What “The Wire” can teach us about Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, and the current late night debacle

So now, if you believe New York Magazine, the intensity of the outrage surrounding Conan O’Brien’s removal from The Tonight Show is a parable for our recessionary anger at the fat cats – “Leno is AIG,” writer Adam Sternbergh claims – who have bullied us little people around, laid us off from our jobs, and generally caused everything bad to happen in our lives.

Conan O’Brien, therefore, is us – the little guy. Conan is he or she who is mad as hell, can’t take it anymore, and is now rising up to claim what is rightfully theirs.


Because if we’re looking at this situation realistically, a much better comparison – and one that contradicts the Conan-as-revolutionary meme – comes to us from HBO’s landmark series, “The Wire.”

For those unfamiliar, “The Wire,” which ran for five seasons and is widely regarded as the best dramatic series in television history, chronicled all sides of the drug trade in the city of Baltimore, including the dealers, the police, the government officials and the media. Without turning this into a full-on Wire tribute, suffice it to say that in its breadth and honesty, it is television as art, and if you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to put the series DVD at the top of your Amazon wishlist or Netflix queue.

(Warning: Wire spoilers ahead)

One phrase viewers of “The Wire” became intimately familiar with by series end is “the game,” which is shorthand for the life of drug dealing and murder that they have chosen to live. So when the mother of young drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale persuades him to take a 20-year prison sentence instead of turning state’s witness for the good of the family, since her brother runs – and she profits handsomely from – the drug empire he works for, it’s accepted as all part of the game. Later, when he turns up dead in prison, that is too.

By series end, the implications of the game are clear. If you choose to play it, you may reap great rewards, but you will probably end up dead or in jail. That’s just how it goes.

But what’s unspoken about the game – and, I believe, one small part of why the show was such an incredible achievement – is that in exposing it with such brazen honesty, it reflected as well on the games in our own lives. Whatever profession you’re in, there are situations you find yourself in, trade-offs and sacrifices you make, and things you do that you may not have done were you able to live your life exactly the way you wanted to. Some of these are well known and oft-discussed, and some may never be mentioned. But we all have a game in our lives, and areas such as politics, the media or show business have games that are particularly intense. Hollywood certainly does, and here’s where the comparison becomes relevant for late night.

The outrage against Jay Leno – claims that he engineered this in some devious fashion, and that Conan has been the sacrificial lamb/victim in all this – boils down to one point of view: that Jay Leno has been playing the game, but Conan hasn’t.

This is naive at best; disingenuous or manipulative at worst. Either way, it’s just wrong.

Because, as I pointed out the other day in “Kimmel, O’Brien, and the truth about Leno-Hate,” Conan O’Brien was just as willing to throw Jay Leno overboard – with no consideration for him or his future – as many assert that Jay Leno is willing to do to Conan now.

When the deal was made in 2004 for Conan to take over The Tonight Show, it was obvious that Leno didn’t want to “retire,” as many are now calling for him to do. He was pressured by NBC, and to attempt to avoid the hassle of the Letterman/Leno battle of the early 90s, he agreed.

But while all this was happening, what was Conan thinking? We can’t see inside his head, of course, but just from what we know of all this, he had to know that:

1. He would be displacing Jay Leno from a job he’d had for over a decade;
2. He would be displacing Jay Leno from a job he excelled at (whatever your thoughts on its content), as his show had been #1 in late night for years;
3. He would be displacing Jay Leno from a job he didn’t really want to leave;
4. He wouldn’t have to do this himself, but would have the toughest lawyers and agents in the game doing his bidding;
5. He would be doing all this for no reason other than his own selfish benefit.

Conan O’Brien wanted The Tonight Show. Jay Leno had it. So Jay had to be displaced. Simple as that.

Conan, from day one of this debacle, has been playing the game. Like Stringer Bell, the ruthless second in the Barksdale organization in “The Wire,” there were people that needed to be displaced in order for him to succeed, and certain unpleasant acts that needed to occur for him to occupy a place of power. When those acts blew back on Stringer – he was gunned down by not one, but two people he had tried to kill – he was not surprised. Conan shouldn’t be either.

Obviously, this is intended as metaphor. I’m certainly not asserting any literal bloodlust on Conan’s part, and I do believe that overall, he’s a pretty nice guy. But he’s not naive, stupid, or unwilling to do the things you need to do to get ahead in Hollywood. In other words, he’s as willing to play the game as anyone else, including Jay Leno.

In “The Wire,” Marlo Stanfield, the dealer who conquers the Barksdales and becomes the new power in the drug trade, murders a mentor named Proposition Joe in cold blood so he can take over his territory. Prop Joe tries to save himself by saying, “I’ll just go away.” Marlo, cold blooded as he is, doesn’t believe that Joe can stay away from the game, and can’t risk having Joe come back on him. So he has his henchman, Chris Partlow, blow Joe’s head off.

Conan in 2004 was like Marlo in one sense. His henchpeople (agents) went to NBC and said, we want Jay’s territory. And they got it. The biggest difference, of course, is that they did let Jay walk away – with millions and millions of dollars. Because that’s how their game is played. Luckily for all in this saga, the rules of the game in Hollywood are much different than the rules of the game on the streets of Baltimore.

But in either place, if you play the game, you know the rules, and you also know that the game may blow back on you. Conan had no problem playing the game in 2004. And if “The Wire” taught us anything, it’s that once you’re in the game, you’re there to stay.


15 thoughts on “What “The Wire” can teach us about Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, and the current late night debacle

  1. @Theresa – Jay made it pretty clear both at the time and especially in explaining the situation recently that he was not pleased about agreeing to leave back then, and did what he did to avoid hassle for Conan – not because he really was done with the job and wanted to go. It’s also been made clear over the years that at the time, Conan was going to leave the network, and NBC went to Jay and told him that they wanted to give Conan “The Tonight Show.” In other words, they wanted to give him Jay’s job. Jay did not, at any point, go to the network and say, “I’m ready to retire.” Combine all that with everything we know about Jay’s workaholism and everything he’s ever said about this job, and I don’t really think it’s that controversial a statement to say he didn’t really want to go. But on your next point, if you read this again (as well as my other essay on this that’s linked in the piece), I did not say I thought Jay was a “victim” in 2004. He made the decision to go along with NBC’s plan, and not fight back, because he thought it would cause the least hassle over time, but NOT because it was what he really, deep down in his heart, wanted to do for himself. That was dumb on his part, and he has to shoulder the blame for making the bad decision that helped put this fiasco in motion. My point was not that Jay was a hapless victim, just that no one here – including Conan – was naive about the ramifications of it all. As for your second graph, I agree as well that PR-wise, there are definitely ways that Jay could have handled this much better than he did, although I’m not sure I agree with the way you suggest. Had he done that but eventually reclaimed the show, I think he still would have been accused of manipulating the situation to his benefit.

  2. And how, exactly, do you support the statements “When the deal was made in 2004 for Conan to take over The Tonight Show, it was obvious that Leno didn’t want to “retire,” and “He would be displacing Jay Leno from a job he didn’t really want to leave”? This then assumes that Conan and NBC were playing “the game” but poor put upon Leno was just a hapless victim. It’s ridiculous and you have no way of proving either one of those statements.

    What could have helped Leno was if he had taken the high road and made a statement saying he wouldn’t be willing to displace Conan. When the dust cleared and Conan was jettisoned by NBC which appeared to be their original intent all along, he could have stepped up to re-helm the Tonight Show because it was absent a host but he still would have looked like a good guy.

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  4. Conan O’Brien will be receiving a 33 million dollar settlement with NBC. That is definitely a heck of a ton of dough to offer an individual to merely disappear. I would confess that I very much favorJay Leno in that slot rather than the prime time slot, but I do believe that Conan demonstrated a whole lot of class in fighting to obtain that huge severence arrangement for his crew. I’m positive that he can land on his feet somewhere else in no time. If he does not, at least the 33 million will soften the landing.

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  6. If you had watched the Zucker interview on Charlie Rose, you would have learned that it was Zucker who wanted to keep Conan on NBC and offered him the Tonight Show. Any comedian worth have leaped at the chance to host that show. That bone was tossed at Conan so he would stay on NBC. Leno, supposedly, thought that he wouldn’t have the staying power that Carson had and thought he should retire in 2009, since he would be 59. NBC offered him the ten o’clock slot and he took it and decided to do the same stuff at ten that he had been doing at 11:30. Why NBC let him is beyond me. Leno could have re-engineered the variety show format and should only have done it once a week.

    At the end of the day this is Jeff Zucker’s stupid mistake and once Comcast takes over I hope he’s the first one to lose his job.

  7. The affiliates were revolting because of Jay, not Conan. Also, the ratings for Conan for 18-34A were on par with Letterman. If broadcast cannot get their act together I’ll just go online. Just as cheap and heck of a lot more entertaining.

  8. @Oscar – Doesn’t matter whether it was offered or asked for, just as it doesn’t seem to matter to many Conan supporters that Jay didn’t demand, or even ask for, the Tonight Show back now, but that it was completely NBC’s call. Many who are trashing Jay now are doing so because he’s taking the show back instead of retiring and turning it down. Well, same point with Conan in 2004. Conan, in 2004, could have said to NBC, “I’m not taking The Tonight Show because it’s Jay’s, and that wouldn’t be right.” Instead – however the idea originated – his reps ultimately said, “give Jay’s show to Conan, and Conan stays. If not, he’s gone.”

  9. That’s bull. Conan and his people didn’t demand the Tonight Show, it was the carrot NBC offered him to keep him from leaving for Fox or ABC.

  10. I think it’s giving NBC too much credit to consider them The Greek, lol. Maybe NBC, Leno, & Conan are all like the Sobotkas…

  11. @Jeff – Absolutely. I was just addressing the Conan side of it, but the game is way bigger than any two people, and NBC is certainly a major player. Given their place at the top of the food chain, maybe they’re Vondas, The Greek’s main henchman, and the guy who had no qualms about switching his business from Joe to Marlo even after Marlo did what he did? Or, maybe NBC is The Greek.

  12. It’s an interesting metaphor, but what I think it’s lacking is the role of NBC as a player “In the Game”. I’m not sure if they would be Clay Davis, or maybe even Prop Joe in this discussion (Not sure which side to play, just looking to act as a “rainmaker”, and hope for the best and spin it their way if it turns for the worst). NBC didn’t have to give Conan the rights to the tonight show in 2004, but they didn’t want him as competition against their golden goose, either.

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