Leno refuses to admit to Oprah that he's culpable in Conan mess
by Joel Keller, posted Jan 28th 2010 5:55PM
When you look at the surface, it seemed like Jay Leno was quite revealing during his interview with Oprah Winfrey today. He said that he was "devastated" when NBC came to him in 2004 and told him that they wanted to give Conan O'Brien The Tonight Show. He claimed he was "embarrassed" by what he called "a big mess," and that NBC would have handled it better if "they came in and shot everyone. Then it would have only been a two-day story."
But when Oprah repeatedly tried to get Leno to react to how most of the public is reacting to this story -- that Jay should have stepped aside to give Conan a chance to succeed, and that he is unfairly taking back Conan's dream job -- Leno refused to play along. Not sure if he did so because he's truly not self-aware of what this whole mess looks like or he just doesn't care. But as far as Jay's concerned, this was all just business, and his decision to take back Tonight and Conan's departure are mutually exclusive events.
Clips of the interview are after the jump.
Jay's mantra about L'Affaire de Coco pretty much came down to ratings, ratings, ratings. His show did lousy, Conan's show did lousy, and that's why all of this was set in motion. For instance, when Oprah pointedly asked Jay whether he at all thought he was "taking away Conan's dream," all Leno would say was that "this was an affiliate issue," citing the fact that this would be the first time in the sixty-year history of The Tonight Show that the program would lose money.
In another telling moment, Oprah asked Leno about Conan's now-famous "People of Earth" letter, where he refused to contribute to the destruction of the Tonight franchise by agreeing to a move to 12:05. At that point, Leno got very cold and calculating as these chilling words dripped out of his mouth:
"If you look at where the ratings were, it was already destructive to the franchise."
Most of the time, Oprah good job of asking the questions that needed to be asked and keeping her usual pontificating voice out of the interview. But she slipped up in two instances: 1) She neglected to ask Leno if he thought that his poor ratings at 10PM ET at all contributed to Conan's slippage at 11:35, and 2) when Jay asked her if her opinion of him has changed, she sniffed that she wondered why people were upset at Jay, given what she knows about show biz.
Well, duh, Oprah! Ninety-nine percent of the people watching your show know nothing about the business, but that doesn't mean that their anger at Jay (96% of 80,000 respondents to her web survey were against Leno) is unfounded. Jay just doesn't seem to realize that his decision to stay at NBC is really what set all of this mess in motion, and his refusal to acknowledge it is what is even more infuriating to people. If he decided to step back and, at the very least, take his show elsewhere, NBC would have had no choice but stick with Conan if his ratings tanked. Jay staying gave the NBC execs an out.
But "working stiff" Jay, who again cited that he lives off his stand-up money -- which isn't $100 per set and free drinks at the bar, folks -- hid behind false altruism when Oprah asked why he didn't just walk away when NBC cancelled The Jay Leno Show. He said doing that would have been an "ego decision," because it would have left his staff in the lurch. When pressed by Oprah why he didn't do what Conan did and negotiate severance for his staff, all Leno could say was "I could have done it, but I didn't. They offered me my old job back and I said yes."
There just seems to be no way for Jay to break down that hard New England shell he's built around himself and be real. He called Jimmy Kimmel's attack on Jay on the 10@10 segment "a sucker punch," but also said he didn't want to look like a wimp by editing it out. He felt Conan's jabs at him were "just jokes." And he had what he thought was an introspective moment when he reflected on why things turned out so wrong when he did everything right in his mind. And he just couldn't see what his role was in all this.
AUGGGGHHH! Talk about frustrating. Maybe Jay really is a genius, because if he showed any human frailties at all, he wouldn't have a job. And if Oprah can't break him down, no one will ever be able to do it.