I like Jay Leno.
I realize admitting you're a Leno fan this week is about as popular as Lane Kiffin is in Knoxville right now. But I have enjoyed Leno's monologue for years. At the end of a long day, I like easy laughs with telegraphed punch lines. Jaywalking and Headlines crack me up, too. Why? Because stupid people who think Las Vegas is the nation's capital and silly typos on menus and newspaper ads make me laugh. Yep, I embrace the lowest common denominator of comedy. Sue me.
I'm also a big Conan fan. I don't mean to come across like one of those guys who says he cheers for the both the Yankees and the Mets. But I enjoy Conan's wry humor and his clever skits as much as I do Leno's silly schtick. That's the beauty of comedy. It's subjective and often dependent on expectation and frame of mind, so you can find all sorts of stuff to laugh at, whether it be Fred Willard or a Gaseous Weiner.
What I'm having trouble with during this entire brouhaha is how Conan has become history's first gazillionaire martryr. I'm sorry, I don't buy it.
Not that Conan and his supporters don't have a right to be furious over the shabby way their late-night idol has been treated. He has been humiliated and undermined during this fiasco, due in large part to the bumbling machinations of one of the most inept corporate leadership teams in the history of broadcasting (full disclosure: I worked for NBC at 30 Rock for 6+ years. I had a front-row seat to the ineptness). The real villains here are the NBC executives who showed little patience and even less foresight with the late-night embroglio.
But what Team Conan fails to or refuses to see is that their fearless leader isn't some poor, unwitting victim in all this. He brought it on himself.
O'Brien was the one who set this entire bizarre sequence of events in motion when, back in 2004, he gave NBC the ultimatum that if he doesn't get "The Tonight Show" by a specific date, he would walk. That spurred Jeff Zucker to make O'Brien the 'host in waiting,' and put a countdown clock on Leno, a workaholic who had no desire to step down when the time came.
Leno is being shredded in the court of public opinion as the puppet master orchestrating this entire embarrassing mess. Fair enough. This isn't his first rodeo and he knows how the game is played.
My question is, where was all the moral outrage five years ago, calling Conan out for strong-arming his way into "The Tonight Show?" Is that move really that much different than what Leno is being accused of doing to Conan right now?
It's not like Leno has been hiding his displeasure over how he was uprooted from his old job. When asked by 'Broadcasting & Cable' back in November whether he would be interested in doing "The Tonight Show" again, Leno replied, "If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that's what they wanted to do, sure."
Tactful? No. Classy? Not really. But it was honest. And if you're Jay Leno, why should you give a rat's ass about what happens to the guy who openly campaigned for, and ultimately got, your job? Still, those villifying him for some Norman Osborn-esque plot to retake "The Tonight Show" throne is a reach. Because all he really had to do was just sit back and let things play out.
It seems fairly obvious by now that "The Jay Leno Show" was not just Team Zucker's way of keeping Leno from bolting to ABC, but an insurance policy that kept Jay around the network in case Conan didn't work out as host of "The Tonight Show."
The warning signs were there for quite some time.
During his stretch run on "Late Night," he was having trouble fending off Craig Ferguson. Yes, "The Jay Leno Show" decimated NBC's 11pm local news ratings, which in turn greatly impacted "The Tonight Show." And no, seven months was not a fair or reasonable amount of time to give the show time to find its way.
You know what? It's called Show Business, not Show Fairness.
It's the kind of enterprise where a guy can dominate his time period, make his bosses gobs of money, and still be forced out the door. And it's NBC, a company that has shown absolutely no signs of making sensible or honorable decisions where its programming is concerned. Ask Aaron Sorkin or John Wells about that.
Then there's the one not-so-tiny fact being overlooked in nearly all the 'Woe is Conan' stories, and that's that his "Tonight Show" wasn't very good. Whether it was the studio, the West Coast setting or the subtle changes to the show's formula, Conan didn't look or feel comfortable at 11:35, and the show suffered for it. He suffered massive ratings declines to Letterman and until he went rogue this week against his own network, showed few signs of bouncing back.
Ultimately, Conan orchestrated his own undoing simply by putting his faith in the same people who had shafted Leno in the first place. The same executives who alienated Hollywood's creative community by cutting back on prime-time dramas and pilots so they could 'manage for margins.' It's a knee-jerk regime that slaps band aids on wounds that need surgery and long-term treatment.
It's like the mistress having an affair with a married man, giving the guy the ultimatum. It's either me or your older, fatter wife. It's a lose-lose for the mistress, because even if the guy chooses her, how can she ever trust him to not cheat on her with another woman? After seeing how Leno was treated, a guy who was rewarded for years of top-rated service by being forced out and then placated with a 'managing for margins' show guaranteed to fail, how could Conan and his people think this couldn't happen to them?
Conan obviously didn't pay close attention to the pile of award season screeners Hollywood sent out last month, or he would have seen all this coming. The Universal movie "It's Complicated" co-stars "30 Rock's" Alec Baldwin as a guy who cheats on the mistress he married...with the wife he had cheated on (Meryl Streep) with the mistress. Shockingly, it doesn't end well.
The same goes for NBC's late-night mess. The network
Leno's ' Average Joe' public image is enduring potentially permanent damage as this all plays out. The rival talk shows are lambasting him without mercy. How that impacts the ratings of his next stint hosting "The Tonight Show" is anyone's guess.
Conan's most loyal followers will rage and tweet with righteous anger once he's finally off the air (presumably next week), as their hero takes a multi-million dollar buyout and plots his next move.
Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of all this for Team Conan - and perhaps to O'Brien himself -- is that the Harvard-educated comedy wunderkind was ultimately out-smarted by the blue-collar, unhip, dinosaur.