Somewhere, in sunny California, a tall, lanky, red-headed comedian is chuckling to himself in his office, free from the rest of the world, amused at the way karma works in life, coming back around to a large-chinned nemesis with a perpetual greed for fame and fortune. Amused that just three years ago, the tall, lanky, red-headed comedian was in the same position, staring failure in the eyes and realizing everything he had worked for in over two decades in show business was about to disappear, thanks to an unlikely power shift and a grab for everything he had. Amused that just three years ago, the tall, lanky, red-headed comedian was betrayed by a man he had never really known to be a close friend, but always assumed was an ally in his corner, willing to fight for him when he knew he would inevitably go to war with a network never convinced on his own star power.
If you hadn't guessed, that man is Conan O'Brien. His large-chinned nemesis now in the same unfortunate position? Jay Leno.
Three years ago, Conan O'Brien "quit" his position as host of NBC's The Tonight Show, one of television's truest institutions. In the technical sense, yes, Conan quit his job. Delve deeper and you'll find he was forced out, thanks to previous host Jay Leno's new primetime experimental talk show tanking in the ratings and his and the network's desire to re-establish him in his 11:35 position. What would eventually become a 30-minute edition of The Jay Leno Show would then lead into The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and would likely end Last Call With Carson Daly. Conan, faced with no option, did the right thing and left, knowing he was only hurting The Tonight Show brand, Jimmy Fallon, Carson Daly and himself. Thanks to a deal struck by NBC in 2004 when they felt they would need Conan to succeed Leno, Conan found himself in a no-win situation.
Let's be clear here: Jay Leno did nothing wrong. He was asked to return to late night and he did. He never wanted to leave The Tonight Show. NBC is entirely at fault for this debacle. Faced with losing one or both late-night staples, they struck the 2004 deal, keeping a restless Conan secure and hoping Leno would be ready to step down in 2009. He wasn't. And I honestly don't blame him. I am a huge Conan O'Brien fan. I find Jay Leno's humor to be passable, often humorous and always pandering to a lowest-common denominator audience. But Leno's predecessor, Johnny Carson, held his position at The Tonight Show until he wanted to leave. Leno was forcibly removed.
But here's where Leno is at fault with me and a great deal of others: he never reached out to Conan. He never asked if this was fine with Conan. He never went to bat for Conan. He had and still has considerable clout, able to go to NBC and get what he wants. Why didn't he do the right thing for Conan? Because Leno is greedy. He works five nights a week and then does standup on the weekends. Nothing wrong with that. But he doesn't need the money. He could also start a new show on any network and likely do well with it. His greed for The Tonight Show is unmatched. He showed his true colors in not caring about a fellow late-night talk show host, the man that followed him every night for sixteen years. He pulled off a snake move that reflects his own personality. NBC screwed Conan O'Brien. Jay Leno did nothing to stop it. He didn't need to be a sacrificial lamb for Conan, but a simple conversation may have helped ease the pain.
Fast forward three years and Leno is faced again with losing The Tonight Show, but now after taking The Tonight Show from David Letterman (long story... read Bill Carter's The Late Shift for that one) and Conan O'Brien, he's less likely to be able to pull it back into his clutches. Late Night's Jimmy Fallon is poised to take over as LATE as Fall 2014. The young gun is moving in, but this time, he may have an advantage over the reigning king of late night: age. Conan O'Brien was closing in on 50 when he took The Tonight Show. NBC's hope that he would score with young viewers was less and less likely as he stayed. Fallon has time to build that young audience at 11:35. NBC will be more likely to back him, even if initial ratings suffer.
Why now is NBC looking to give Leno his walking papers and hand over their 11:35 staple to Jimmy Fallon? Another late night Jimmy has moved in: Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC. After moving to 11:35 to challenge Leno and Letterman, Kimmel has regularly defeated both in adults 18-49, a key demo for networks. While total viewers still goes to Leno, Kimmel is growing fast, capitalizing on a time period that's been a haven for older comedians like Leno and Letterman, as well as cable-darlings Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler and yes, Conan O'Brien. They know Leno won't last forever and his ratings dominance is fading fast. The Conan situation hurt him, but he's just not the same force he was a decade ago. And NBC knows they need to act now, again, to give The Tonight Show over to a new generation and save their aging institution.
Will it work? Who knows. Jimmy Fallon, while a hard-worker and and a bright spot in late night, is not a proven success. Unlike Conan, Fallon has only five years at the helm of Late Night, shorter than either of his predecessors. He will likely need the same support Conan should have gotten when he starts. Will he get it? Most likely. NBC does not want a repeat of 2010. If they lose Fallon and likely Leno from this mess, who's left? Carson Daly? I shudder to think that's even a Plan Z.
And where does that leave Jay Leno? He's not going quietly. He's not going blithely into that good night. He's taking jabs at NBC, and none are with good humor. He's upset to find himself here again. And he knows this is the end. He can't pull it back from Fallon this time. There's no The Jay Leno Show option. And where else will he go? FOX is the only network that may go for a late night show, but they passed on Conan. They won't want a comedian in his 60s to be the face of a new late night lineup. And unlike Conan, Leno won't do cable. He'll view it as a demotion. At best, NBC could offer Leno a weekly series, or perhaps a few specials every year. But that's unlikely as well.
Now the question is, will everything go off without a hitch. That's the exciting part. Leno is angry. He'll never be in the same position as Conan from three years ago, but in his eyes, this is just as much of a slight, if not more so. Anything could happen in eighteen months. But whatever happens, the tall, lanky, red-headed comedian must be happy to know that his large-chinned nemesis has finally met his match. And while the scars of 2010 will never heal, he can rest easy knowing there was nothing more he could do. A younger, fresher ally was finally able to slay the dragon that is Jay Leno. A nation (under 55 years of age) breathes a sigh of relief.
Happy days are here again. Here comes the sun, doo-do-doo-doo.