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Jay Leno and the missed opportunity

by Allison Waldman, posted Jan 18th 2010 1:15PM
jay_leno_the_tonight_showIt's been quite an amazing time at NBC the past ten days. The Jay Leno exit from prime time. The proposed 11:35-12:05-1:05 juggle. Conan's manifesto to the people of the earth. NBC executives lashing out and labeling Conan a failure and chicken-hearted. Jeff Zucker threatening Conan and his intellectual properties. And then the subsiding tide that will have The Tonight Show regressing, possibly becoming less an American television institution and more an American artifact of a time gone by.

Lost amid all this wrangling and back and forth is one fact that is undeniable. When NBC came up with the idea of all-Leno, all the time at 10 p.m. prime time, the network was giving him a precious gift. Jay Leno had been given Aladdin's lamp. NBC handed him an hour -- five hours -- of prime time television with an open invitation to create a new show. Imagine if that offer were made to another performer.

What would Jerry Seinfeld -- Jay's good buddy -- do with five hours of prime time real estate? How about some TV producers, Mark Burnett or Jerry Bruckheimer or Nigel Lythgoe? You think they would have simply recycled old material or would they have used the opportunity to innovate? Jay had the chance to reinvent himself. He didn't have to do a tired, watered-down version of The Tonight Show. He didn't have to do what he's always done before. He had the opening, if not the wherewithal, to break out of the mold.

In the early days of television, people like Steve Allen, Jackie Gleason, Ernie Kovacs, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Carl Reiner et. al. recognized that this thing called television was a new medium with the power to reach millions. They could have just adapted radio material to a visual medium, but they did much more. Desi invented a way to film situation comedy (with cameraman Karl Freund's guidance), and transformed a genre. Kovacs was an outside the box thinker, and everyone since has followed his lead.

I remember watching Carol Burnett on American Masters. She was talking about how nobody believed The Carol Burnett Show would succeed because no woman had ever had a prime time musical variety show that was really a comedy hour (Dinah Shore was music). With no faith from the network, Carol and producer (future husband) Joe Hamilton decided to shoot the moon, to aim for the stars and do everything they always wanted to do on a TV show. The results are TV history.

All those people were pioneers, visionaries. Nobody will ever accuse Jay Leno of being that. He never challenged himself. I doubt it ever occurred to him. He was lazy and uninspired and that's the kind of TV he created. Leno had a chance to be something better than just the guy who took over The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson.

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itsy

What is this hatred? You HATE Jay Leno? Why? Because you don't think he's funny? You hate Jay because Conan couldn't cut it at 11:35?

Jay didn't instigate the mess. He didn't ask to switch back to The Tonight Show. HE WAS INVITED. NBC had problems with affiliates and Conan was not pulling his weight. So they asked Jay to move back. Period.

Jay accepted. So this makes him a monster? No. I agree that his 10 pm show sucked and I don't understand why he didn't do more with it, why it was written so poorly, why he wouldn't expand successful bits like "JayWalking" but did waste time with that stupid driving thing. But that doesn't make him someone to hate.

You want to hate somebody, hate Jeff Zucker. The guy played it wrong from Day One five years ago. Jay was forced out the same way Johnny Carson was. But Jay has the chance to get his show back; Johnny didn't.

And where were all you rabid pro-Conan people while he was tanking at 11:35?? You weren't watching his show, that's for damn sure.

I tried to watch Conan at 12:35 and just never found him funny. When his show first started, I never thought it would last. He's childish and awkward and his jokes aren't funny. Andy Richter is no help; I was SHOCKED that he did so well on Jeopardy because he comes off like a lox on Conan in either time slot.

If Conan was funny, if his show was good, he'd have gotten the numbers. He isn't, it wasn't, it's over. He's a talent-free zone as far as I'm concerned.

Jay Leno is perfect for 11:35; it's just enough funny and just enough calming for people getting ready to go to sleep. Yes, it's inoffensive - what do you want at that hour? Car chases? Screaming? No, you want something pleasant and comfortable. And that is Jay.

You don't want to watch, okay, don't watch. But for Pete's sake, leave the guy alone. HE DIDN'T MAKE THE PROBLEM.

January 21 2010 at 9:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Johnny

I don't know if I'd say he's narcissistic.

January 21 2010 at 1:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
bruce

Leno only cares about being successful, which he defines by how many cars he owns, and he knows the most important rule of safe, continued, ensured success in American entertainment is to never offend anyone - ever. So all he will ever do is tell safe, "family friendly" jokes, never push any boundaries, never try anything different.

It's why I hate jay leno so much. I can ignore an entertainer's selfishness and greed when that someone is truly unique, and pushes the lines being totally unafraid to offend or who he offends. But Jay Leno's biggest fear is having someone demand an apology from him. He is a coward, and since he's also a greedy, heartless, narcissistic asshole, I will always hate the guy.

Leno and NBC are truly perfect for each other, though. NBC will screw a dedicated, talented artist like Conan if an actuary tells them it will raise their stock price by a tenth of a cent in the next quarter. Leno, likewise, will have no qualms about renegging on a promise, screwing one of his peers, and destroying a long-running piece of American history if it means he can have one more expensive car in his vast car collection.

People like this are what have ruined America. Greed is good, it drives the economy, but unchecked, unrestrained, immoral greed like that showed by NBC and Leno - causing great harm to other people who are not your competitors for hypothetical near-term marginal profits is antithetical to capitalism.

What's pathetic is that so many people watch Leno. The armies of the politically correct, afraid of being challenged or offended. They can watch Leno and feel safe with the comforting knowledge that they won't have to waste any of their precious time writing letters complaining about what he said and demanding an apology. For example, with Leno, they don't have to worry about a masturbating bear or a puppet that smokes a cigar, so they don't have to write letters demanding that Leno stop advocating masturbation and smoking.

Politically correct assholes are Jay Leno's entire market. Only in modern, PC america could someone like Leno be successful. The fact that he is successful is a really sad comment on the state of our nation, our collective psychology, and our culture.

January 19 2010 at 4:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bruce's comment
jim

"He is a coward, and since he's also a greedy, heartless, narcissistic asshole, I will always hate the guy. "

Careful what you think about someone's character when they present a public personality. Those words are quite strong, and I don't think you can tell that much about him no matter how much of his show you watch.

January 19 2010 at 1:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tool

The problem with the 10 PM Jay Leno Show -- besides the fact that Leno isn't funny and it was a mistake to put him on in prime time in the first place -- is that the show was just his 11:35 show. No innovation. Nothing new. Nothing compelling.

Leno could have reinvented the prime time comedy / variety show. Instead he played it safe and did nothing to make it must see TV.

January 18 2010 at 10:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Johnny

And Allison, this was extremely well done. (What I meant above is that they should never have promised anything to O'Brien or anybody else ... but once they did, they should have cut ties to Leno and stuck with a decision. But alas, none of the executives possesses a spine.)

January 18 2010 at 7:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
chrissthomas

This is the best perspective I have seen on the whole debacle. Leno is a tired performer who has no tricks. He will return to the Tonight Show to fail and NBC will regret their decision. Meanwhile Conan will succeed wherever he ends up and NBC will end up kicking themselves for stifling him and running him off the network.

January 18 2010 at 7:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
MosquitoControl

Now I dislike Jay as much as the next guy, but what's constantly lost here is:
1) Jay's Tonight Show ratings were nearly 100% higher than Conan's.
2) Jay's 10 pm show was profitable for NBC and everything they expected it to be.

So Jay was a cash cow. Of course NBC doesn't want to lose him.
On the flip side, Conan could have grown to be that, we'll never know, and the fact that the 10pm show was everything NBC expected yet still had major issues just shows how brain dead NBC is right now.

Conan will be better elsewhere, where he's more free to be Conan rather than The Tonight Show host.

January 18 2010 at 6:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to MosquitoControl's comment
playerboe

good point! i couldnt agree more with your take on Jay's missed opportunity. i really dont know what to say, i like them both as late night tv host. at first i thought Conan would absolutely suck as host of The Tonight Show because he was too goofy but i was wrong. he has done a fine job. he respect the brand and i think he understands that he has a different audience than Late Night. Jay, i didnt know what to expect at 10:00. after the first week i didnt really follow it as much. i did catch some episodes on Hulu but not all that many. its just like The Tonight Show and i saw that for 17 years. well whatever happens, i wish them both luck and i will catch them both wherever they end up.

January 18 2010 at 3:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jim

The only "missed opportunity" here is NBC failing to get rid of Jay once and for all and moving on.

January 18 2010 at 2:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
laura

This article couldn't be more spot on. What Leno has done is clearly illuminate the big difference between late night TV and prime time TV.
SNL used to have the not-ready-for-prime-time players. Leno knows where he belongs and doesn't care that Conan and his whole staff and crew are losing their jobs because of it.
Probably the best thing Leno could've done for his prime time opportunity would've been to produce a show and not star in it, or only briefly appear in it.
If you think about it, Letterman has done way better than Leno in primetime, without even giving up his late night show. His company produced "Everybody Loves Raymond".
It really proves what Howard Stern has been saying all these years. Leno is a hack who gets his best material from everyone else, but then waters it down for a mass audience. Is it any wonder that Leno's show never even got nominated, much less won, for a writing emmy?
Too bad Howard didn't come up with any good ideas for a prime time show with a former late night talk show host who is only good at stand up comedy. Maybe Leno would've succeeded.

January 18 2010 at 2:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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