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For Jay Leno, Parting Is Such Sour Sorrow

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., July 21

"Tonight Show" host Jay Leno showed up at Thank God We're Still Working Summer TV Press Tour 2008 to bat NBC suits around a bit.

He was disguised as a reporter in the audience during a Q&A with NBC Co-Chairmen Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff -- just as ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel had posed as a reporter during ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson's at-bat with reporters earlier in the tour.

Both hosts' appearances had been ginned up by their networks as a funny way to handle hot questions about their late-night plans.

NBC is replacing Leno as host of "Tonight" on June 1, 2009 -- the day Conan O'Brien takes the seat Leno's had since May 1992.

It's the culmination of a pact made with O'Brien four years ago to keep him at NBC. But Leno is still the late-night ratings leader (and O'Brien's been dinged a bit by Craig Ferguson's CBS late-night show) and NBC is trying to keep him at the network so he won't do a competing show.

But Leno recently told USA Today he was "done" with NBC, and the hot rumor these days has him moving over to ABC to host a late-night show.

So, Kimmel put on a baseball cap and asked McPherson goofy questions such as:

If you were even to talk to Jay Leno, wouldn't that be like contract tampering? Wouldn't that be illegal? Couldn't you go to jail for that?

And,

Are you at all afraid that if you do replace Jimmy Kimmel, he might do something crazy to you or your car?

Which played well in the room.

At Monday's session, Leno was virtually unrecognizable, heavily made up as a bald, bearded reporter wearing glasses, as he lobbed questions at Silverman and Graboff.

Kimmel had sounded bitter/funny. Leno sounded bitter/bitter:

The Green Bay Packers' "Brett Favre retired and then wanted to come back. The Packers said no. What do you make of that?" Leno asked from the back of the room.

"Everyone's entitled to change their mind. But I'd imagine that puts management in an impossible situation," Silverman said, weakly.

"Is it true you've offered Leno a fifth hour on the 'Today' show?" Leno continued.

"That's a great idea, actually," Silverman said. "Would that work?"

"Nah -- it's a crappy idea," Leno shot back.

"I know you brought back 'Knight Rider' -- any chance 'Manimal' will be coming back?" Leno cracked.

When it was over, Graboff told critics Leno's appearance should be construed as "just a great show of support for NBC," adding, "We can't thank Jay enough. He's a class act."

When Kimmel did his shtick, it took the air out of the Leno controversy. When Leno did his routine, it only wound the critics up:

"That was all very much fun and nice, but what's going to happen . . . when Leno goes to ABC and kicks Conan's [heinie]?" one of them asked.

"We really believe in the decision we made with our partners, including Jay, and we'll really be standing behind them because we love the talent we have on NBC and we love the franchises that we have on NBC and we think there's opportunity for a lot of great talent to play," Silverman said, going into the cotton-candy patter for which he's famous.

Graboff stepped in to do damage control:

"First of all, we're not agreeing he's going to ABC," he insisted pluckily. "We're still talking to Jay about staying within NBC Universal behind his deal on 'The Tonight Show.' So we're not even going to concede that at this point. But again, we've made our decision and we're happy with it and we're very confident that 'The Tonight Show' will continue to be dominant in its time period."

Conan will step down as host of the post-"Tonight" show, "Late Night," in the first quarter of 2009, the two execs said.

NBC announced in May that former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Jimmy Fallon will take over Conan's "Late Night" gig. That's going to happen a few weeks later, the NBC suits said Monday, though Fallon's going to start testing material online months before his on-air start date.

Now, you're probably wondering what we mean by "cotton-candy patter."

Silverman also was asked about "The Office" spinoff, which is now maybe, or maybe not, an Amy Poehler comedy that was supposed to debut after NBC's broadcast of the next Super Bowl. Here, for your reading pleasure, is Ben Silverman's Answer:

"Well, fortunately for Amy and [her husband], she's pregnant right now. So the target was to have it be ready after the Super Bowl. . . . So the timing will be tough to be able to turn that show around to fit into the post-Super Bowl slot. It's much more likely we're going to have to launch that in March. What happened was ['The Office' show runners Greg Daniels and Mike Schur] came up with two ideas. One of which is totally a spinoff, which they're pursuing and [is] planted inside 'The Office' and maybe would involve characters who are already on 'The Office' who would then migrate to a new show. And then they developed a different parallel, which was kind of set stylistically and formed by 'The Office' but not characters based in 'The Office,' or storylines based in 'The Office.'

"And, as they pursued both, we decided to put all our energy to get Amy locked in, and she agreed, and then we started a negotiation with her and also focused on making sure that Mike and Greg's creative was something that she really was going to respond to. And that kind of took position A in what Greg and Mike were going to focus on right now. So that's kind of where the process went.

"We're still pursuing the spinoff, but when you get a talent like Amy Poehler at the top of her game coming off what easily could have been a decision to become a full-time movie star, this was a great chance for us to land her, and Mike and Greg and everybody at NBC think she's just the ideal talent to fill out what they're working on."

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