Saturday, January 30, 2010

Defending Leno

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:

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.


Anonymous said...

One mistake. Jay never decided to retire. It was, in his words, a white lie he told to explain why he was leaving. The truth is that while negotiating Conan's new contract in 2004, the executives at NBC asked Conan's people what it would take to keep Conan from leaving for another network. His people said they wanted The Tonight Show and NBC stupidly agreed to it. I guess they never heard of the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Matthew Laszlo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gorga said...

Matt my friend, as usual you have written a remarkable article bringing a lot of good points to the fore, a great many of which I hadn't considered.

But I do feel you've missed two important elements of this Leno/Conan controversy:

(1) Although literally and factually moving "The Tonight Show" to the 12:05 AM time slot does not change the show's content or branding or jokes, it does change the most basic elemental nature of the show. Its very title would be a bit of a lie. It would be "The Tomorrow Night Show". I recognize that in this, not unimportant, way NBC would be reneging on their offer of "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien. "The Tonight With..." at 11 PM was a tradition. It was my understanding that this was a great deal of the reason Conan stepped away from the network.

And (2) if Conan can, as you say, easily walk away from the network with his multi-million dollar bonus, (which I'm not arguing) why can Leno not do the same, claim the same indignation on the part of O'Brien, and also get himself a new show on one of the other networks? That was, in fact, what I thought he was going to do. I like to think it's what I would have done.

I think you're very correct when you say that NBC's bad decision-making is the real villain here, but Leno seems content to ride the small wave of benefits that has come his way regardless of the dishonesty on the network's part that started the ripple.

Matthew Laszlo said...

I am now writing my first ever "Dear Jon" letter (nyuk nyuk):

Dear Jon,

1) I don't deny that having his timeslot moved back to 12:05 AM would have been an extremely bad deal for Conan O'Brien, just as having his show condensed by half an hour would have been a loss for Leno. That is why I referred to NBC's arrangement as "the worst of both worlds" for each party.

2) Jay Leno could have walked away just as easily as Conan O'Brien, since both men received a raw deal from the network. O'Brien chose to do this, as was his right; Leno decided not to, as was his right. What bothers me about the logic of Leno bashers is that, because they already prefer O'Brien, they seem to operate on the assumption that Leno had an obligation to walk away instead of O'Brien, even though they don't really point out how it behooved one more than the other (at least not convincingly). Both men were equally screwed, and both men had to decide what was in their own best interest.

Morgon said...

Matt, this entire piece hinges on point #1 -- that Conan is preferred by a younger, hipper crowd. You can claim that and it might be right, but you haven't shown that at all -- no statistics, no anything, just an assertion. As such, I can't really take this very seriously because such a key piece of data is missing.

Also, Conan O'Brien is funnier.

I was going to end it with that line about Conan, but I just want to add in something that I feel personally slighted by Jay Leno. Such a long time ago when I was in 9th grade, for an English project I had to write about three things I liked -- so I chose 3 comedians who I thought were at the top of the field. Those were George Carlin (still alive back then), Jon Stewart and...Jay Leno. I can't help but feel nowadays that Jay Leno's brand of comedy has fallen so far from his once-secure spot at the top that he can no longer be counted with those two greats -- something that pisses me off to no end because I included him in that project, damnit.

Matthew Laszlo said...


1) I fail to see how my "entire piece" hinges on the claim that Conan O'Brien appeals to a younger, hipper demographic than Jay Leno. I make quite a few points in the article, many of them having nothing to do with the viewing blocs to which each comedian caters. You have made a statement which suggests that you either didn't read my blog post or failed to understand it.

2) A couple of articles on the age gap between O'Brien and Leno viewers:

3) Comedy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I still find Jay Leno to be very, very funny.

Morgon said...


Your piece read to me as an argument defending Leno and, to a lesser extent, Conan (by saying they are essentially on the same level here -- and that level is, for both of them, pretty much in the right or at least it's something you can't apply such a moral judgment to). And, at its core, it is discussing the anti-Leno dogpile. It's the youth and populism deal I take an issue with -- and when talking about the anti-Leno dogpile, it's pretty clear that all of that hinges on the youth and populism.

I don't want to be that annoying idiot who is goes "lol those stats are invalid" any time actual statistics are brought up, but in this case I find both of those links you gave me dissatisfying. The reason for this is because I'm genuinely interested, and I think it would provide the backing you'd need for your argument, to see what the viewer age demographics were like before the show transition. That is, while it was still Leno's show, and Conan still had his own show. That would be the interesting part.

And yeah, humor is always in the eye of the beholder, I know that. My opinion on Leno's fall is just that, opinion. But damn if it doesn't annoy me nonetheless.

Matthew Laszlo said...

1) By pointing out that there were indeed several issues I addressed, with only one of them being "the anti-Leno dogpile", you implicitly acknowledge that your original statement - that the whole piece hinges on my assertion about O'Brien's viewership demographics -- was erroneous. At best, all you can charge after this is that that one specific assertion hinges on my ability to provide statistics.

2) The specific assertion in question, however, is in no way dependent upon those statistics, since the fact that O'Brien's viewers are younger than Leno's was only one component of why I feel Leno is being attacked. Re-read the piece carefully, and you will see that there are several reasons provided.

3) The links which I provided are from respectable news sources, one of which discusses the demographic trends for the two shows AFTER the O'Brien-Leno feud, and the other which briefly mentions what they were PRIOR to the feud. While I don't think demanding greater evidence from me would make you an "annoying idiot", it would certainly make you an "annoyingly poor sport". If you want to disagree with the meaning of the statistics that I provide, fine, but for you to demand that I offer them and then challenge them - without even delving into any meaningful detail as to WHY you are challenging them - means that you are holding me to an unreasonable evidentiary standard.

Matthew Laszlo said...

PS: Another reason to like Jay Leno - his wife, Mavis, is an active feminist whose achievements include helping to bring the plight of women under the Taliban to the attention of President Bill Clinton. If it is true that you can tell a great deal about someone by the company they keep, then Jay Leno's choice of spouse says something very positive about him.

Matthew Laszlo said...

God bless Wanda Sykes!