Tom Shales on TV: A look at the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien conflict at NBC

MANO A MANO: Jay Leno, right, interviewed Conan O'Brien during Leno's last installment as host of "The Tonight Show" during chummier times last May.
MANO A MANO: Jay Leno, right, interviewed Conan O'Brien during Leno's last installment as host of "The Tonight Show" during chummier times last May. (Paul Drinkwater/associated Press)
By Tom Shales
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How is it that Conan O'Brien gets stuck with the suffering but Jay Leno does all the whining? Can it be that practice does help make perfect and that Leno has developed into The Pavarotti of Crybabies -- thanks mainly to that born-to-whine squeaky timbre of his?

Leno erupted anew in bleat late last week when yet another crisis emerged in that mad and merry minefield known as late-night television. No sooner had word leaked that Leno's nightly prime-time variety hour was headed for the trash heap than Leno cleared his throat for a chorus of complaint.

NBC stands for "Never Believe your Contract," Leno whined to bandleader Kevin Eubanks during a monologue on NBC's "The Jay Leno Show." Eubanks also listened patiently as Leno dropped a thudding hint about how pleasant it might be to work for Fox -- a by-now-standard Leno threat. It would be so refreshing if some NBC executive discovered a pair of, well, guts and responded publicly to Leno with: "You want to work for Fox? Fine, go ahead. You're fired."

Leno reportedly has so many clauses, codicils and guarantees in his contract, however, that it would be hard to oust him from the network no matter how frequently he uses NBC's facilities to trash NBC. Surely, though, it is tireless trouper O'Brien, new host of "The Tonight Show" as of 2009, who merits sympathy. Earlier in the century, after putting in 11 brilliantly quirky years as host of NBC's "Late Night," O'Brien got the word from NBC: Be patient a little longer and he would ascend to hostmanship of "The Tonight Show."

All he had to do was hang around "Late Night" for five years more, O'Brien was told, and believing he was dealing with honorable men (oh yeah, they're "all" honorable men, as Marc Antony sarcastically sneered), O'Brien labored for a total of 16 years in the hidden vineyards of very-late TV.

He finally got "The Tonight Show" -- the prize he'd so long had his eyes on -- as promised. But then, which is to say now, a mere seven-plus months into the gig, NBC has demanded that he give the prize back.

It seems that Leno has changed his mind, wants to return to the sleepy cocoon of his old show and is certain to pull off some world-class whines if he doesn't get it. Him and his lawyers.

Over the weekend, NBC officially canceled "The Jay Leno Show" as a preliminary strike in returning Leno to his old 11:35 start time, which it is likely to do soon after the conclusion of the network's upcoming Winter Olympics. And O'Brien? Network executives expect him to accept the network's offer of a nightly hour at midnight following 30 minutes of Leno.

Yes, O'Brien would be following Leno again, for the third time -- a new low, or high -- depending on how you look at it -- in national humiliation.

O'Brien detractors say yes, it's a tough break, but then the irreverent young man with the improbable red pompadour had his chance and blew it. O'Brien's ratings have fallen woefully far behind those of his longtime hero David Letterman, whose Nielsens ironically spiked thanks in part to the host's own shockeroo of a sex scandal. How we Americans love our lascivious imbroglios!

In fact, Leno's ratings as then-new host of "Tonight" were in the dumpster, too, back in 1995, three years after he took over from the legendary Johnny Carson following an unnecessarily bloody and classless coup. Leno's show was taking a well-earned beating from Letterman until that dark and fateful Night of the Fortuitous Booking.

Lightweight actor Hugh Grant had been slated to appear and, despite having been arrested not long before that in a messy bit of business involving a Hollywood hooker, Grant showed up. He sat on Leno's couch and heard Leno ask, "What the hell were you thinking?" And this one little question changed the course of television history, ridiculous as that sounds.

(Arguably the audience was looking for an excuse to desert Letterman, whose show has always been the most demanding of the late-night talk romps since it presupposes a large degree of sophistication and current-event savvy in its audience. Sadly but truly, dumb TV can drive out smart; thus did Leno rise by the hair on his chinny-chin-chin from the ignoble smolder of his own tacky ashes.)

In the course of the current dust-up about "The Tonight Show," a rumor surfaced about NBC offering the spot to Jerry Seinfeld, world-class comedian and part-owner of the fabulously profitable sitcom he helped create and on which he starred. George Shapiro, one of the executive producers of "Seinfeld" and longtime Seinfeld manager, confirmed Monday that the notion of Seinfeld doing a late-night network talk show is absolutely and definitively preposterous.

"That's the last thing Jerry would want to do," Shapiro said from his Beverly Hills office. In fact, Shapiro recalled, legendary NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff included a talk-show on a list of potential projects he thought might interest Seinfeld back before "Seinfeld" was created. "Of all the things Brandon mentioned, the talk show interested Jerry the least," Shapiro said -- and that was long before Seinfeld had accrued millions upon millions from the syndication of his sitcom.

So it goes in the wacko world of late-night television, where nothing is likely to be true just because it sounds absurd -- though we should never dismiss that possibility. Even now, sources close to O'Brien say it is not an absolute fait accompli that he will be so insulted and incensed by what NBC is doing to him that he will turn the network down flat and move to Fox or another network or even to cable, which has yet to come up with a nightly talk show truly competitive with the broadcast networks.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon, a former "Saturday Night Live" whiz kid who has taken over the "Late Night" show that once belonged to O'Brien and to Letterman before that, is sailing along with adorable aplomb, coming up short during the interview segments but proving himself more versatile than any of the late-night competitors. He's like an updated, digitalized version of an old vaudevillian, able to sing and dance and tell jokes and do impressions. And, when appropriate, just sit there being pleasant.

Fallon may be a lot closer to devising his own scenario for capturing what is still the most sparkling diadem in the glittering late-night firmament: hosting "The Tonight Show" with all the pomp, pageantry, prestige -- and thousands upon thousands of irritating commercials -- that it entails.

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