Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Morning Midway: Jay Leno's Tonight Show History in His Own Words ...

He ruled late night and was only 54-years old when NBC pressed him to step aside five years hence so that a far less-proven talent could take over The Tonight Show.

How would you feel?

I'm glad I stayed up on Monday night to watch Jay on his soon-to-be-history 10 PM slot, for, sitting behind his desk after the first commercial break, he talked to us without comedy or rancor or spin, simply and graciously discussing his own NBC history with straight forward honesty, taking a sharing approach that can only add to his image as being basically a nice guy.

He never wanted to leave. He was Number One. NBC wanted him to leave so that Conan O'Brien, who was threatening to find a spot elsewhere, could be placated. Jay accepted the inevitable, and shortly after, himself looking for another network where he could continue telling jokes and interviewing guests, was then offered prime time on NBC. He did not believe it would work, he told us on Monday night, but NBC execs kept assuring him it will! it will! So, he decided to give it a try.

One of the reasons he agreed: He could keep intact his staff of 175.

Remember, Jay Leno was at the top of his game in 2004 when NBC pressured him to accept retirement in 2009, when he would then be 58 (Carson stepped aside at the age of 65). And Jay Leno liked to work.

Five months into this new NBC late night reconfiguration, neither Leno or O'Brien are doing well, Jay acknowledged matter of factly. So his bosses asked him if he would accept a half hour comedy show starting at 11:35 PM, to be followed by The Tonight Show starting at 12:05 AM. Jay said, okay, I'll give it a try. He and his entire staff could keep working.

And then Conan balked, going public with his refusal to host The Tonight Show starting five minutes after midnight.

So, now what? So now, NBC re-huddled with Jay, offering him back The Tonight Show.

I think that Leno's addressing what has happened to him at NBC in so direct, non-vindictive and forthright a manner should serve him well.

Conan O'Brien fans fail to recognize how it was O'Brien himself who took steps to advance his own career, which he had every right to do, that would lead to the early first retirement of Jay Leno from the show that Leno ruled.

Although I'm not his greatest fan, Jay Leno has a lot of class. In fact, perhaps more than either Letterman, and certainly more than talent-limited Conan O'Brien, whose overinflated opinion of himself is just another reason why he is likely to do no better on another network. Perhaps FOX can uncork a funnier Conan.

Even then, the real culprit here is the NBC management team that engineered this entire fiasco, in particular NBC President Jeff Zucker, who back in 2004 decided that Leno's days were numbered because he wanted O'Brien in. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Now here comes Act III: Can Leno reclaim his late night dominance? Letterman has picked up many new fans who deserted the O'Brien train, and O'Brien, if he takes his act to another network, will no doubt take his faithful, too. Only one thing seems certain: Late night is going to be a more interesting and competitive place than it has been in a long time.

I'm going back go sleep. Good bye, 10 PM.

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