This week marked Jay Leno’s return to “The Tonight Show.” I had considered writing about the Olympics but, for me, they lacked the high drama of those during the Cold War. The 1980 “Miracle on Ice” was even more special because the U.S. beat the Russians. How about al-Qaida fielding a hockey team? At least video of them practicing could replace the boring monkey bar footage we always see on the news.
As for the strange saga of Jay’s return, NBC’s brash CEO, Jeff Zucker, could have worked in the Bush administration. I’ll explain.
Even though Leno had been number one in his time slot for 10 straight years, the NBC honchos offered him a rather disrespectful contract renewal. Jay would continue to host the “Tonight Show,” and at a princely salary at least, but at the end of five years he would step aside for Conan O’Brien. (They wanted Conan under contract so that he wouldn’t jump to the competition.) In essence, NBC was hiring and firing Jay at the same time.
Probably to save face, Jay told his audience that the arrangement had been his choice. But, as the deadline drew near, it was obvious that Jay didn’t want to leave. Why he didn’t go to Fox at that point is a mystery. (Jay, my e-mail address is at the bottom.)
So the geniuses at NBC, headed by Zucker, devised a plan they envisioned would dominate late night for another decade. Jay would do a primetime show from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Conan would host the “Tonight Show” at 11:35 p.m. The idea was hailed as brilliantly innovative. Others, including yours truly, considered it meshugenah (Yiddish for crazy).
Meshugenah won. Both shows tanked and Dave’s ratings soared. Jay was fired first and, after a grand total of seven months, Conan was canned (a mere 29 years and five months short of Johnny Carson’s record).
Amidst threats of lawsuits and the obligatory “you’ll never work in this town again,” (reportedly from Zucker to O’Brien) a compromise was floated. Jay would be on from 11:35 p.m. to 12:05 a.m. and Conan would host the “Tonight Show” starting at 12:05 a.m. (But as he sarcastically pointed out, at that hour it would be the “Tomorrow Show.”)
Jay was game but Conan said no dice. Zucker’s new scheme was to re-hire Jay for a job from which he’d been fired twice before. (Shades of George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin?) Meanwhile, Conan got $45 million (that’s not a golden parachute, that’s a platinum parachute).
The entire fiasco may ultimately cost NBC hundreds of millions of dollars. One could say that Zucker did “a heckuva job.” To see his spin, however, go on the Internet to: www.charlierose.com/view/interview/10824. During the interview with Charlie Rose, Zucker nervously fidgets with his fingers, reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart in the “Caine Mutiny” bemoaning the missing strawberries.
Somehow, in all of this, Jay is perceived as the heavy. (No pun intended.) For what? NBC fired Conan, not Jay. And yet Leno had to go on “Mother Confessor” Oprah to rehab his image. You’d think he was Tiger Woods.
Desperate for ratings his first week back, Jay had on Jamie Foxx, gold medalists Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White, and Sarah Palin. (Sarah’s recent use of crib notes on her hand for a speech at a Tea Party function gave new meaning to the term “palm pilot.”)
I liked Jay’s monologue, “Hi, I’m Jay Leno, host of the ‘Tonight Show’… for the time being.” And later, “Tiger Woods had apparently switched religions, from Buddhism to Bootyism.”
Matching celebrities, Letterman had on Tom Hanks, Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Murray. The Nielsen Ratings will tell the tale. (That is, unless they’re making it up. I mean, have you ever met someone with a Nielsen box?)
I’ve always liked Jay and Dave, less so with Conan. Watching them, however, I’m often reminded of how much I miss Johnny.
In 2003, Paul Wolfowitz (famous in “Farenheit 911” for combing his hair with saliva … eww) predicted that the Iraq war would cost $50 billion. Donald Rumsfeld predicted it wouldn’t last six months, and W declared “Mission Accomplished.” Wolfowitz was made head of the World Bank, and W won a second term. (Despite staggering failures, Rummy lasted until 2006.)
NBC’s CEO, Jeff Zucker, also still has his job. See what I mean?
I goofed in last Friday’s column, “In Dog We Trust,” when I wrote that the new pet supply store on Main Street, the Animal Wellness Center, was located in the building formerly occupied by Bobi Leonard Design. As you might imagine, this was startling news to Bobi Leonard who’s been there for the past twenty years. Plus, I spelled Bobi as “Bobbi.” So, to avoid becoming the Dan Rather of the Daily Press, Bobi Leonard Design is at 2727 Main Street, while AWC is at 2803.
For Jay Leno, and anyone else for that matter, Jack can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com.