Saturday, January 30, 2010
While I have tried to avoid commenting here on the vicious feud between late-night talk show host Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien/NBC/the rest of the world, I have found it difficult to keep my opinions on this subject to myself. So as they say, here goes nuthin'....
1) The Leno/Letterman Feud - Anyone who takes seriously the wisecracks made by Dave Letterman against Jay Leno, or who faults Jay Leno for his one retort back to Letterman, needs to have their head examined. Ignoring the fact that Letterman was found to have sexually harassed at least half a dozen of his employees for many years (a sin that I would imagine is far worse than anything committed by either Leno or O'Brien), the reality is that the two men have had an acrimonious relationship ever since Letterman was passed over in favor of Leno for the prized "Tonight Show" spot being vacated by Johnny Carson. It stands to reason that Letterman still has some bad blood over what happened to him back then, and for that reason is enjoying this opportunity to take potshots at Leno and have the media applaud as he makes the man squirm. The fact that Letterman's avalanche of zingers, barbs, and outright insults were given such prevalent air time (without being first placed in the proper historical context) does not paint the media in an especially positive light; the fact that Leno's single response to Letterman's week-long onslaught - a well-deserved below-the-belt quip about Letterman's sex scandals - was treated with such contempt likewise shows that objectivity is not the strong-suit of today's pundits.
For those who want a more detailed review of why I'm so tough on Letterman for sexually harassing his employees - and that's exactly what he did - read: http://riskinghemlock.blogspot.com/2009/10/taking-back-feminism.html
2) The Leno/O'Brien Feud - Here is how I see it: In 2004, Jay Leno said that he was planning on retiring as host of "The Tonight Show" in 2009. As is the case with countless celebrities who contemplate ending their careers - including such beloved athletes as Michael Jordan and Brett Favre - Leno had second thoughts when 2009 came around. Even so, he DID follow through on his pledge, turning over the reins of "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien that year just as he had promised. To stay on the air, though, he accepted NBC's offer of having his own hour-long TV show at 10 PM, an arrangement that was perceived at the time as being mutually beneficial - Leno would be allowed to maintain a career he clearly loved, and NBC would maximize its profit margin by trading-in their old formula (five new high-budget hour-long dramas on primetime each week with erratic ratings that often left the network on the wrong end of their balance sheets) with a seemingly dependable one (a single hour-long show for all five primetime slots that, despite comparatively lower ratings, would compensate with high profitable due to its extremely low production costs).
The plan failed. Although Leno's show remained profitable, the programs which followed it - first the local news shows run by NBC affiliates, and then the new "Tonight Show" hosted by Conan O'Brien - sank in the ratings. The plug needed to be pulled, and NBC found itself in the unenviable position of having to keep two profitable big-name comedians on their network while simultaneously extricating itself from this new debacle. Their solution was to give both Leno and O'Brien the worst of both worlds - have Leno re-take his old 11:35 PM slot, but without the "Tonight Show" franchise name or his previous hour-long running time (he would be relegated to half an hour instead), while pushing O'Brien back to 12:05 AM, thus further diminishing his already paltry viewership even as he was allowed to keep the "Tonight Show" brand and his hour-long running time (luxuries Leno was denied).
As is well-known today, Jay Leno accepted this offer while Conan O'Brien declined it. To say that either party was "right" or "wrong" for acting as they did seems to me to be affixing ethical judgments in situations that are inherently amoral - each multi-millionaire comedian had to make a decision regarding his career, and each acted in accord with what he perceived to be in his best interest (as every other comedian in a similar situation would have done). When O'Brien refused to accept NBC's offer, and instead walked away from the network, NBC and Leno both salvaged what they could by restoring Leno to his old 11:35 PM slot and hour-long format. The rest, as they say, is history.
What confuses me is why the history is being written in such a distinctly anti-Leno fashion. As I pointed out earlier, he didn't break his promise to O'Brien, since the reins of the venerable "Tonight Show" franchise were promptly handed over to him in 2009. He didn't "take" the show back, as so many claim, but in fact accepted a deal far inferior to the one he previously had, and was only given the show back after it was turned down by O'Brien. While I don't blame O'Brien for his actions in this situation, it is hard to see how Leno was any less of a victim than his counterpart. Each was given a raw deal, and each made the best of it that he could. Accusing Leno of being overly-ambitious without making the same claim about every other celebrity who has acted similarly seems disingenuous at best, and baldly unfair at worst.
So why has the anti-Leno dogpile been growing so relentlessly in size and ferocity? I suspect, at its core, that there are three reasons:
1) O'Brien is preferred by the younger, hipper generation, while Leno is considered to be something of an old fogie. It goes without saying that the likes of Patton Oswalt, Jimmy Kimmel, and Sarah Silverman would thus be throwing their hats into the O'Brien ring. As for older folks, while some have seen fit to take an impartial view toward this fiasco (Paul Reiser, Jerry Seinfeld), many more prefer to fit in with the "chic" crowd - and since youth is always much closer to what's vogue than the elderly, the type of celebrity who keeps his or her thumb firmly on the pulse of being cool (Rosie O'Donnell and Oprah Winfrey, anybody?) will naturally find ways to side with O'Brien.
2) 2010 - like 2007, 2008, and 2009 - is the year of the lost job. Regardless of the details leading up to the end result, what people are seeing is that Jay Leno gets to keep his job, while Conan O'Brien will be losing his. The naturally sympathies are thus aligned with the latter.
3) The media, which has been promoting the bejesus out of this story (to the neglect of more pressing fare, such as the earthquake in Haiti or the upcoming midterm elections), is never one to refrain from taking sides. Seeing that the instincts of youth and populism had sided against Leno, the media followed the bandwagon. Unfavorable reports against Leno from media outlets - from the mainstream to Entertainment Weekly - have been fanning the anti-Leno flames ever since.
So why have I taken the time to write this piece defending Jay Leno? Despite what you may read in op-ed pieces and news reports, the reality is that Leno is the underdog (and anyone who disagrees need only reflect for a moment on the overwhelming weight of popular opinion is bearing against him at the moment). O'Brien not only exits this drama with a $30 million-plus walkaway contract and an all-but-guaranteed future TV show with another network, but he has such a massive undercurrent of popular sympathy that high esteem (with its logical successor, high ratings) is bound to come his way. Leno, on the other hand, has been vilified to such a severe degree that it is very possible his career has taken a serious hit. If he had done something to deserve this opprobrium (say, by torturing dogs, or spewing racist filth about his potential daughter-in-law, or sexually harassing a long string of female employees), then I would feel that the SOB deserved it. Instead it seems to me that his only offense is trying to preserve his job and reputation in the midst of corporate wranglings that were, at best, excruciatingly inept. Hence why the anti-Leno sentiment is a mystery to me.
Oh yes, and there is one other reason - I happen to find Jay Leno to be very, very funny.