an hour.

Leno hasn’t been silent about the brouhaha, of course. But to both the press and his audiences, his comments have been limited to jokes about his show being cancelled and NBC messing around with him.

Conan has stated that he won’t be a party to “The Tonight Show” being moved from its traditional spot both on the schedule and as the first piece of fresh comedy after the local newscast. He seems to be resigned to the fact that his show will be completely off the air after the Winter Olympics.

It seems fair to conclude that Leno’s perfectly OK with this situation. NBC surely wouldn’t have announced the move unless an agreement for an 11:35 Leno show were already in place.

So you see where I am in my feelings about Jay Leno. There’s a lot of lipstick on his collar and I’m prone to start wondering about protests of innocence.

Through each of these pivotal moments in his career, his public stance has been that he just does his job as best he can; he’s just a leaf being spun by the breeze, without an active hand in his own destiny. The Forrest Gump of Late Night.

I’m willing to give him a mulligan on how Kushnick got him the Tonight Show. I think the situation is analogous to Don Corleone’s wife in “The Godfather.” Jay might not be innocent, but neither is he actively guilty of the things his “spouse” did to put bread on the table.

Okay, but was Jay pushed out of the “Tonight Show” chair in 2004, as he now suggests? Or was he open and amiable to a 2009 retirement and a smooth, clear transition for Conan? Who knows. But it certainly seems as though he had the option of fighting for his job if he really wanted to keep it. He was in a position of supreme negotiating strength: he had a contract through 2009 and an ungodly-consistent record of #1 finishes in his time slot.

If Jay had dug in his heels, Conan (who was being wooed by other networks and whose contract was due to expire shortly) might have walked. Well, that would have been Conan’s choice to make. Leno’s choice was to agree to leave the show at the end of his contract and issue an unequivocal statement of his support and his willful contribution to the move.

After the failure of the 10 PM show, was Jay forced to return to his old time slot? Of course not. According to published reports, Conan has a two-year “Tonight” contract. No, it stands to reason that recently, Leno was sitting in yet another NBC office, taking yet another meeting with executives, faced with yet another free choice to say Yes or No to an offer on the table. He apparently said “Yes, sure; move me to 11:35.”

And yet in his monologues, he paints himself as a victim of NBC. In his 2009 and earlier interviews, he suggests that he felt he really had no choice of remaining as the host of “Tonight.” There’s an interview (which I conveniently can’t locate) in which he likened his 2004 situation with NBC to a girlfriend who starts indicating that maybe she’d like to start seeing someone else. I recall him saying that in a situation like that, you don’t argue; you accept that they’re interested in making a change, and you leave of your own accord. But in this November interview with Broadcasting & Cable, I perceive an attitude of “gosh, if NBC makes me an offer to move to a different time slot, then that’s what I have to do…right?”

Other bits of that same interview offer a simpler answer: that it’s merely in his nature to fight the fight of the underdog whenever he finds one, and not to just walk away.

Which would normally be a laudable sentiment. Let’s not forget that he was the underdog in 1993, when Letterman was roundly and routinely kicking his butt from the Ed Sullivan Theater every night.

But it’s not something to be proud of when the consequences of his Yes are added up. When he was offered his old time slot back, Leno had to have known that only two repercussions were possible, both highly damaging to other parties:

1) Conan would start his show at 12:05. Despite retaining the Tonight Show name, in reality he’d merely be doing “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” a half an hour earlier than he was doing it a year ago. Jimmy Fallon’s show, still trying to find its feet as it is, would likely struggle at 1:05. There’d surely be no room for Carson Daly at 2 AM.

or

2) Conan would (rightly) see NBC’s move as an affront to himself and the work of his staff, and would choose to close his doors. God knows how many of “Late Night”‘s longtime staffers moved their homes and families to California to follow their boss, convinced that Conan would be in business with NBC for two years at the very least, and possibly a decade or three more.

Meanwhile, Leno has famously and frequently stated that he doesn’t even touch his TV money, and lives solely off of his income as a comic. He’s stated that he considers himself a standup first, and a broadcaster second. And according to published reports, he keeps more than 160 standup dates a year.

Does this seem like a man with a commitment to his show? Or is it a man who simply likes to fill his time with a lucrative second sideline to his real job, and who likes to fight for the sake of the fight?

I’m certain that I’ve won desirable jobs at other people’s expense. But I’m not sure that I could justify behavior like Jay’s, if I were in an analogous position and I knew my actions would have analogous repercussions for others.

…And assuming, of course, that my understanding of the situation is correct. I’m not even a bystander in all of this; I’m one of millions of spectators. I could be completely off base. I assume it goes without saying that when you hear me sputter about this situation, you should picture a 375-pound red-faced Barcalounger tick in a Patriots jersey, screaming at the TV that he would have taken the Pats all the way to the Super Bowl if HE had been quarterbacking last Sunday. I bet there are fewer than ten people on the planet who are in any sort of position to speak with any sort of authority about what constitutes “the right thing to do” here.

If I’m not completely off base, however:

Leno should just leave.

He really must just leave.

The first Late Night Wars were so long ago that people forget the bizarre way that Letterman wound up at CBS:

With Leno’s “Tonight Show” taking on water, NBC offered Dave the 11:35 slot, promising not to renew Jay’s contract when it expired in a year and a half. NBC had gone through a huge internal battle over it (well documented by Bill Carter) but ultimately, the network decided that they’d put the wrong guy in Johnny Carson’s chair and chose to fix their mistake.

Letterman supposedly agonized terribly over the decision. A lucrative deal with CBS was on the table. But “Tonight” was his boyhood dream.

We all know what Letterman did. The argument, stressed by his friends, management, and trusted staffers, was that “Tonight” had become damaged goods. He wanted to be Johnny’s successor but Leno’s term meant that this dream could never happen.

Moreover, for the first months of “The Tonight Show With David Letterman,” there’d be a big knife sticking out of the desk, with Dave’s prints on the handle and Jay’s blood dripping from the blade. He’d be the selfish guy who booted out “that nice Jay Leno” from a job that he’d earned through hard work and perseverance, whereas Dave would be perceived as being driven by some smug sense of entitlement. And what would happen to Jay in that circumstance? He’d probably wind up at another network, able to build a new show from scratch without any of the baggage of past political battles.

If Jay takes back the Tonight Show — and does anybody believe that if Conan makes good on his promise, a Jay Leno show airing on NBC from 11:35 to 12:35 would be named anything else? — then the Tonight Show will live on as nothing more than a trademark. It’s damaged goods. The continuity of its comedy legacy will have been broken; it’ll be just another talk show. Its host will be thought of as a clock-puncher instead of an involved, committed innovator, a man who sees the chair not as the seat of a rich tradition, but as just a place where he can rest his feet and relax for an hour every night before his next show at some random casino in Lower Godforsaken, Tennessee or wherever.

And Heaven help him if “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” doesn’t climb back to its 2008 ratings level almost immediately.

Conan will find work for himself and his staff, just as Dave did before him. He’ll create a brand-new property from the sweat of his massive, pasty-white brow (and, of course, the variably-tanned brows of his staff). In the end, he’ll have a success that he can truly call his own. Unlike Forrest Gump, Conan appears to be more than willing to assume full responsibility for his own destiny.

And amidst it all, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson will keep laughing and laughing and laughing. Not at the people involved, but at the overall situation. To CBS, which had absolutely nothing going on from 11:35 to 1:35 before Worldwide Pants joined the company, those two shows are like 15 years’ worth of free money. Now that Dave and Craig are taking the late-night lead away from NBC, I bet CBS is doing a lot of laughing, too.

At this point in the narrative, it should be acknowledged that none of these men will ever be anything less than insanely wealthy for the rest of their lives. They’re grown adults who entered into contracts with big corporations, advised by smart people who made certain they were aware that NBC doesn’t love them. It’s silly to be arguing about this on a day when thousands of people are dead in Haiti. Well, I can speak so freely and penetratingly about the Late Night situation only because it’s so trivial. Even right now, I struggle to complete this paragraph in a manner that can coherently express the sorrow of this disaster. I can only paste in the link of a very highly-recommended relief agency that can put your donations to excellent, immediate, and direct use. And then I sigh once more, and then I move on.

I have friends who are true experts in television. I’ve known and read Aaron Barnhart since he was the talented author of an Internet mailing list about late-night TV; I used to convert his newsletter to ebooks for the Newton Messagepad, if that gives you a hint about how long I’ve known him. For years now, he’s been a nationally-respected television critic for the Kansas City Star. I’ve known Mark Evanier since the days when swapping emails began with the screech of a 2400-baud modem. He’s worked in television for decades. When Leno and Letterman were up-and-coming LA comics, he didn’t just have ringside seats…he sold a joke or two to Jay. And if there’s barely anything about the entertainment biz that he doesn’t know, there’s certainly nothing he can’t write about with masterful elegance.

I can’t claim those kinds of credentials. All I know about Leno, Conan, Dave, and Craig is what I see in their shows and read in the news.

The postscript to Dave’s departure from NBC: he was in such turmoil over the choice between “Tonight” at NBC and starting up a new show at CBS that his friend and consiglieri Peter Lassaly (himself a former “Tonight Show” producer) urged Johnny Carson to lend his advice. He had determined to keep out of it, but agreed to take Dave’s phone call.

Clearly, as bad as the NBC offer was, it was still incredibly difficult for Dave to turn it down. But after a few quiet words of common sense from Johnny, Dave made the only choice he could possibly make.

I’m no Johnny Carson. But as a mere viewer, I’ll go out on a preposterously presumptuous limb.

Jay?

Turning down the Tonight Show is the only choice you can possibly make.