Kimmel, O’Brien, and the truth about Leno-Hate.

Did’ja hear what Jimmy Kimmel said to Jay Leno last night? How he answered every question Jay asked him for Jay’s incredibly awkward 10@10 segment by alluding to the NBC debacle, and placing the blame squarely on Jay’s shoulders?

Oh my god…he eviscerated him! It was incredible!

That’s the word around the Internet, anyway. And it was incredible – but not just for the reasons people are giving.

Yes, Jimmy took him apart. Jay – who’s been placed in an absolute no-win situation, public relations-wise, as people ‘round the ‘Net delight at every joke offered at his expense by Dave, Jimmy, Craig, and yes, even poor little Conan, but rise up in anger when Leno has the nerve to strike back – invited Kimmel onto his show two nights after Kimmel spent his entire show in a Leno wig and chin, talking in a demeaning Lenoesque accent. It was really an incredibly ballsy move on Jay’s part – something no one has really acknowledged – and he took a risk, possibly based on the much-reported friendship the two formed during the writer’s strike, that Kimmel would play nice.

Needless to say, the risk did not pay off.

Instead, Kimmel, sensing the blood in the water, saw an opportunity to throw his name into the “Team Conan” buzz in a huge way – especially important now, since the late night viewing audience is about to be thrown up for grabs yet again – and always having a sharp sense of business savvy, Kimmel grabbed it with both hands.

But it was his ending salvo that added a surreal sense to this already far-too-surreal affair. As Jay was ending the bit, undoubtedly regretting his attempt to play along with all the scorn being heaped on him, Kimmel unleashed the following.

“Listen Jay. Conan and I have children. All you have to take care of is cars. We have lives to lead here. You have $800 million. For god sakes, leave our shows alone.”

And with this one devastating verbal grenade, Kimmel exposed everything backward about this whole “Team Conan” movement.

“Conan and I have children. All you have to take care of is cars.”

The line was truth in jest – hard to tell how much of each from Kimmel’s perspective, but it seemed more the former than the latter, and it was the “truth” part that immediately took hold throughout the blogosphere, the Twitterverse, and the MSM.

“Jimmy Kimmel Crushes Jay Leno”
“Jimmy Kimmel SHREDDED Leno on Leno.”


And yet with that one final line, Kimmel exposed exactly how ridiculous the uproar is.

Because whatever percentage of truth to jest Kimmel intended, people are reacting as if Leno is actually taking food out of the mouths of Conan’s children, for having the audacity to accept a promotion back to a position he once held, loved, and excelled at.

The assumption throughout this whole episode has been that Jay is the big, bad, unjustly entitled rich white man picking on the young kid – that would be 46-year-old Conan O’Brien, the same person who, when he moved to L.A., purchased a $10.5 million mansion in Brentwood that reportedly includes a wine cellar, an outdoor kitchen, a pool, a spa, and a screening room – who, through nothing but hard work, dedication, and Harvard-bred comedic genius, finally took the mantle he earned and a chance to make something of himself.

It’s David vs. Goliath, George Bailey vs. Mr. Potter, and Lord Voldemort vs. Harry Potter all rolled into one.

Let’s briefly remember, for one moment, that everyone involved in this – unquestionably including Kimmel and Conan – is a multi-millionaire many times over, and from simply a business/financial perspective, baseball players vs. baseball owners is a far more apt comparison.

But the truly bothersome assumptions here are that a) Jay Leno orchestrated this as part of some nefarious plan; and that b), he owes it to the world and to Conan to make his career decisions based not on what’s best for him, but what’s best for Conan O’Brien.

Let’s pretend, just for a moment, that Jay Leno is a human being, entitled to the same thoughtful consideration as anyone else. Now, think back to 2004 – when this whole mess started, and when the real villain in all this, which would be NBC, kicked this genius plan into action.

At the time, Jay was the undisputed king of late night television. That’s no commentary on whether he’s funny or not – just his success as measured in the world of television, through ratings. Like it or not, Jay was king, just has he had been for about a decade. But Conan decided that he had paid his dues, and was ready for bigger things. Certainly fair enough – he had indeed paid over a decade of dues, overcome many negative perceptions, and developed a brilliant, popular, and truly unique show.

But then there was a series of meetings. Conan was ready to walk. NBC didn’t want him to. And in these meetings, it was proposed (I don’t know if this was NBC’s idea or if it came from Conan’s people) that Conan would be assured The Tonight Show if he stayed.

Again, don’t know if it was offered to Conan, or if his reps demanded it. But either way, it does seem obvious that Conan had NO trepidation about displacing Jay Leno – a man who had worked his ass off to get where he was, clearly loved where he was, and had succeed wildly. It seems to be common knowledge that NBC basically strong-armed/guilted Leno into agreeing to be the sacrificial lamb in this, and surely, Conan knew. And just as surely, he didn’t care. He wanted to move up in his career, and if Jay Leno had to be moved out of the way, so be it.

I should clarify here why I’m making this point. I don’t begrudge Conan, at all, trying to make the best deal he could and get what he wanted – just as I don’t begrudge Leno doing it now. Just showing that self-serving actions run through every participant in this deal, not just Leno.

Which brings me to the second important aspect of the 2004 disaster – Leno’s acquiescence. Why did he agree to this awful deal? According to Leno, he did it so that Conan wouldn’t have to go through what he himself had gone through with David Letterman. Putting the irony of how much that didn’t work out aside for a moment, let’s ask ourselves if we believe this to be Leno’s true motive.

We know Leno didn’t really want to retire. So why else would he agree to it? Because NBC was putting the screws on and Leno is a company guy? Possibly. But given the trauma all seemed to experience back during the Letterman/Leno battles – and it’s important to remember that Leno did eventually exile his Machiavellian manager, Helen Kushnick, reportedly one of the hardest things he ever had to do (too involved to go into here if you don’t know about it, but read Bill Carter’s “The Late Shift” for more on this) – it seems that he was at least partially, if not fully, telling the truth when he said at the time that he made this deal to avoid another war, and to spare Conan the hardship.

Which would mean that the reason this entire debacle is happening is that back in 2004, Leno, in a move that was actually selfless to a level unheard of in Hollywood (if not also wildly misguided), did EXACTLY WHAT “TEAM CONAN” IS DEMANDING HE DO NOW – SACRIFICE HIMSELF FOR CONAN – AND IT PROVED TO BE THE STUPIDEST THING HE COULD HAVE DONE!!!!!

At the risk of getting all Ayn Randian up in here, everyone – whether you think they’re funny or not – has the right to act in their own self interest. Jay Leno has no more obligation to Conan O’Brien than Conan O’Brien has to Jay Leno.

The hard truth for the frontline warriors of the Conan army is that Jay Leno should never have been removed from The Tonight Show, and Conan O’Brien should never have been given it. Not in 2004, and not in 2009. NBC – again, the real villain here – had a great thing in Jay’s Tonight Show from a ratings perspective. Like a man who just can’t decide between his wife and his mistress so he decides to try to keep both, NBC was greedy and stupid in trying to keep both Jay and Conan, an arrangement that stopped making sense the day that Conan decided he was no longer a 12:30 guy. Because by the time 2009 rolled around, Jay Leno was virtually the only great thing on the otherwise decimated network.

Now, think about this: we all know now that NBC made it contractual that if Conan wasn’t given The Tonight Show in 2009, they would have to pay him a figure reported to be around $45 million. Clearly, one of the great bonehead agreements in the history of contractual negotiation.

Now, consider Jay’s top of the heap ratings, and add the fact that last year, Conan was not only not kicking ass in the ratings, but was losing ground to Craig Ferguson. Then ask yourself this:

If that stupid clause hadn’t been in Conan’s contract, was there any chance in hell he would have been given The Tonight Show?

We all know the answer.

Now put yourself in Jay’s shoes for just a moment. You’ve worked your ass off for this network. Done everything they wanted. Made sure the affiliates were happy – an incredibly important function in the world of network TV. And, more importantly, you delivered. You beat everyone else in the ratings, hands down, And yet, here you were, losing your job. A job you loved, A job you deserved. A job you earned. And worse, it was partly your fault, because five years ago you tried to do the right thing, and quickly realized you made major one concession too many.

But you go. You take a compromise post that your heart’s not really in, and watch the new kid in your old job cut the ratings you established almost in half. Then, in a bizarre set of circumstances, your compromise post is acknowledged as the failure it is and eliminated – and you’re offered your old job back. The one you loved. The one you were good at.

Would you just go quietly into that good night? Sacrifice yourself AGAIN for the kid that the bosses now don’t even want? I don’t know you, anonymous blog reader, but more than likely, the answer is “no” – and good for you if it is.

One common theme among supporters of Conan is that all of this is somehow Jay’s fault, and as such, the noble thing for him to do would be to just walk away. The Washington Post’s Tom Shales, a longtime TV writer and author of “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live,” even incredibly theorized that this was some meticulously orchestrated plan on Leno’s part – that he tanked the 10:00 show on purpose, somehow knowing that Conan would fail at 11:30, so that he could take back The Tonight Show.

The notion that Leno would take basically the same material that made him successful at 11:30 and admirably add up-and-coming comedians like Jim Norton for the purpose of failing at 10:00 is so ludicrous it barely deserves discussion. And frankly, if Leno was smart enough to orchestra this – to know how well the same exact material that worked at 11:30 would fail so miserably at 10:00 while also expertly predicating Conan’s demise – if that is true, then forget The Tonight Show. Put Leno in charge of NBC programming. With instincts like that, he could return the network to #1.

But it’s the other assumption that most aggravates me – that Leno should just walk away. Why? Because Conan is somehow entitled to the job? This is the television business, folks. How many new comedies and dramas last just a few episodes? When that happens, lots of people see a year or more of work evaporate into nothingness, and lots of people are thrown out of work. But no one rages for them.

Heck, in any business, sometimes people get laid off or fired and their friends have to replace them. That’s life. Do people quit their jobs in solidarity? C’mon.

Many, including Conan himself, cite how he was given weak lead-ins, and had every right to expect more time to develop his show the way Leno initially did. These people are right. Conan had every right to expect more, and in the end, he got shafted, no doubt. But these decisions were made by NBC, not Jay Leno.

NBC made the decision to move Jay Leno back to 11:30 because Conan’s ratings were weak, and falling – and not just overall, but in the younger demographics he was supposed to attract. Leno, meanwhile, had a history of greater success in the same position. So they asked Jay to take back the job that he never wanted to leave in the first place, and he accepted.

I find it hard to believe that other people in similar positions would do any differently.

Whether NBC’s decisions here are smart, fair, or just is another discussion. Some have said that NBC is jettisoning its future by sending Conan on his way. That may or may not prove to be true. At 59, Jay is still years, possibly decades, from retirement. The real question is, how long will his ratings hold? That all depends on what else happens in late night, and that’s a very open question.

If Conan winds up at FOX – still a big if, BTW – he’ll probably live in third place there for a while, but chip away at the younger end of Jay and Dave’s audiences, and slowly build his show the way he didn’t get a chance to at NBC. Then, if Letterman winds up retiring in 2012 or 2014, and gets replaced by, let’s say, Jon Stewart (or Craig Ferguson – let’s not count him out. He’s been pretty brilliant at 12:30), then the whole late night landscape changes, and who the hell knows what happens then. Conan may well wind up as the king of late night yet – or, Conan vs. Jon could be the Leno vs. Letterman of the next generation.

Also, let’s keep in mind that there are talent executives with a keen eye for spotting new late night talent. Conan was plucked from the writer’s room, and Fallon from quasi-retirement, by Lorne Michaels. Both decisions seemed shocking at the time, and both proved astute (Fallon’s not kicking ass yet, but he is setting up a dedicated young following with a unique niche audience.) And both CBS executives and longtime Johnny Carson/David Letterman producer Peter Lassally recognized immediately that Craig Ferguson – possibly an even less likely candidate than Conan was – had what it took to be a late night host. So who will talent executives pick in 2012 or 2014? Possibly someone we already know, but could never envision in that position.

I should say, also, that nothing in this essay speaks to my opinion of either Jay or Conan comedically. For the record, I find Jay Leno’s Tonight Show as unfunny as any member of Team Conan does. I find his “Jaywalking” segment especially pathetic, for its celebration of stupidity.

Is Conan funnier than Jay? In my opinion, yes. Much.

But I also believe that it’s this overall feeling about Jay – that he’s old, out of touch, and even a traitor to comedy – that’s really driving “Team Conan” forward. And while I may share their views about Leno comedically, I just don’t believe that Jay’s choices in the field of comedy deprive the man of the right to make choices based on what’s right for his life – the same basic human right every one of us has. And I also don’t believe that the talented Conan O’Brien – who, it should be said, has been taking less and less of the high road on this situation with every monologue – is a delicate flower who needs to be coddled and rallied around. Yes, he got shafted. No question. You know who else got shafted? Virtually everyone else who has ever worked in show business – including Jay Leno.

But most of them don’t have the security of knowing that no matter what happens, their kids are set for life, as Conan and Kimmel’s kids most certainly are.

Conan’s future will not involve The Tonight Show, but it will unquestionably involve more success. The chances of his winding up at Fox, considering the information being floated around, seem to be a bit greater than 50/50, depending on who you listen to (and depending on whether Fox can bring the affiliates on board.) If he does wind up on Fox, then get ready for many more years of fun and excitement on the Conan vs. Jay front.

If he doesn’t, then I wouldn’t be surprised if he went the executive producer route, developing shows for television, and undoubtedly given Andy Richter yet more attempts at top banana stardom.

But either way, let’s stop acting like Conan is entitled to The Tonight Show, and that Jay Leno owes it to everyone to slink away to some remote mountain in the Himalayas.

And Jimmy – don’t worry about Conan’s kids. They’ll be just fine.


20 thoughts on “Kimmel, O’Brien, and the truth about Leno-Hate.

  1. When all is said and done, Conan O’Brien really ended his very short reign on “The Tonight Show” with a lot of class and good dignity. It’s going without saying that he has every reason in the world to be upset to say the least. Conan has an astonishing and loyal set of fans that will follow him and support him no matter what he does next.

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  4. Thank you Larry for such an insightful, intelligent essay. As someone who truly enjoys Jay’s humor and has missed The Tonight Show with him at the helm, I appreciate your putting the late night fiasco into perspective. Eveything you’ve said, I have thought, especially why oh why did Jay ever put himself into such an untenable position back in 2004? Naivite? Really misjudging the situation? Attempting to negotiate without representation? Don’t understand that blunder. I do not like Conan’s humor, but agree that he’s very talented and was shafted by NBC. Conan will land on his feet and his fans will follow and support him wherever he ends up. As for Jay, I can only hope that I’m not the only person out here who will welcome him back with open arms and laugh out loud at jokes and bits that others have assailed for almost 2 weeks. I’ll do my part to help his ratings at 11:35 – and hope they don’t tank. Not feeling too positive these days. I have felt all along that NBC is the true villain here and that Jay has been an easy rage magnet in this controversy. Thanks again for your take on the situation. It’s nice to know someone else has thoughts similar to mine.

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  6. I have to give it to you on an greatly written essay. Up until now I’ve been a loud backer of team Conan for the exact same reasons you outlined, but it’s true, Leno, like him or not, didn’t really do anything wrong, other than trying to be too nice in stepping aside.

    @Mothra, with your example of the VP job, you’re validating Larry’s point, you the person being screwed out of the job wouldn’t be mad at the other guy taking the job, well you would, but it’s not all his fault, he’d be doing what’s best for him, it’s the bosses who lied to you, and then backed out of promises who should be the target of your wrath.

  7. This is really simple you spent a lot of words only to muddy things up apparently, because you feel Jimmy Kimmel and others are wrong Leno.

    Leno could have retired when he agreed to. He didn’t.

    He moved his show to a different time slot and guess what? It sucked, as the ratings demonstrated. Fault NBC for letting Leno do it if you want, but it’s not Conan’s fault Leno bombed at ten five nights a week.

    And that’s what precipitated this issue. It’s not Conan’s ratings, it’s Jay’s ratings.

    So NBC found a way to make the situation worse and guess what, it meant Jay got back his old show.

    You’re so far off base with this mewling spin for Leno it’s amazing. And yes, it was mewling in assigning blame to people who have none and it was spin trying make Leno the victim here when in fact, once again, Jay is just getting what he wants.


    And now NBC is going to be a world of hurt for facilitating that.

  8. Why is Jimmy defending Conan? He should be happy that his competition is in disarray or he must really fear Leno coming back at 11:30.

    Anyway, the whole move to 10 was a mess because you had essentially Tonight Show 1 and Tonight Show 2 both in LA competing for guests and viewers. This hurts the ratings for both shows.

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  10. @Mothra

    At the risk of going back and forth too many times on this, I think we’ll have to just agree to disagree. I have said repeatedly that I think NBC is the bad guy here, and that I agree that Conan is getting screwed. However, his version of getting screwed involves, as we’ll learn with the announcement that will probably come tomorrow, his walking away with about $40 MILLION DOLLARS! And, that’s on TOP of the $10-15 million a year he’s been earning for years. Did he have the rug pulled out from him, as you say? Yes he did. And that sucks. But again, at the risk of repeating myself, it was NBC that pulled that rug, not Jay. And, if anyone out there in the real world who’s been unfortunately laid off and screwed by bosses and is now worried about their future actually thinks that Conan’s situation is comparable, then they may have lost a bit of perspective. Conan is a good man, a funny guy, and someone who’s definitely having a bad few weeks and deserved better. But he’s also INSANELY wealthy – and, let’s not forget, NBC hasn’t necessarily screwed up his job prospects at all. Don’t be surprised if he signs a deal with Fox in the next few weeks or months that puts him right back into the $5-10 million a year range – and that’s ON TOP OF much of his approx. $40 million NBC payout. And finally, as to this part – “They’re not “just” moving his show a half hour. They’re telling a guy who aspired to the Tonight Show for YEARS that they’re taking it back.” Yeah, well, welcome to show biz, the land where dreams are crushed. This happens to people in Hollywood all the time, and very few of them walk away with anywhere near what Conan is. I have lots of friends with similar stories – screenplays, for example, that were sold to major studios or producers by writers who had been toiling away for years and thought that this was finally their big break, only to get stuck in turnaround hell and wind up right back where they started, but with almost no money to show for it. Sadly, a common tale. The harsh reality is, if you don’t have the stomach for crushed dreams, then don’t come to Hollywood. Everyone in show business knows that. But when the book of success and failure is ultimately written, no matter what happens from here on, Conan O’Brien will unquestionably have a prominent place in the former column, not the latter.

  11. @larry: I’ve heard that there’s something huge in Leno’s contract, something along the lines of a $100 payout. Don’t know if it’s true, but the rumour’s out there.

    “He wasn’t fired – NBC merely said they wanted to move his show half-hour.” This bit I just find ridiculously simplistic. They’re not “just” moving his show a half hour. They’re telling a guy who aspired to the Tonight Show for YEARS that they’re taking it back. They’re shoving him back into tomorrow. For the layman analogy: you want to be VP of marketing. You work in the rank-and-file for years, but you’re not going anywhere, and finally other companies start wooing you with attractive offers. But your bosses say no, wait, the current VP will retire in 5 years and you can have the position then. So you turn down the others and say you’ll stay. Then, finally, when you have your dream job, you get the rug pulled out from under you. You’ve wasted at least 5 years, possibly more on LIARS.

    Sure, it’s not an exact analogy to being fired. But it’s a clear demotion, and not many people stick around when they’re demoted in this manner. They screwed up his job prospects, and now they’re offering to let him basically go back to his old timeslot? Bull. This is almost worse than getting fired — it’s being insulted so badly that you have to quit. It’s not fooling anyone, least of all people who know the routine. Besides, the correlation is “being treated shabbily by bosses”, not “getting canned’.

    I think you’re right that a lot of people just don’t like Leno. We don’t get his humour, we hate stuff like “The Middle”, it’s just not our style. But this thing where the blue-collar guy and the network team up to screw over our guy? That’s new. And like I said, since we already like Conan, it’s not much of a step to identify with his struggle with his crap bosses.

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  13. @Mothra – I just don’t think the comparison holds. This didn’t happen because Jay Leno was “too expensive to fire.” It happened because the affiliates were threatening to revolt because of his 10:00 numbers, and also because, right or wrong, NBC wasn’t satisfied with Conan’s numbers – especially when they had a guy in-house who, less than a year ago, performed almost twice as well. And you may see Leno as “less talented,” but I can assure you that NBC does not. They see him as a guy who was far better at drawing viewers to 11:30.

    Frankly, I don’t believe that most of the people saddling up to “Team Conan” see this as any sort of recessionary analogy. He wasn’t fired – NBC merely said they wanted to move his show half-hour. Again, not saying I agree with NBC here – I made it pretty clear that I see NBC as the villain in this – but hardly comparable to workers around the country getting laid off. Frankly, from lots of the commentary I’ve heard, it almost seems more elitist from the Team Conan folks. For many, they think Conan is the savior of comedy, and they HATE Jay because they not only think he’s not funny, but can’t relate to the people who do – who, at this point, are probably many of the same people who enjoy the Blue Collar Comics. I really believe, knowing the comedy community as I do, that hatred of Jay is driving the Team Conan fervor more than anything else. – Larry

  14. “But it’s irrelevant here, because he honored his 2004 commitment. He left.”

    No he didn’t. He just moved his show to a different time and changed the title.

  15. Honestly, I think you’re missing something bigger here. Something that has little to do with the television industry in general, and a lot to do with the current recession.

    There are hundreds of thousands of people out there who identify with Conan right now. You did your job for years, you got promised a promotion, you put in the hours and turned down other offers and finally got near the brass ring, and then BAM! You’re fired. This recession has been quite a wake-up for lots of us. Many of us have been told to our faces that we’re being let go and the older, less talented and less interested guy is staying on because “he’s too expensive to fire”, or because he’s pals with the CEO. And most of us have had to bite our tongues (because you can’t afford to burn bridges in this economy) and head out into dire unemployment, and watch this no-talent hack take over our projects and run them into the ground.

    Conan’s got something like 150 employees (and their families) who moved to CA to continue working with him. That’s a lot of responsibility, and I know he feels it. At the same time it’s incredibly viscerally satisfying to watch Conan burning down the set, because for all of us who got crapped on by our bosses, this is something we can cheer to. One of us, using his platform to stick it to the man. It’s awesome.

    Absolve Jay all you like, but he made a deal. He agreed to retire, then didn’t. Fine. But if Jay Leno weren’t AGREEING to take back this show from Conan (and don’t fool yourself, he’s been dropping hints for months) then this would not be happening. And it’s not like he doesn’t know how it feels:

    This has been badly handled from start to finish, but I won’t put any of it on Conan’s plate. He’s the only one following the rules of the agreement, from what I can see.

  16. @Turk – I’ll disagree, of course, on the “flimsy” part. As for your first point, I acknowledge in the essay that Leno made a hasty and wrong-headed decision in trying to do the right thing – which turned out to be the wrong thing – in 2004. But it’s irrelevant here, because he honored his 2004 commitment. He left. That he’s been asked to return now is separate, because it comes AFTER the new guy had some time at the job, and the powers-that-be decided – correctly or otherwise – that they didn’t want him. Jay didn’t go stomping in demanding The Tonight Show back. NBC said, we want you back at 11:30 instead of Conan. As I indicated in the piece, that’s a significant distinction. Your second point, I think, is just…well, c’mon. People all over the country think Leno is funny. Heck, I’ve never met anyone who thinks Larry the Cable Guy is funny, and he’s the most successful comic in the country. So you may not know anyone who thinks Leno’s funny, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. That all being said – thanks for reading, and for commenting.

  17. Your argument, while it takes a unique perspective, it flimsy. People aren’t upset because they see Leno as a bad guy. They’re outraged for two reasons: 1) If you agree to step aside, stick to it. Leno didn’t have to give up his show in the first place, but he did. Now his only non-slimy choice is to retire. If he wanted to stay on the show until he died, or whatever, then he shouldn’t have said yes back then. and 2) Wherever these ratings come from, it is very difficult for the average person to FIND someone who actually thinks Leno is funny. It’s an infuriating mystery, that this situation has only made worse.

  18. I don’t feel bad for Conan himself. In his own speech, he told people not to feel sorry for him and that he’d be fine. I more feel bad for all of his staff and their families who left NYC to move to LA, that they may all suddenly be out of jobs in a location their unused to. I do feel it’s much more NBC’s fault for mishandling than Leno’s fault for wanted to continue having a show.

    I would’ve prefered if Leno had simply stopped doing his show instead of moving to 10pm.. I knew that it wasn’t going to work. I would personally love for Leno to quit late night, because I don’t think he’s funny at all. However I do agree with you that he has a right to pursue whatever he wants and that doesn’t make him a bad person. Also unfortunately ratings talk and even though Conan seems to have the most internet fans, Leno has plenty of non-internet fans.

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