O'Brien, Leno were gracious before; now that's impossible

The end of “The Jay Leno Show” experiment and its ongoing, messy aftermath invites no shortage of musings. Here are two:

• Although it was very important in 2004 for Leno to appear gracious — to avoid the acrimony that characterized the succession scrum with David Letterman a dozen years earlier — “gracious” has officially left town.

Indeed, both Leno and Conan O’Brien — who once said all the right things — have been made to look strictly in it for themselves, or what the New York Times’ David Carr described as “two wounded parties biding their time until the divorce comes through.”

Back in ’04, Leno intimated that O’Brien deserved to be rewarded with “The Tonight Show.” After all, O’Brien had agreed to wait his turn — even if that meant prodding NBC to commit to an eviction date for the existing tenant, Leno, before he was ready. Jeff Zucker’s bet was that in five years Leno would be willing to leave — a dice roll that came up snake eyes.

Admittedly, any discussion of latenight risks lurching into psychology, but “The Tonight Show” has always been dogged by a weird Freudian vibe thanks to Johnny Carson’s giant shadow.

As always, the problem boils down to a game of musical chairs with two guys vying for one seat. In that kind of standoff, it’s difficult for anyone to look “gracious.” Petulant is more like it.

In hindsight, Leno was probably too intent on appearances by agreeing to stay at NBC and relocate to 10 p.m., either out of loyalty or a realization that a three-way latenight split among Leno, O’Brien and Letterman risked becoming a murder-suicide.

Whatever his rationale, he will have forfeited the claim to his customary “Aw shucks, why should we care about millionaires jockeying over a parking space?” posture by returning to 11:35. Instead, the aforementioned millionaires both sniped at their network Monday, while the fellow who essentially invented bashing the boss, Letterman, giddily offered free advice (make ‘em co-hosts!) from the sidelines.

As for O’Brien, it’s not clear he had a fair shot at maintaining the “Tonight” flame, what with NBC’s primetime lineup and late-news lead-ins crumbling under his feet; still, nobody needs to organize any bake sales for him either. Asked about the situation Sunday, Jerry Seinfeld said O’Brien had no reason to be sore — which is nonsense — and that there are “no rules” in Hollywood.

Actually, according to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” there are no rules in a knife fight. By contrast, NBC tried to impose order here by orchestrating a handoff that would avoid the messiness that ensued in the early ’90s and still enable Leno to look like Mr. Nice Guy.

Alas, in some scenarios there’s simply no graceful way out, merely demonstrating that it’s possible to swing sharp elbows despite wearing velvet gloves.

• At the end of “The Candidate,” the newly elected politician asks, “What do we do now?” Writers who railed against NBC’s decision to strip Leno at 10 might very well be wondering, too, what exactly they have won.

NBC made a conspicuous display of announcing several big pilot deals to impress TV critics Sunday, but the 10 o’clock timeslot has a certain scorched-earth feel to it. Let’s put it this way: New dramas earmarked for the Peacock won’t exactly inherit beachfront real estate; more like a vacant strip mall where the storefronts have been gutted.

There’s also considerable irony that NBC unceremoniously cut loose the critically admired drama “Southland” from producer John Wells, who doubles as president of the Writers Guild of America West. If the gritty cop drama gains any traction on TNT, consider it another squandered opportunity due in part to the Leno arrangement.

For writers, the prospect of new hours to fill on the Peacock amounts to put up or shut up time — as in conjure up hits, or prepare to watch those coveted writing jobs quickly go to “story producers” on “The Biggest Loser: Chubby All-Stars” and “America’s Got More Talent Than You Do.”

The good news is that ABC’s 10 o’clock dramas haven’t exactly set the world ablaze either. Then again, for creatives that’s the bad news, too.

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