Do I want Jay Leno to have a show? No. I think his time has come and gone. When Gallagher talks about late night comedians as the manifestation of mediocrity, Leno is the poster boy (which makes me think, wonder what Gallagher has to say about all of this). But if Leno is known for anything, it’s being the nice guy, the non-threatening (save for the chin) host. Yes, perhaps he shouldn’t have taken the Jay Leno Show gig, just moved on to washing his cars and dropping by his Comedy and Magic Club, and let Conan take over The Tonight Show without his predecessor breathing up his neck. But, in the end, it was NBC who decided five years ago to lock in The Tonight Show transition. In the last year they look guilty of committing knee jerk reactions, but in this particular case it seems their mistake was planning too far ahead, being too cautious in trying to plan the next phase of The Tonight Show. Perhaps they were trying to avoid The Late Shift 2, and, instead, directly caused it. But they didn’t have to try to keep Jay in the fold. Ever the good NBC soldier, even with a few “good” years left in him, Leno wouldn’t have defected to another network. But NBC got greedy, tried to have its Conan and eat it too. Leno thought he was doing the right thing, and in his eyes, as someone who no doubt also idolized Johnny Carson, this was his chance to truly own his program, and move out form Carson’s shadow. If he knew then what a disaster it would turn out to be, and the repercussions it would have, I don’t think he would have taken the gig. He didn’t get where he is by ruffling feathers.
Which is why I almost feel bad for the guy as I watch him get bashed by Jimmy Kimmel and especially David Letterman. Dave is clearly, and with good reason, still bitter over losing to The Tonight Show to Leno, and makes his animosity towards his former and (possibly) future rival abundantly clear, repeatedly referring to him as Jay “Big Jaw” Leno.
So while Letterman’s personal vendetta against Leno is certainly understandable, it doesn’t seem entirely fair to excoriate him the way Letterman does. Certainly, Letterman, of all people, should understand the mistakes made by, in his words, “the geniuses in programming” (He also takes some unnecessary shots at Carson Daly, but, really, getting referenced by Letterman is the closest Daly is going to come to the 11:35 slot (piling on!)).
Much more: The case for Conan to CBS builds, Letterman as our FDR & why Leno could ruin all of this…