Leno On Oprah: An Exercise In Pointlessness


The Oprah interview of Jay Leno interview wasn’t quite chuck-the-remote-while-cursing angering by any means (I reserve this lengthy adjective exclusively for sporting events and racist puppetry), but the show was upsetting in a more banal fashion, consisting essentially of just repeated information we already knew and repeated Leno self-justifications that he’d clearly prepared, all sprinkled with a small but disturbing series of egregious quotes.

Skipping a lengthy recap or more rehashing of the facts we already know, let’s go through some of the Leno quotes that bothered me.

Perhaps the most ridiculous statement in the entire hour occurred when Oprah mentions that, in response to Leno’s repeated claims that he wanted to stay on the air to keep his staff working, that the 10 pm Jay Leno Show essentially wiped out 5 scripted shows and thus put hundreds more individuals out of work. Leno responds by saying [not verbatim]:

“Honestly, I messed up there, that actually didn’t cross my mind until the time we were on the air. We were all worried about other things…but yeah, when I realized that, it definitely bothered me.”

This statement represents either a remarkable level of ignorance or an outright lie. When NBC announced the 10 pm Leno show, the first thing myself and all of my friends immediately talked about was that it would put away five scripted shows and their respective staffs, and I’m just some random dude with a computer refreshing pictures of celebrities’ boobs — surely the actual guy doing the show would’ve had this thought at some point too, particularly if he’s so pre-occupied with taking care of tv staffs.

This isn’t to suggest Leno shouldn’t have taken what NBC initially offered him, or that 5 more failed NBC scripted shows wouldn’t have just lost more money, but independently of these other concerns, however legitimate, Leno could have at least admitted that he knew his show would put people out of work. This answer was such a cop out, the song “Bad Boys” should’ve introduced it.

Moving along…

In the second interview segment, Oprah reads from Conan’s exit statement that he believed moving the Tonight Show to 12:05 would have been destructive to the Tonight Show franchise. Leno responds:

“If you look at where the ratings were [shrugs], it was already destructive to the franchise.”

Leno later adds:

“We took all the heat off the Tonight Show in terms of publicity and how they were doing. If our show hadn’t been on, I think the story would’ve been the ratings of the Tonight Show…so consequently, they were under the radar in terms of how it was doing.”

This is largely true. Most of what’s been written about NBC’s late night debacle (most notably New York Magazine’s scathing NBC piece) has primarily focused on what a failure the Leno show has been or just ripped on Jeff Zucker and NBC in a more general sense. Not too many articles bear the thesis statement, “Conan is destroying the ratings of the Tonight Show.”

There are two obvious reasons for this, however:

1) Conan only hosted the Tonight Show for seven months before changes were announced. To say he was never given time to build an audience is an understatement.

2) Conan’s show had to follow another late night show five nights a week every single week as part of an unprecedented string of three hours of NBC late night programming. You can’t directly compare the Conan Tonight Show ratings to the Leno Tonight Show ratings, given their lead-ins, their respective NBC environments, and the amount of time the two had been in their timeslots. Directly comparing their ratings is like ripping on Major League Baseball players for not hitting as many home runs in 2009 as guys did in the late 90s — we can’t compare the numbers at face value when the environment they’re playing in has a far more stringent steroid testing policy and we can never exactly know what impact this has on the raw numbers.

Am I saying Leno was on steroids? Yes, I am literally saying that he was.

This exchange was a little awkward —

Oprah: “Have you talked to Conan in person after all this?”

Leno: “No.”

Oprah: “Did you want to pick up the phone?”

Leno: “Yeah but it didn’t seem appropriate”

Oprah: “Why?”

Leno: “[Shrug. Pause.] I don’t know. I think…let things cool down, and maybe we’ll talk.”

Anyone else get the impression that Leno and Conan have done their best for years to act like there’s not animosity between them, and the more they re-affirm that there isn’t, the more you’re absolutely certain that there is? Me too.

Leno did seem remarkably at peace with his role in the NBC equation, responding to Oprah’s questions about whether or not he felt guilty with numerous self-assured responses like this:

“It’s all your conscience. If you think you’ve played a role in it somehow, then you get a guilty conscience and you feel bad. But nowhere in my wildest dreams did I think they’d ask me to go back.”

…But then they did ask you to go back. Sooooo…… huh?

If you didn’t think you were playing a role in Conan getting bumped by being fired from your 10:00 show, then that’s fine. But then they asked you to move back to 11:35, so you then directly knew that you would be bumping Conan a half hour. I’m not saying that this means Leno should have a guilty conscience, or even that he’s guilty of the move occurring, just that the statement that he didn’t think they’d ask him to go back becomes irrelevant once they asked him to come back, which they did the same week as the initial announcement.

Leno was also very, very adamant that his decision to stay on the air was the less selfish option, because it put his staff back to work:

Oprah: “Did you ever ask yourself am I being selfish?”

Leno: “Sure! I ask myself that every day.”

Oprah: “And your answer was?”

Leno: “I don’t think so, I mean, I like the job, I like all that goes with it, I fight for the people who work here, I fight to keep their jobs here, ok, is that selfish, maybe it is… The ego decision would have been to walk away.”

Did anyone see The Lives Of Others? Remember in the beginning when the interrogator tells his class that when you keep interrogating someone, if they get angry at you and impatient with your questions, they’re probably telling the truth, but if they keep repeating the exact same statements, they’re probably lying because they’ve memorized these specific statements for a reason?

I don’t know. Just thought I’d mention that here.

And finally, the most confusing exchange of the day:

Leno: “I was ready to do half an hour and he could keep the Tonight Show, it’s fine with me.”

Oprah: “And so no part of you thought, ‘enough already, I’ve done it’?”

Leno: “You know, if you’re a gunfighter, you like to die in the street.”

Oprah: “I don’t know, I’m a gunfighter, I might like to die in the comfort of my home–”

Leno: “No you’re a gunfighter you’re…Oprah, you’re still on! … You’re not going anywhere, I’m not going anywhere.”

Oprah: “I’m saying this as someone who’s made the decision that this show, The Oprah Winfrey show, as it is, I’m done with that. 25 years, done with that.”

Leno: “We’ll see.”

Oprah: “You don’t believe that?”

Leno: “I believe you believe it.”

Oprah does bring a unique perspective to this late night situation, having long been associated with a show of her own for so long, and Leno does have a point that Oprah’s own deliberate ubiquity over the past couple decades should serve as its own example to convince her of how hard it is to walk away from something successful. I’m mostly just typing this quote here because it’s funny hearing Leno describe himself as a “gunfighter.” Hehehe…gunfighter.

Hey, I laughed at something Leno said! Maybe this Tonight Show thing will work itself out after all.

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