It appears that even though Jay Leno has reportedly been making some noise about not wanting to leave his cushy gig as host of “The Tonight Show” in two years, his boss has basically said: “Love ya dude, but ya gotta go sit somewhere else at the family picnic.”
On Monday, NBC Universal CEO and President Jeff Zucker told a gathering of media critics, reporters and NBC U employees at Syracuse University that the network was going to honor its commitment to Conan O’Brien, making him the next host of the fabled late-night chat fest once hosted by the late Johnny Carson, in 2009 when Leno comes to the end of his five-year retirement tour.
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Given a choice, you’d think Zucker, who has publicly said he’d like to keep Leno in the family, would stick with the guy who is the proven winner. Leno has routinely kicked David Letterman’s butt in the ratings since their late-night battle commenced in 1992. O’Brien has no chance against an aging fine wine like Letterman, even with the nice head start Leno would leave him.
So, if Leno is indeed having second thoughts about turning his swivel chair over to O’Brien, let Jay stay.
There are a plethora of reasons why Zucker should consider keeping Leno on “Tonight.” First, O’Brien is probably too nice a guy to sue. And if the network added a few zeros to his paycheck, O’Brien would probably be willing to wait his turn.
Two, late night TV viewers are creatures of habit. They embrace the familiar. That said, if Leno is winning the ratings race now, he’ll likely keep winning it five, 10 or 15 years from now.
The only bad move Leno ever made was introducing us to Ross the Intern. We’d all be so much better off if someone could cut his 15 minutes down to five seconds.
Conversely, O’Brien, 44, is very funny, but he’s like the goofy kid brother you don’t want to be bothered with for extended periods of time. Five minutes of O’Brien is like working a full day with benefits. It’s satisfying on some level. Ten minutes is like unpaid overtime. You’re not really into it. Plus, it really is hard to get past that hair some nights.
And, even though neither are great interviewers, O’Brien is far more reliant on gimmicks than Leno is. That gets old real quick — particularly when there are so many more options in our 3,000-channel universe. O’Brien’s humor is truly more suited to his 12:30 a.m. time slot. By that time those likely to be offended by his over-the-topness or bored by his C- and D-list guests, have already been asleep for at least three hours.
But since it looks as though Zucker will be activating the eject button on Leno’s chair in favor of the younger, taller and hairier O’Brien in two years, keeping Leno in the family might be more challenging than letting him remain on “Tonight.”
When a guy has been on that kind of platform for so long, it’s hard to ask him to fill in for O’Brien, make a few appearances on “30 Rock” as Alec Baldwin’s father or commit to some kind of Bravo man-on-the-street reality show. And because the late-night talk show format is about two seconds away from going the way of the eight-track tape, it seems improbable that network programmers would want to put Leno behind another desk. So, for now, he should just stay at the one he’s at.
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