Conan O'Brien asked us not to be cynical. Jay Leno is really putting that to the test.
Leno's performance on Thursday's Oprah was all about rehabilitation. Leno got hammered over the Tonight Show do-over, the worst public pounding of his professional career. A lot of the negative press he didn't deserve. Thy guy did have The Tonight Show yanked out of his hands despite beating all comers over 16 seasons. NBC's five year plan to establish a smooth and peaceful transfer of power was, in retrospect, a dumb idea. It wasn't Leno's idea. He would have been happy hosting The Tonight Show forever.
What undoubtedly stung Leno the most was the level of pure vitriol NBC's screw up in late night unleashed. Old nemesis David Letterman purged nearly 18 years of bitterness in two weeks of blistering attacks. As he admitted on air, he could barely conceal his glee. Jay "Big Jaw" Leno had stolen O'Brien's dream job and whined his way back to Tonight. People felt Leno stole back the job both Letterman and O'Brien coveted. Karma, Letterman undoubtedly concluded, was finally catching up with Teflon Jay.
At least Leno could see Letterman coming. They were as linked as Ali and Frazier, two old fighters who made each other rich and survived long enough for one last clash in the ring.
The bad news for Leno was this fight quickly turned into Foreman vs. Five. From across town, old writers' strike ally Jimmy Kimmel delivered the biggest sandbag in the history of late night, square on Leno's chin. Kimmel took Leno apart like he was Lego. The former Man Show host did not have the years of suppressed rage Letterman seemed to be tapping into. He just saw an opening to rip a guy and went for it.
Leno might have seen both men coming--they are his rivals and late night can be a bare knuckle game. Another sketch or joke or two on Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show would have been easy for a battle-tested club comedian like Leno to sluff off. Hecklers he could always handle.
But when Hollywood seemed to turn on him, that had to hurt. Leno had turned Tonight into a Hollywood lounge, coddling big name guests and making everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Tom Cruise to Jennifer Aniston feel comfy and cozy. Unlike Letterman--where big stars never knew how they'd be treated--Leno built a safe zone for celebrities.
Yet few stood up for him as sympathy in Hollywood seemed to all tilt toward Conan. One by one, stars appearing before critics on the January press tour declared allegiance to Team Coco. Rosie O'Donnell basically blasted Leno for not retiring. Sarah Silverman (Kimmel's on-again, off-again squeeze) was sweeter about it, but suggested Leno should finally keep his word to his wife Mavis and take her out to dinner.
The notable exception at press tour was Leno's first guest on his 10 p.m. show, Jerry Seinfeld. At press tour to promote his new NBC realty seres The Marriage Ref, Seinfeld told critics Leno was just playing by the rules. "I don’t think anyone is preventing people from watching Conan, "Seinfeld told critics. "Once they give you the cameras, it’s on you. So I can’t blame NBC for having to move things around. I mean, Conan has a chance to, you know, destroy everybody. Go ahead. You are out there."
Which was the point Leno kept coming back to on Thursday's Oprah--that O'Brien's Tonight numbers were way down and if he had not lost viewers, Leno would not be asked to step back into Tonight.
The part Leno omitted is that O'Brien never had the strong lead-in Leno enjoyed at 11:35, mainly because Leno (and, ultimately, NBC) had damaged all those affiliate newscasts with his own poor showing at 10. The Tonight numbers comparison is just not an even playing field.
However, when you are as competitive as Leno is, any math will do. He also knows his history, and knew where to go to fix this mess: The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Over the past 24 years, Winfrey has rehabilitated everyone from Whitney Houston to Sarah Palin to Michael Jackson. Winfrey and Leno had been friendly for years, an alliance made tighter, no doubt, by a mutual mistrust of Letterman (who, recent outreach to Winfrey aside, used to mock her show almost nightly through stage hands Pat Farmer and Kenny Sheehan's hilarious "Pat and Kenny Read Oprah Transcripts" bit).
Letterman, then, must have been astounded to see Winfrey unfold Leno like a map. (It is a shame his show is in repeats this week.) Here she was, sitting on Jay's turf, on the bib of the Jay Leno stage. Yet Winfrey completely took over and asked a series of simple, direct questions.
Did he call or try to reach out to Conan? No. Not the right time (yet he called the head of the NBC affiliate board to apologise). "I think it's unfair, but TV is not fair," said Leno.
Leno the street fighter emerged after Winfrey repeated O'Brien's reason for turning down NBC's 12:05 offer was because he would not participate in the destruction of the Tonight Show franchise.
"Well, if you look at where Conan's Tonight Show ratings were," Leno said, pausing long enough to drive home his point, "it was already destructive to the franchise… This was the first time in the 60-year history of The Tonight Show that The Tonight Show would have lost money."
The gloves were off. Leno was through playing nice with O'Brien. The two men had maintained a cordial facade throughout the awkward hand over but that was then. Leno, not used to being cast as the bad guy, was going to get his message out that O'Brien was a flop. "I hope Conan gets a job somewhere," he added.
The ugly side of Jay seemed to unsettle even Oprah. She brought up the zinger Leno tagged Letterman with, the crack about the only way you can get Dave to ignore you is to marry him. Winfrey told Leno it was beneath him. Asks Leno, "Did you laugh?"
In other words, big deal, rationalizes Jay, I make one crack about Letterman's extramarital affairs.
Not true: Leno hit his old rival in his weak spot a day or two earlier. "Even Dave Letterman taking shots at me," he told bandleader Kevin Eubanks. "Which is a surprise. Usually he's just taking shots at interns." Leno knows the power of two good jokes, that they travel everywhere.
Letterman dismissed it as "vintage Jay." Winfrey seemed to think it was a misstep. "So you thought one cheap shot deserves another?" she asked. "Yeah, it's OK," Leno replied. To Leno the club warrior, it is more than OK, it is a matter of survival. Letterman was vicious in his attacks. Leno had to fight back.
Winfrey still wasn't buying it. "Do you feel you're being unfairly portrayed by the media?" she follows. Says Leno, "Yeah, I think so."
Leno also got nowhere with his suggestion to Winfrey that he was clinging to NBC's Tonight offer to keep 170 staffers employed. This was in response to her asking if he might be being selfish by re-taking Tonight from O'Brien. Winfrey seemed to be lobbing her old pal a softball here, but Leno bobbled it. Shows get cancelled all the time and his staff collected cheques for 17 years. He could take them all to another network. They could go work for his successor.
Besides, Winfrey has announced she is quitting her show in a year and clearly feels she's contributed enough to her staff over the past quarter century.
A shocker was the results from a poll conducted on Oprah.com. It found that 96% of Winfrey's audience was on Conan's side in this "mess." It even shook Winfrey, who admitted as much on the air. Was there something about all of this that she wasn't getting?
That's when Leno made the mistake of asking Winfrey if all of this had changed her opinion of him. Winfrey the broadcaster and friend gave a masterful non-answer, deflecting the question into a safety zone. But audiences and Leno had their answer, and if you lose Winfrey, as LBJ once observed about Walter Cronkite, you lose middle America. And if Leno has lost middle America, the climb back up to the top of Tonight is going to take more than one or two juicy damage control opportunities.
Leno's Oprah visit might actually had done more harm than good. In the words of Entertainment Weekly columnist Ken Tucker, it was "a fascinating diplay of self-pity and hubris." Oprah said at the end of the show that she had offered O'Brien the same opportunity but the answer back was not at this time. Smart move.