LOS ANGELES--Jay Leno--disguised as a TV critic in a bald-wig, fake beard and glasses--did a Jimmy Kimmel here Monday, crashing the NBC executives session with pointed questions about the whole late night transition deal.
Kimmel showed up last week at the ABC session, doing a funny bit as a reporter off the top, asking questions like, "If you were even to talk to Jay Leno, wouldn't that be like contract tampering? Wouldn't that be illegal? Couldn't you go to jail for that?"
Critics roared with laughter. We seemed more confused this morning as Leno's booming voice, disguised a register lower, started quizzing his bosses about when exactly his last Tonight Show will air (May 29, 2009) and when Conan O'Brien's first Tonight will commence (June 1, 2009).
Critics in the room slowly clued in that the bit was a bit, although, from a distance, it looked like former Hollywood super agent Swifty Lazar had come back from the dead to quiz NBC Universal entertainment co-chairmen Ben ("Benji," as Tina Fey called him on the weekend) Silverman and Marc Graboff.
Leno/Swifty asked if his recent Emmy nomination for an Internet series called "Jay Leno's Garage"--compared to zero Emmy noms for Tonight--meant "people like him better as a mechanic."
Around about the time Leno/Swifty started asking if NBC bringing back Knight Rider meant a relaunch of the early '80s bomb Manimal was in the works, the jig was up. That the execs had scripted answers ready ("we're negotiating for the rights to Airwolf") started to suck some of the laughs out of this bit.
After the ruse, Leno/Swifty swiftly bolted from the Beverly Hilton banquet room and was escorted directly into a waiting limousine outside. Leno's bald wig wrinkled up in the back as I watched him duck into the limo. The NBC execs confirmed later that, yes, that was Jay, with Graboff admitting the disguise fooled him when the two met briefly beforehand.
Hard to assess how this played out in the room. Leno scores points for answering Kimmel and going him one better with the wacky disguise. It was all very showbizzy, in the friendly rival tradition of Jack Benny and George Burns, Bob Hope and Big Crosby.
It's just that Leno is the big "get" as an interview these days. He was quoted (misquoted, according to Graboff at the session) in USA Today days ago as saying he was "done with NBC." The rumour that he is headed to ABC at 11:35 once his NBC deal runs out in January of 2010, is gathering steam. We'd all kill to talk to him, so getting a glimpse was a bit frustrating.
After the session, Graboff sounded resigned to Leno's eventual departure, but assured critics that if the talk show host did choose to leave the network, he would receive a "grand send off." Graboff cited the way NBC allowed Katie Couric to escape gracefully to CBS News, or Brian Williams to replace Tom Brokaw as NBC's News anchor.
"What ever we can, what ever he wants," said Granoff of Leno's Tonight Show departure, calling the host "a class act."