Sunday, January 23, 2011

Flashback: January 22, 2010

One year ago yesterday, Conan O'Brien walked away from The Tonight Show, the job every talk show host aspires to, and stepped into an unknown wilderness. He beseeched his fans not to give in to hate, not to feel sorry for him, and then he grew a beard and went on tour. On January 19th, a couple of days before his last Tonight show, after weeks of obsessing over the whole fiasco, and in response to a smattering of Leno Lovers who I'd been tangling with online, I unleashed the following (and this is the SHORT version):

In response Jay Leno's statement yesterday, and for those who may have been fooled by it, this is my rebuttal. It's long, but it covers the entire five year history of this disaster-in-the-making, touching on all of Jay's disingenuous comments and passive-aggressive attacks. He is NOT blameless in this; not acting can be just as destructive as acting. If you have the time to read it, I'd be grateful for any feedback. 

Chin Music: How Jay Leno Trashed His "Mr. Nice Guy" Image To Win Back The Tonight Show

I've been openly hostile towards Jay since this story erupted, so I'm not going to pretend to be unbiased. Long before there was a "Team Conan" there was a "Team Dave" and I was on it. I started watching Letterman when he had a morning show on NBC, I was a die-hard fan of Dave's "Late Night" show, and I was bitterly resentful that Leno got the "Tonight" job over Dave. I read Bill Carter's book "The Late Shift" a couple of years later, and my feelings of enmity towards Leno calcified as everything I suspected about him was confirmed. I thought he was a phony, I thought he was a backstabber, and I thought he stole something he may well have been suited for, but didn't deserve.

But just because I'm biased doesn't mean I want to be willfully unfair or inaccurate. I watched Dave's "Late Show" loyally, relished his early success, but reluctantly accepted Jay's gradual ascension as inevitable. Time (and ratings) proved that Jay arguably DID deserve Johnny Carson's chair, but he was never as clever or witty or creative as Dave -- even a watered-down, 11:30 Dave. He was a pretender to the throne, an antipope (Google it, fellow Catholics). But the public eventually forgot about how Johnny was shoved aside, or how Dave was screwed, or how Helen Kushnick terrorized Hollywood, and Jay's good name was fully restored. 

I never forgave him, though; I cheered when Conan was named as his replacement, was annoyed when Jay didn't agree to disappear triumphantly (as Carson did), but was relatively content to watch him flounder and become irrelevant at 10 pm. But as long as Leno was still on the air, I felt uneasy. I didn't trust the guy. I followed news about "The Jay Leno Show," but only to track the negative reviews and sagging ratings. I knew NBC was loyal to Jay and possibly regretting the O'Brien decision, and I knew that because it was cheap to produce, it WOULD meet low expectations and make the network plenty of money. So I was prepared to endure at least two more years of Jay "Big Jaw" Leno, but I never dreamed that Jay's failure would end up costing Conan HIS job. 

Nevertheless, here we are in 2010, and sometime in the next couple of months Jay will be back at 11:30, bobbing his head and smirking to Kevin Eubanks, somehow trying to convince America that he had nothing to do with all this ugliness, and he just does what he's told. Heck, he might even be the VICTIM in all this! Never Believe your Contract, folks! Yuk, yuk, yuk... But this time, unlike 1992, a whole LOT of people turned on him, quickly and viciously. Turns out I wasn't alone all these years, silently harboring ill-will towards the man who has now TWICE won late night's greatest crown over funnier, more talented men. (THREE times, if you count Carson.) 

How did we get here? Did Jay really set out to undermine Conan from the very beginning? Will he be able to shake the growing perception that he is a cold, calculating schemer who will do anything and bulldoze anyone to get what he wants? Or is there a way for Jay to end this madness, and become the nice guy he desperately wants us to believe he is?


It all began, fittingly, with a brilliant piece of riveting television. In September 2004, Jay Leno told his stunned (and disapproving) audience that he'd be stepping down in 2009 to hand over the reigns of television's most prestigious franchise to "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien. It was a stunning move. Fortunately, he had five years to prepare for it, as did Jay, who claimed to be eager for a peaceful transfer of power. "When I took over this show [in 1992], boy, there was a lot of animosity between me and Dave," he confessed, "and quite frankly, a lot of good friendships were permanently damaged, and I don't ever want to see anybody have to go through that again ... so right now, here it is: Conan, it's yours. See you in five years, buddy."

Leno was perfect; he was gracious, he waved off the boos of his audience, and he professed to be completely supportive of this move: "Conan is a gentleman, funny, the hottest late-night guy on television ... and I said 'You know something? I don't want Conan to go anywhere else'." This was Jay Leno, America's Everyman, talking of quitting while on top like Jerry Seinfeld, and how only the great Johnny Carson should host "Tonight" into his sixties. (Jay would be 59 in 2009.) He promised a great finish -- "that's twelve hundred shows, we're not going anywhere tomorrow!" -- he'd keep the show at number one, "and then in '09 I'll say 'Conan, take it over. It's yours'."

NBC must have been thrilled. The Carson-to-Leno transition was nasty and ugly, and it created something the network certainly hadn't wanted: a viable, long term rival for "The Tonight Show" in late night. For all the talk of how Leno kept his show number one for 15 years, there was one thing he HADN'T been able to do: kill off all his competitors. Johnny Carson's reign was littered with the carcasses of failed late night shows, from Joan Rivers to Pat Sajak to Alan Thicke and many others. Jay had buried a couple of lightweights (Arsenio and Chevy Chase), but Dave had flourished and established the first true alternative to "Tonight" at 11:30. I'm sure Jay took solace in being number one, but it's indisputable that under his stewardship late night went from a kingdom to a democracy, with CBS and ABC both having strong lineups following their local news. This would make the transition for Jay's successor treacherous -- regardless of who it was -- and NBC desperately needed it to go smoothly.

Three years passed without much notice, but as soon as the clock started ticking a little louder, a "Leno Problem" began to emerge. If NBC had expected Leno to tire during his victory lap, they were very wrong -- he liked being the King, and apparently now didn't want to give up the crown. As reported by Bill Carter in February 2008, Jay's mantra was "What I do is tell jokes at 11:30 at night." This was a hint of the passive-aggressive campaign Leno would wage for nearly two years. He would never say out loud that he wanted his job back -- that would mean he had it in for Conan -- but his seller's remorse was becoming apparent.

Potentially, this was big trouble for NBC. Leno was still powerful, and in 2009 he would be free to go anywhere (most likely ABC) and compete at 11:30 at full-strength. In trying to avoid the blunders of 1992, NBC may have created something WORSE, as an aggrieved and "victimized" Leno took his ratings prowess and all the public sympathy to another network. It was deja-vu all over again. Not wanting to lose Jay the way the lost Dave, the only solution was to somehow KEEP Leno at NBC, where he couldn't damage their late-night lineup. After rejecting a daily 8 pm show and an Ed Sullivan-like Sunday night time slot, Leno accepted the challenge of establishing a comedy hour on weeknights at 10:00.

In an interview with the New York Times in December 2008, Jay said all the right things ... almost. He talked about the deal being "mutual" with the network, but was careful to say that "ultimately, this was NBC's idea." He expressed his concern about providing a strong lead-in for the local news and the late night schedule, but he had no problem competing for guests that would otherwise have gone to "Tonight." No pressure, of course, but "I think we will have an advantage saying to press agents, 'It's prime time; reach a wider audience'." Hey, he and Conan are buddies, Jay said, but if "your friend is pitching, are you going to try to hit a home run? Yeah! It's what you do." This was the first real sign that Conan was in trouble.

Fast-forward to August 2009. Conan is making an unsteady transition at 11:30, losing regularly to David Letterman, and Jay Leno is poised to return to the NBC airwaves with "The Jay Leno Show." At a press conference to unveil his show, he brushes off any responsibility to save the network in a statement that should have given NBC and Conan's camp chills: "They're in fourth place. It's not my fault. I was happy where I was." Any pretense that he had willingly and graciously turned over "The Tonight Show" is now gone. Still, Nice Guy Jay professes sympathy for his successor's struggles: "Conan is going through exactly the same thing I went through. It's a rite of passage when you take over the 'Tonight Show'." 


Given their shared experiences, one would think that Jay would never consider humiliating O'Brien by grabbing his old show back, the way Letterman almost did in 1993. He continued to say the "right" things in his main quotes, but he also dropped little asides that hinted at darker and less generous feelings and motives. But Jay was bulletproof now, so these passive-aggressive nuggets were absorbed by his good-guy image and nobody made much of them. In his most revealing comments yet, Leno gave a lengthy interview in November 2009 to Broadcasting & Cable. Nice Guy Jay said he was holding up fine, he felt bad for Dave, and that it was unfair to judge Conan this early -- but, oh, by the way, I'd take 11:30 back if they offered it to me, and I'm not going away voluntarily.

Throughout the interview with Ben Grossman, Jay portrays himself as a helpless observer in all this. "I get it, I understand how it works. I really don't take anything too personally." In other words, nothing that happens or will happen is HIS fault; he's at the mercy of other forces. Asked if he's mad about the criticism he says, "I could have said no. But I like being on TV and writing jokes." But pressed if he regretted the prime-time switch, he admits, "Would I have preferred to stay at 11:30? Yeah, sure. I would have preferred that." But he denied any ambitions for Conan's job, likening his relationship with NBC to a whipped marriage; when asked if he'd be "thrilled" to be put back at 11:35, he said, "Oh, I don't know. Are you married? Whatever you want, honey."

When Grossman expresses disbelief at Leno's blasé response, Leno finally admits what was obvious long ago -- he hated leaving "Tonight" and wants it back -- but he'd NEVER ask for it; they'd have to give it to him: "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. [...] But it's not my decision to make; it's really not."

Just in case it might look like he was openly campaigning for his old job, Leno again expressed support for Conan, saying he was "doing fine" and that it was "a little too early to tell" if he was going to succeed at 11:30. But he also reasserted that he had no problem taking a gig that another comic had walked away from because he was being mistreated. "I see other comics say, 'F*** that, I'm not going back to that club, they treated me...' [And I say], 'Great, I got that one.' That's how you do it."

On the other hand, if he were FIRED, he'd leave with no regrets. "I've never walked away from anything in my life.... This is what I do. You keep plowing ahead. If someone wants to take you out, I'm out." This was a sentiment Leno had expressed a year earlier, when explaining why he hadn't fought to keep the "Tonight" job in the first place. "I've never been one of those guys, when the girl says 'I don't think we should see each other anymore,' I go, 'Why? What can I do?' No, I'm [like] 'O.K., babe, I'm gone'." More claims of "whatever you want, honey" ... but if it really came down to that, if NBC really was ever poised to fire him, would Jay hop on one of his vintage motorcycles and ride off into the sunset?


Meanwhile, at Camp Coco, things weren't going smoothly. "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" started off with a bang in June, and received generally favorable reviews, but he quickly slipped into third place as David Letterman and "Nightline" siphoned off many of the older viewers who used to watch Jay's show. Conan's ratings with the younger 18-49 demographic improved, but his overall ratings dropped, settling at about half of what Jay had been pulling in at 11:30. But outwardly there were no signs of concern; after all, it had taken Jay two years to beat Letterman head-to-head, and Conan's "Late Night" stint was widely seen as a disaster until he got his footing and found his comfort zone. And besides, there was NO WAY the network would ever fire the host of "The Tonight Show" just months into his tenure, right?

Actually, it did almost happen once before -- in 1992, to Jay Leno. When the decision to cut Letterman loose blew up in their faces, the brain trust at NBC started frantically courting him, just as he was about to sign with CBS. After several weeks of rumors and secret meetings, and stuck in the exact position that O'Brien is in right now, Leno lashed out at the double-dealing, telling the New York Times: "NBC is like a guy with two girlfriends who doesn't know which one he's going to marry [...] and the longer you wait, the madder they both get." Clearly, he felt it was wrong to fire the new "Tonight" host just because NBC wanted to keep another late-night star around: "This is a terrible position NBC is in. But fragging your own soldier doesn't make any sense to me."

It would be fair to ask how Conan O'Brien got HIMSELF into this situation. If Conan was beating Dave, or at least holding his own, NBC probably would have had to cancel "The Jay Leno Show" and fire its host. But Conan was losing to Dave, and losing badly, by margins unseen since the earliest days of the rivalry. Surely this was Conan's own fault, right? NBC genius Dick Ebersol took it upon himself to call Conan's show an "astonishing failure" and to say he was "gutless" for fighting back in his monologues. But how could he have been expected to succeed if he was forced to battle the ghost of the old "Tonight Show"?

NBC had arguably done the smart thing by planning to replace a popular older guy with a popular younger guy. Even if Dave enjoyed a few years at number one, he would eventually retire; Conan could easily have rode it out and then enjoyed a decade or more on top of the heap. It's the see-saw of life. Meanwhile, it was simply unfair for NBC to expect O'Brien's "Tonight Show" to maintain a 4.0 or better as long as Jay Leno was on the air at 10:00. Late night ratings are governed by the Law of Diminishing Returns; it's inevitable that each succeeding late night show will draw lower ratings than the one before it. Conan had already increased his "Late Night" audience by 25% just by virtue of being on an hour earlier, but he hit a wall because there was another "Tonight Show" airing every night at 10:00. Did America want to watch "Tonight" twice a day? Of course not -- so Jay's fans watched his version, and Conan's fans watched HIS version. O'Brien would NEVER draw 5 million viewers as long as Jay was pulling the same numbers at 10pm; therefore, Conan would never have a fair evaluation until Jay was off the air and he had the FIRST talk show each night on NBC.


Now it seems we'll never know what Conan would have done with "Tonight." NBC's affiliates were in full revolt after Christmas over Leno's prime time ratings, and they were going to bail on him, despite Jeff Zucker's contention that it would take a full year to see how Jay's 10:00 show was doing. On January 5th it was reported that NBC was doubling its order of series pilots for 2010; two days later, they were forced to awkwardly deny that they were cancelling "The Jay Leno Show." That same day, however, rumors started to fly that Leno was going back to 11:35 for a half-hour show, and NBC's flagship late-night program, "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" was being unceremoniously bumped to 12:05. I was reluctantly OK with this at first -- ANYTHING to keep Jay from getting "Tonight" back -- until I started thinking about the Law of Diminishing Returns. Again, Conan was being put in a position where it would be impossible for him to succeed as long as Leno was his lead-in.

Leno has been publicly silent throughout all this, but he let his monologue jokes speak for him. When the cancellation rumors first broke out, he quipped, "I don't think there is any truth to the rumors. See, it's always been my experience that NBC only cancels you when you're in first place." Once again, he refers to the transition to Conan -- which he supposedly fully supported -- as being "cancelled"; he also seemed to forget that Johnny Carson was "number one" when HE was "cancelled" in 1992. The next day he joked that "NBC is working on a solution they say in which all parties would be screwed equally" -- again, disingenous, because NBC was treating the entire mess as a "How can we save Jay?" mission. Still, Leno tried to distance himself from what was happening: "My people are upset. Conan's people are upset. Hey, NBC said they wanted drama at 10:00 -- now they've got it!" Ha, ha, but NBC didn't WANT "drama" at 10:00 -- they wanted Jay's comedy. And now that he failed to deliver, it was O'Brien who was being shoved out the door.

Meanwhile, the rest of the late night world pounced, and when the stuff hit the fan, it splattered all over Leno. Letterman gleefully introduced fake promos for "Law & Order: Leno Victims Unit"; Jimmy Kimmel did a brutal, episode-long impression of Jay and his show -- and then two days later eviscerated him to his face (via satellite), saying "Listen, Jay, Conan and I have children. All you have is cars. We have lives to lead here. You have $800 million. For God's sake, leave our shows alone!" Patton Oswalt compared Jay to Nixon, and Rosie O'Donnell said he should retire. "Team Conan" support groups sprang up around the internet, and Conan's ratings shot up. Jay's response to all this? "You're welcome!" Another strangely tone-deaf note, as he appeared to kick the guy he was replacing on his way out the door.

For his part, O'Brien made brilliant (and pointed) comedy out of all this, telling America's children, for example, that his experiences have taught him that "you can do anything you want in life -- unless Jay Leno wants to do it too." He joked that after leaving NBC he was going to work in a more honorable industry -- like hardcore porn. "In the movie I'd be having sex with a beautiful woman and just as we're about to climax, I get replaced by Jay Leno." In between the jabs at Leno and NBC, though, Conan's humor was mostly self-lacerating, as he joked about his availability for kids' parties and put his "Tonight Show" up for sale on Craigslist. He started showing "Classic Tonight Show Moments" as if he was in the home stretch of a 20-year run. It was hilariously tragic comedy.

On January 12, in the middle of the firestorm, Conan released an extraordinary letter addressed to the "People of Earth," declaring that he would not follow Jay Leno and move "Tonight" to 12:05. Written by O'Brien alone, and released against the wishes of his managers, it was a brilliant P.R. move even if it wasn't a great tactical move, and it pushed the saga into Biblical territory. NBC's late night battle was now the "King Solomon and the Baby" story (1 Kings 3:16-28), with "Tonight" as the baby, and Jay and Conan as the two mothers. The false mother wants to divide the baby in half, whereas the true mother would rather give it up than see it killed. Unfortunately, NBC executives are playing the "Wise King Solomon" role in this tale, and they are eager to give the baby to Mama Jay.

So it all comes down to Jay Leno. I don't believe he's an evil, curly-mustachio'd cartoon villain who set out to destroy Conan O'Brien. But he willingly gave up "The Tonight Show" and now wants it back -- it's really as simple as that. His supporters can complain that he hasn't done anything but follow NBC's orders, but this isn't about Jay's ACTIONS, it's about his INACTION. He has stood by and let this happen to Conan -- the same thing that almost happened to HIM in 1993 -- and he's done nothing. All Jay has to say is "I'm not taking Conan's job away from him" and the whole thing ends. The guy who said "fragging your own soldier" wasn't cool is now watching silently as NBC pulls the trigger on a fellow "soldier." He's standing in the gallery at a minute to midnight at a TV execution, and all he as to say is "Stop!" and it won't happen. But Jay is silent -- whipped, he'd like you to think. Whatever you want, honey.

There's a mild "backlash to the backlash" brewing, and of course Jay will encourage it. He joked late last week that he thought the new show "Human Target" as about him, and he said that if Sarah Palin doesn't work out as a Fox contributor, "they'll just blame Leno." Again, you have to read between the lines with Jay because he's so passive-aggressive -- but the implication of that joke is that Conan is the one who "didn't work out" and it's not HIS fault that he's getting his old job and time slot back. This is from a guy who was once in the SAME POSITION Conan is in now, and who swore that "I don't ever want to see anybody have to go through that again."

His boosters say Jay is a "great guy" and it's absurd to expect him to sacrifice his own interests for someone else's. But David Letterman was once in this position: He could have grabbed the "Tonight Show" from Jay in an ugly and humiliating manner -- but he didn't. Conan O'Brien could have held onto "Tonight" out of sheer spite and watched it circle the drain at 12:05 -- but he didn't. Both men gave up the greatest job in late night because it was the WRONG way to get it (or keep it). It IS possible to do the "right thing" here -- but Jay Leno is the only one left who can do it. NBC certainly won't do it -- they only care about the ratings the first week after the Olympics, and they will sell out the future of late night to get good results NOW. Conan made a principled and heart-wrenching decision; so he is now powerless. Only Jay can make this end right. Only Jay can restore his "Mr. Nice Guy" image. Only Jay can act in the best long-term interests of NBC and "The Tonight Show." Only Jay can end up coming out of all this smelling like a rose. All he has to do is say "No."

Will he? Probably not, but it would make one hell of a "Headline."


Well, we all know how THAT ended up. Conan ended his run on The Tonight Show with humor (the ".6 Anniversary Special" highlight clips), bathos (trying to sell the parts of the set on Craigslist), and remarkable grace (his send-off speech at the end of the last show was truly amazing). He's on TBS now, for better or worse, and he will need to sink or swim on his own. While I'd love to be able to crow about him beating Leno week after week, and TBS' PR spin about how DVR numbers actually put Conan AHEAD of Leno offers some comfort, the truth is Conesy needs to make this work, and it's just harder on basic cable than it is on a network. My rage towards Jay Leno has burned down to glowing orange embers -- no longer a blaze, but these embers will NEVER die out.

Eternal Embers aside, I'm kinda over the whole thing, honestly. I watch Conan every night, but I'm frequently reminded that late night talk shows are like daily newspapers, not favorite novels. Sometimes the monologue is great, sometimes it's flat. Sometimes the guests are locked in with Conan and hilarity ensues, and sometimes they're just there to shill or they have nothing interesting to offer. We don't watch these shows because we expect our minds to be blown every night -- we watch because we have a relationship with the host. Conan's fans have what they want, Jay's fans have what THEY want, and so on. Oh, I'll still root for Jay to fail someday, but he's like the Terminator -- he'll never stop. 

So, as it was in about 1996, the Late Night Wars have slowed down to a cold war. Dave is getting older (and it's showing), Jay is down almost 50% from where he was a couple of years ago, and the late night scene is fractured like never before, with Stewart, Colbert, Adult Swim and Conan all grabbing a chunk. Things could be a lot different a few years from now, as Dave edges towards retirement, and Comcast petitions the government for a one-time-only permission slip for human cloning, in the hopes that Jay Leno can host The Tonight Show for at least 50 more years. I'll be watching Conan for as long as he lasts on TBS, and DVR-ing Dave or Kimmel if they have a good guest on. Life goes on.

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