Jay Leno: Calculating, Not Innocent

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Jay Leno is not innocent.

It’s been confirmed that Jay Leno will be returning to The Tonight Show after the 2010 Winter Olympics conclude.  As of 1 a.m. this morning, it’s also a done deal that NBC has given Conan O’Brien and his complete staff a healthy severance package of at 30 million dollars for the host and another 14 million for the staff.  As O’Brien joked this week in his monologue, he’s just three days away from a huge drinking binge.  That’ll be right after his last appearance as host of the Tonight Show.

Here’s what readers need to know.  I’m not a fan of Leno, and I dislike Conan even more.  His humor is not my style.  Sometimes I laugh, but it’s rare, and I really didn’t watch much of his short seven-month stint as host of this one cherished late night talk show.

In truth, I believe NBC shot themselves in the foot years ago.  After treating David Letterman like dirt and receiving a lot of bad publicity for it in the process, the network sought to protect themselves by taking early and probably premature steps.  Where they failed with Letterman is that he’d been essentially promised Johnny Carson’s job and then when the time came, he was overlooked for Jay Leno.  Letterman asked Carson what to do.  Carson told him to get out of Dodge, and that’s what Letterman did.  It’s important to note that I don’t like Letterman, either, but I loved Johnny Carson.

Carson had style and substance. He knew how to handle unruly and unresponsive guests.  He could get in the mud and play, and he knew when to rein it in.  Letterman, Leno, and O’Brien don’t have a clue, not one of them.  In what was ultimately a statement, Carson never appeared on Leno’s show, but he did appear on Letterman and, in fact, he fed Letterman jokes.  That says a lot, doesn’t it.

So, not wanting a repeat of their fiasco, NBC thought they’d be smart and tie Leno down as to how long he wanted to host.  Leno shrugged and said maybe another five years.  Done, says NBC.  Then they sign Conan in advance, giving him the Tonight Show, whether or not Leno really wanted to leave.

Ah, that’s the rub.  Leno said all of his last year that he didn’t want to leave, but he had no choice.  He’d agreed, and O’Brien was signed.  So, we had the big switcheroo in 2009, with Leno getting that ridiculous nightly show that really was The Tonight Show, just renamed.  He changed nothing.  It was a 10 p.m. version of the talk show.

O’Brien gamely tried to achieve success, but he’s not only not a Carson, he’s not even a Letterman.  He was doomed.  He wasn’t helped by Leno about two months ago when Leno actually commented publicly that he would take the show back.  Ouch!

When NBC had the audacity to announce the move of Leno’s show to 11:35 p.m. and push back The Tonight Show, they knew what was coming, and make no mistake about it, so did Jay Leno.  Did you hear that tripe he spoke in one of his monologues, his version of what happened, complete with his asking, “And you think Conan will be okay with that?”

Give me a break.  Leno’s not naive.  He’s not stupid.  He’s calculating.  He knew two months ago that with affiliates threatening to pull the plug on the network that he had to do something.  He did.  He spoke up.  He said, hey, NBC, I’ll take The Tonight Show back.

NBC heard.

All Leno had to do was ask himself, “If NBC came to me and said …”  He knows exactly what he would have said and done, and that’s what O’Brien did.

Again, I won’t miss Conan O’Brien.  He’s late night at best, but he was never right for The Tonight Show.  I don’t think he’s funny, and I don’t like his stage presence.  However, he just got the shaft, by NBC and by Jay Leno.  Yes, he’s very wealthy now, but that’s not the point.  For me,it’s the principle of the matter.

Jay Leno is trying to sound like he had no part of what was happening.  He says it’s just business.  Rubbish!  Yes, it’s business, but it shows his real character; that he would instigate, condone, and go along with pulling such a crabby act on a fellow performer shows his true colors.

I didn’t watch The Tonight Show much with Leno, not liked I watched Carson.  When I was a little kid,I was the only one in my class who stayed up to watch The Tonight Show. It was a daily ritual until Carson retired, which he did with class and dignity.

Leno has no class and no dignity.  Again to paraphrase a comment made recently in his monologue by O’Brien, “In America, you can do anything you want, unless Jay Leno wants to do it.”

I won’t be watching Leno ever again.  What respect I had for him as a person has been depleted.  He was involved in stepping all over David Letterman, and now he’s crushed Conan O’Brien.  Personally, I hope there’s a backlash that has both NBC and Leno wallowing in low ratings.  Of course, not everyone is going to watch, or not, because of principle, and that’s what I’m doing.

Remember, I’m not invested in either of those three performers, except by character and human kindness.  Up until now, Leno had been the winner.  Now he’s in the basement.

Oh, Johnny, if only you could rise up and take your place once again.


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