Writers have since characterized the image of Mr. Leno’s failed promise as undeniable evidence of his hypocrisy—serving along the way as a kind of Rosetta stone of Leno revisionism. TV critic Aaron Barnhart promptly posted the clip along with a blog post titled “Proof that Jay Leno is a two-faced hypocritical unfunny lying jerk … in other words, a perfect fit for NBC.”
“[C]an we be done with the ‘Jay is a nice guy” meme once and forevermore?” he added.
All of which has provided an irresistable opportunity for anyone interested in changing the dominant narrative of who Mr. Leno is. “I don’t feel so alone now in my hatred of Jay,” Mr. Leno’s longtime antagonist Howard Stern said on a recent show.
Mr. Stern then proceeded to play a clip from Rosie O’Donnell’s show. Therein, Ms. O’Donnell tells a story about how in 1995, NBC entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff offered her the chance to do a regular guest gig, hosting Friday nights on The Tonight Show for Mr. Leno, like Joan Rivers used to do with Carson. Shortly thereafter, Ms. O’Donnell continued, she received another call from Mr. Tartikoff, saying sorry, but the deal was off. Jay wouldn’t stand for it. “I was shocked,” said Ms. O’Donnell. “What is he afraid of? That I’m going to do good and take over the show and he’s going to lose his job? … If you have any kind of talent, balls or self-esteem—I don’t know. Comics support each other on the whole.”
“Jay does everything sneaky behind everyone’s back and then wants them to be [his] friend,” Mr. Stern added.
TO HEAR Mr. Stern and Ms. O’Donnell tell it, Mr. Leno sounds less like a fuzzy fellow worthy of Middle America and more like a dangerous beast from Middle-Earth—not unlike, say, Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic tale, Gollum is a once noble animal who (like Leno is his early days as a stand-up comic) was beloved by his peers. But then Gollum takes possession of an incredibly powerful ring, which not only extends his life but also gradually saps him of his humanity. Alone with no family or friends, continued possession of the ring becomes Gollum’s only purpose in life. Gradually, his proto-self “Smeagol” disappears and is replaced by a nasty, treacherous personality, which leaves him two-faced to the world. In “Slinker” mode, he comes across as servile, toothless and eager to please. But as “Stinker,” he lurks quietly in the shadows, hiding in the closet, ready to bite off the finger of anyone who tries to get between him and his “precious”—a.k.a. The Tonight Show.
“It doesn’t even feel like a bad guy winning,” the comedian Patton Oswalt recently said of Mr. Leno’s return to the throne. “It feels like a guy winning who doesn’t even know why he wants to win the thing. … You almost want to take him aside and say, ‘Why do you want this so badly?’”
The push-back from Mr. Leno’s camp has already begun. On Monday, Jan. 18, a number of Mr. Leno’s staffers offered a public defense of their boss, telling the Associated Press that it was unfair to blame Mr. Leno for NBC’s decision to dump Mr. O’Brien. “It’s interesting to be on this side of the story and see how it’s being reported,” one Leno producer told the AP. “They act as if he’s the corporate lapdog but also the master marionette forcing these issues.”
In the aftermath of the original ‘90s dust-up over the Tonight Show succession, Mr. Leno’s nice-guy persona escaped largely intact. Whatever duplicitous acts were done were largely attributed to Mr. Leno’s manager, Helen Kushnick—whom Mr. Leno later fired. Some observers doubt that Mr. Leno’s image will escape intact this time around.
“Everything Leno does is calculated,” one late-night executive at a rival network recently told The Observer. “In the history of show business, there has never been the case where the agent isn’t doing stuff that the client wants. That’s the age-old show business line: ‘It wasn’t me. It was my agent.’
“It’s very hard for anyone to believe that there was no lobbying inside from Jay to get the 11:30 show back,” our source added. “The best he’ll be able to do is come back and get ratings. There is something to that. But at some point, these shows are going to be over, and hiding in the closet and doing what he’s done here—it hurts your place in history.”
On the night of Monday, Jan. 18, Mr. Leno used The Jay Leno Show to tell his version of the events. In 2004, he explained, an NBC executive had walked into his office and told him that Conan O’Brien had offers from other networks, and they didn’t want to let him go. As a result, they had decided to give Mr. O’Brien The Tonight Show in five years. Mr. Leno protested mildly but eventually accepted his fate. “Don’t blame Conan O’Brien,” said Mr. Leno. After all, Mr. O’Brien was a nice guy, a family guy, and it wasn’t really his idea to take over Jay’s show. “That’s what managers and people do,” said Mr. Leno. “They try to get something for their client.”
Mr. Leno said further that recently, NBC executives informed him that they were canceling his 10 p.m. show. Would he do a half-hour at 11:30? If Mr. O’Brien was O.K. with it, said Mr. Leno, fine. They assured him Mr. O’Brien would get on board. They shook hands. “I don’t have a manager,” said Mr. Leno. “I don’t have an agent. That’s my handshake. Next thing I see, Conan has a story in the paper, saying he doesn’t want to do that.”
The NBC executives came back to him with another proposal. “If he decides to walk, do you want the show back?” said Mr. Leno. “Yeah, I’ll take the show back if that’s what he wants to do. This way, we can keep all our people working.” It was that simple.
Or was it?
On Monday afternoon, back at the protest at Rockefeller Plaza, the crowd of young Mr. O’Brien fans were sticking to their understanding of TV history and shouting it in the streets. “JAY IS A LIAR,” they chanted. “HE SAID HE’D RETIRE.”
Amid the dozens of chanting protesters, shaking their fists at the NBC offices, a gentle-looking young woman leaned on a police barrier and smiled. “It’s not just Conan,” said Stephanie Watel, a 21-year-old undergraduate at Pace University. “Leno forced Johnny Carson to retire. He stole it from Letterman. Now, he’s stealing it from Conan. It’s not classy at all.”