Historically, Jay Leno hasn't shied away from speaking about his job status. Leno's statements over the last few weeks—full of jokes about NBC, Conan O'Brien and David Letterman—reinforced that characteristic. Recently, however, he's been unusually mum. What gives?
Before we get to the issue at hand—Leno's statements, or lack thereof, since his announcement last Thursday that he would officially begin a second stint as host of The Tonight Show on March 1—it's important to establish some context. Last night, we brought you the definitive video chronology of the Late Night Wars, going back to 1984. Now, a CliffsNotes version of Leno's public statements since the second war erupted.
Following a weekend that brought the news of the cancellation of his primetime show and rumors of a move to the 11:35 PM time slot then held by O'Brien's Tonight Show, Leno came out with guns blazing on Monday, January 11 and addressed everything head-on—making several biting jokes at NBC's expense and all but confirming his return to late night.
The next day, O'Brien released a statement announcing that he would leave NBC if it moved The Tonight Show to 12:05 AM in order to accommodate a half-hour show for Leno at 11:35 PM. The real news that night happened on every other late night program—Jimmy Kimmel did an entire program as Leno; David Letterman and O'Brien openly mocked him—but on his own program, Leno stayed relatively mum. However, he did watch on gleefully as guest Anderson Cooper took NBC—instead of him—to task.
Two days later, on January 14, Leno went on the offensive, making his first less-than-positive remarks about O'Brien during his monologue.
Later that night, Leno invited Kimmel on for his 10@10 segment in an attempt to show that he wasn't affected by Kimmel's impersonation of him. Kimmel's subsequent evisceration of Leno right to his face—if nothing else—proved to Leno that the majority of people, comedians especially, were firmly planted on "Team CoCo."
With the knowledge that he was the clear underdog in the court of public opinion, Leno decided to fight fire with fire, all while playing the victim. On January 15, he lamented the bashing he'd taken in the press, before personally attacking Letterman (presumably as revenge for Letterman's continuous shots at him that week).
On January 18, Leno spoke strongly and seriously about the controversy during a statement made on his show and, it would seem, blamed the fracas on O'Brien's low ratings before telling his audience to "[not] blame Conan."
The next night, Leno continued his attempts to distract from the shots he was taking in the press by making personal attacks. Here, an overt shot at Letterman and a slightly-veiled one at O'Brien.
On January 21, Leno took to his show to announce that he would, in fact, be back as host of The Tonight Show, and noted that the next night would be O'Brien's last. (Leno's statement aired before O'Brien's own, in which he confirmed his imminent departure from NBC.)
As the above clips show, Jay Leno confronted the controversy over NBC's late night lineup—and the widespread criticism he received for his handling of the situation—directly, never shying away from making his opinion known. The last two nights, however, have brought a shift in Leno's statements, with barely a mention of the debacle of which he was so intricately a part. Here are Leno's remarks regarding the matter from yesterday and tonight, respectively.
As with any great shift in action, it's natural to wonder why Leno's behavior changed so abruptly. Using The Wizard of Oz as a guide, there are three logical explanations—and character attributes—for Leno's change of tune.
- 1) The Scarecrow (No Brain): Leno simply doesn't realize the magnitude of the consequences of his refusal to retire (or, at least, leave NBC), and began the week with a naive, "business as usual" attitude.
- 2) The Tin Man (No Heart): Leno doesn't care about the effect he had on O'Brien (and countless others) due to his role in the controversy, and—now that he's gotten what he wanted out of it—feels no need to continue defending himself.
- 3) The Cowardly Lion (No Courage): Leno finally does realize what a mess he caused, is aware of the friendships he damaged, and has a deep understanding of the all time low level of support he has in both the creative community and that of public opinion, but is simply too afraid to own up to it. So, instead, he all but shuts down and meekly tries to pick up the pieces through avoidance of the issues at hand.
It's clear that Leno is not the Scarecrow; if he was, he would not have been able to ice O'Brien in the first place.
The Tin Man, he also is not—even if some would argue that Leno lacks a heart, his pride and need for acceptance would have forced him to continue making statements about the fallout.
Therefore, it's clear that Leno is the Cowardly Lion—aware of his problems but unable to face them—constantly, privately running away until he is able to find a moment of peace, or the elusive Badge of Courage.
Leno can keep running. He can hide, too, if he wants. Sooner or later, though, a sly, orange-haired fox will come out of nowhere to confront him head-on—and he'd damn sure better have his badge of courage by then.