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Tom Shales on TV: The LenoBrien Affair

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

In some twisty, whispery way, it's all a tribute to Johnny Carson. He more than anyone made late-night TV not just a haven of talk, but a time and place much talked about -- a temporal neighborhood, where the machinations of a highly privileged class fascinate many of us who feel dull and under-paid by comparison.

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In this corner, Conan O'Brien, the once, and probably future king of late night (his "once" only lasted a few weeks); and in the other corner, Jay "The Jaw" Leno, who's looking more and more not only like yesteryear, but also like a bad egg, exactly counter to the good-egg image he maintained for decades as a stand-up comic. Leno didn't seem to brutalize people in his act nor in his backstage behavior toward competitors and colleagues; then he hit the big time and the big time hit him.

O'Brien has just celebrated the end of an embargo; he sat down (and sometimes jumped around) for an interview Sunday with Steve Kroft, one of the ablest aces on "60 Minutes." O'Brien had been inhibited by his negotiations with NBC from granting interviews about those negotiations, and even though he was legally free to talk, it was obvious that not all restrictions had been lifted. Kroft had phrased some questions multiple ways before O'Brien could engineer an answer.

Is Jay Leno a rat under all that gray hair, chinskin and seeming sweetness? O'Brien's answers gave the clear indication that he felt Leno acted gracelessly, handing the "Tonight Show" over to O'Brien as he'd promised to do, then managing to take it back after a summer of failure as a prime-time star (it seems sooo obvious that Leno knew prime time wouldn't pan out for him and that he planned the "Tonight" re-coup all along. O, the humanity!).

Both O'Brien and, chortling wildly from the sidelines, David Letterman, have ridiculed Leno's recent statement that everybody "got screwed" by NBC in the negotiations, NBC offering to keep O'Brien in late night but only at 12:05 a.m., after a half-hour Leno show, which would likely have used up all the topics available for topical humor and left O'Brien with the ravaged remains.

How could Leno have gotten "screwed," O'Brien rhetorically asked Kroft when Leno has a show? Not just a "show" but "the" show, "The Tonight Show," whose previous proprietors included not only Carson but the legendary Jack Paar (a framed letter from Paar, on Paar's red-imprinted stationery, could be spotted among O'Brien's treasured possessions in his L.A. home as seen on "60 Minutes").

Leno crawled out of the wreckage as host of "The Tonight Show" all over again. It's worth remembering that Carson, who (along with Ted Koppel and ABC's "Nightline") made late night such valuable real estate, didn't want Leno to succeed him in the first place. He wanted Letterman, who also wanted Letterman. Yes, this is ancient history in the late-night saga but those who do not remember the past are blah blah blah; actually those who do remember the past probably repeat it too, making a good memory a dubious asset, I hope.

The last laugh may be on Leno, but not earned by Leno. He seems genuinely to have been stung by his new reputation as a two-timing back-stabber, and though his post-Conan ratings are not disastrous they aren't what they used to be either. He's down 16 percent in the numbers compared with what he got pre-Conan, and reportedly his rating with the 18-to-49-year-old demographic is just about the same that Conan got. Leno looks wounded now, damaged; he's like a guy who fought his way into a party that the other guests then left in protest or out of boredom.

It won't help Leno that his Saturday night performance at the White House correspondents' annual dinner has been deemed a "bomb" in the bastions of bloggery and within the commentator community. The dinner itself, as televised awkwardly by C-SPAN, was a mess, although President Obama's after-dinner spiel was funny and well delivered -- self-assured self-deprecation. Obama's gift for humor is another of his Kennedyesque qualities.

Otherwise, the dinner, for all the alleged sophistication of those attending and speaking, seemed as hokey and folksy as a Kiwanis clambake in Keokok. Leno had the misfortune to follow Obama, but after all, Leno is a professional comedian who should be able to wriggle out of such circumstances without a scratch. When, meanwhile, did this once prestigious event turn into Washington's version of the Golden Globes, replete with "red carpet" arrivals -- among them the very bi-coastal Larry King, who at this point in life bears a striking resemblance to the hood ornament on an old Pontiac: His face arrives half a second before the rest of him.

But Larry we still love you.

Dave Letterman, we still love you, too. And Conan O'Brien, even with that red hillbilly beard, we feel affection for you and sympathy for the way you have been mistreated by big ugly NBC.

Among the ancillary pleasures of the whole LenoBrien Affair has been the running commentary done by Letterman, watching and laughing from the sidelines at CBS. But sadly for Letterman and his fans, he doesn't really reap a bonanza in the ratings, no matter what happens over at NBC -- whether they're up, down, or up and down.

One of Leno's big problems is that his constituency skews old whereas O'Brien's is young, and young is still what sells on Madison Avenue. Older people may find O'Brien silly, but infantile belligerence is adored and admired by his fans, who see Conan as the first clown prince of the 21st century, even though he began to flourish at the end of the 20th.

Maybe he was just warming up -- for the great late night comedy wars of the new millennium. Somewhere Johnny is laughing.


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