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.
“KIMMEL BLASTS LENO TO HIS FACE!!!!”
“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.