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Tom Shales on the villains in the Leno-O'Brien fiasco at NBC

Everybody's a comedian: Chevy Chase plays the Conan O'Brien role and Jimmy Kimmel is Jay Leno in a spoof last week on Kimmel's late-night show.
Everybody's a comedian: Chevy Chase plays the Conan O'Brien role and Jimmy Kimmel is Jay Leno in a spoof last week on Kimmel's late-night show. (Mitch Haddad/abc Via Associated Press)

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By Tom Shales
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Back in the late 20th century, when people were getting sick of stories about David Letterman's mistreatment by NBC -- instead of getting sick of stories about Conan O'Brien's mistreatment by NBC -- I managed to get an NBC executive on the phone, which wasn't easy in those days, and he proceeded to give me what he said was the real story about the whole mess.

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A creepy sort of guy, who was later one of the NBC executives depicted in the HBO movie "Late Shift," he said the real story, ignored by the media, was that the dispute over who would succeed Johnny Carson as host of "The Tonight Show" had nothing to do with Letterman's hurt feelings or Jay Leno's sneaky ploys to nab the gig. It was, he said, "all about money," and really nothing else.

Imagine my sad surprise when I tuned in to Letterman's "Late Show" on CBS last week and heard the former injured party tell viewers that the fuss involving O'Brien and Leno was "all about money" and really nothing else. What an unhappy irony to hear Dave sounding just like that grubby old executive, regardless of whether he had a dog in the fight or a shoe on the other foot.

It's all about money to the network, yes; networks have no pride -- at least not NBC, any more -- or feelings. But it's too cynical to say it's all about money to someone like O'Brien, who's going to make more money than he probably ever dreamed of regardless of the outcome and especially if the public views him more as martyr than failure. Beyond that, to say hosting "The Tonight Show" is all about money is like saying any sane human would go after the presidency because of the pay scale or so they can tool around in Air Force One.

Hosting "Tonight" is like being president in a way, in that you can't really go higher in that particular field of endeavor. Thus did Letterman put up an infernal agonized fuss when the prize was whisked away from him in the early '90s and thus O'Brien will find himself only partially placated by a big fat $30 million check in 2010. It would behoove him, and it would be like him, to share some of that settlement with staff members who loyally followed him to the West Coast.

O'Brien, the smartest funnyman on television, might in some ways be the least fascinating of the public figures involved in this latest uproar in Latenight Land -- the least fascinating, and the least phony. Leno, whom pop polls show to be the man most widely considered the villain of the piece, proudly boasted of hiding in a closet at NBC in Burbank and listening in on an executive phone conversation when his fate was being decided back in 1992. Now in 2010, he still seems Machiavellian.

But not, definitely not, the sleaziest character in the story. The other day, an NBC executive, otherwise highly respected, let himself be dispatched to the New York Times to assail and personally insult O'Brien in print, a tawdry move typical of the absolute, utter absence of class among current NBC brass -- starting with the widely despised man at the top, Jeff Zucker, who has made a ridiculous mess of NBC's once inviolate franchise, as well as of prime time.

Leno remains disingenuous to an intolerable extreme. He's always playing the injured puppy -- the good-hearted lug in the blue-collar shirt who gets trampled over by the big guys. He uses dyslexia as a badge of honor, referring to it sometimes when he muffs a joke on the air. Remember how funny Johnny Carson was when he'd muffed a joke? Ah, but if we start thinking about Johnny, we'll get too depressed to tolerate any of the Johnnies who've come lately, whether they seem honest or nasty or what.

Helen Kushnick, the famously abrasive manager who guided Leno's career for years and saw to it her boy was placed on the "Tonight Show" throne, used to tell me that I, of all people, helped get Leno the job. Her reasoning was that almost every time Leno came to Washington, I interviewed him and wrote columns praising his prowess as a stand-up comic, especially his nimble ability to handle even the most obdurate of audiences.

It turns out that I was a stop on the Jay Leno Goodwill Tour; Kushnick made sure her boy visited NBC affiliates in many of the cities where he was booked as a way of building support. Finally, she went too far, planting a vicious story in the New York Post about how NBC executives -- that crew again -- couldn't wait for Carson to leave so Leno and his younger demographics could take over. Carson was truly, deeply hurt, and that sure as hell wasn't about money, either.

Leno claimed ignorance -- he said he hadn't known about Kushnick's plot. Hmm. Kushnick is gone now; she lost a nine-year battle with breast cancer in 1996. Her life had been shockingly tragic; she lost her husband to cancer in 1989 and, earlier, her 3-year-old son died after an HIV-tainted blood transfusion. Leno's career arguably became not just her life's work but her life.

(In the "Late Shift" book and movie, Kushnick was so harshly portrayed that she later sued for $30 million, settling out of court for an undisclosed amount. High-powered women in business still have no easy time of it.)

One unhappy result to the current "Tonight Show" troubles is that, heaven help us, we're probably in for yet another book about "Tonight" and the blood baths that its rites of accession have become. It's veritably Shakespearean! But it really is understandable; the late-night shows are a kind of royalty-reality television, because no host can be on the air five nights a week and play a completely faked character. The shows are bound to reflect their stars' lives.

What's important to remember is that as deplorably as he has behaved -- saying yes to a contractual agreement and then changing his mind when it came time to ante up -- Leno is not the bad guy, or at least not the worst guy. The bad guys are the NBC executives who botched things up not just once but now twice, clumsily and foolishly. Their initial mistake was saying "yes" to O'Brien in the first place, to being coldly logical about it, back when O'Brien wrested a contractual guarantee that he would become "Tonight Show" host within five years, no matter how successful Leno might have been in the role.

And as it turns out, he was very successful, and it is absurd that he be asked to take a hike.

The feeble-brained executives should have heeded the "I don't care" rule propounded by the great CBS News President Bill Leonard when he had to decide whether Dan Rather or Roger Mudd would succeed Walter Cronkite in the anchor chair of "The CBS Evening News," another vaunted secular pulpit. Leonard had to deal with the reality that whichever one didn't get the job would go to a competing network.

Leonard thought and considered and decided: He didn't care if Roger Mudd went to another network because the damage to CBS ratings would likely be minimal, at least in comparison with the damage that the more glamorous and telegenic Rather could do. So Rather, you might recall, got the job.

One mystery of the Leno-O'Brien story is how such executives as Zucker keep their jobs and get the kind of fabulous promotions that normally reward not failure but success. In his defense, Zucker could always say, "Hey, it's not like I'm a Wall Street banker" -- though somehow, the difference seems slight.


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