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How Team Coco Channels Our Great Recession Anger

"We have children. You've got $800 million. For God's sake, leave us alone." Pop quiz: Who uttered this (slightly paraphrased) plea? Six months ago, you might have guessed an angry protester outside the mansion of an AIG executive. The correct answer, of course, is Jimmy Kimmel, sparring last week with Jay Leno over what one TV critic has called "the Jaypocalypse."

What's strange is not that Kimmel was blasting Leno. Rather, it's that his attack — two millionaires going at each other — sounded like a battle cry in a populist revolt. "We live in a society today that loves a soap opera," NBC chief Jeff Zucker told the Times, trying to shrug off his current troubles, but he's exactly wrong. This is no Tigergate, which we follow out of prurient interest. This has evolved into a national passion play about greed, betrayal, stupidity, incompetence, and corporate cluelessness. In other words, the late night fiasco has become the perfect allegory for the Great Recession. No wonder people from hosts to fans sound like they're taking to the barricades.

There were protests outside NBC studios in New York, LA and Chicago today, featuring chanting Conan supporters. On Twitter, a search for "#teamcoco" turns up angry calls for an NBC boycott, while "#teamleno" snidely dismisses the other side as sore losers and also-rans. In other words, it's the classic rhetoric of haves-versus-have-nots, except in this case, what you have-not is the desk on the Tonight Show. It's also telling that the assaults on Leno have focused less on his putative unfunniness than on his ridiculous wealth and vast vintage car collection. Remember Conan's crack about arriving at work to find a 1923 Duesenberg in his parking spot?

Of course, no one — not even Andy Richter — would argue that Conan is as badly off as a foreclosed-upon homeowner, a penniless retiree, or a Madoff casualty. (It looks like he'll get around $40 million dollars in severance and be back on the air somewhere else in less than a year.) But what you have is the story of a likable guy who worked hard for years to achieve his dream. Granted, he achieved this dream in a bubble economy — the Late Night Bubble, in which hosting jobs were handed out like subprime loans. (Craig Ferguson, Carson Daly, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Chelsea Handler, Spike Feresten — you've all been approved!) Still, Conan nabbed the shiniest gig on the block.

Now, thanks to the incompetence of a once-proud institution (NBC), which gambled recklessly on ill-thought-out revenue models (late night in primetime), it's all being taken away. And, just as with the financial meltdown, it looks like this fiasco will end with the same corporate screw-ups still in their jobs, no real change, and everything back to more or less where it was when the whole thing started.

Who's Leno in all this? He's the tone-deaf fat-cat. Leno is AIG. Leno is every Wall Street bonus-baby whining that, sure, things went terribly awry, but it was all out of his hands, and by the way how come nobody likes me? On Monday night, Leno claimed the whole thing was basically driven by his desire to save his staff's jobs, which echoed Wall Street executives claiming they need obscene bonuses to retain their best talent. (Not to mention that Leno's account contradicts his own spin back in '04.) All of which is why Kimmel's face-to-face smackdown of Leno felt so satisfying — exactly as satisfying, perhaps, as Jon Stewart's face-to-face slapdown of Jim Cramer. (As for Letterman, he's not allegorical. Letterman is Letterman.)

One of the most difficult aspects of the Great Recession was that it offered too many victims and too many villains. We were angry, yes, but at who? Wall Street? Geithner? Greenspan? Bush? The late night fiasco offers a perfect focal point for all our diffuse frustration. All that disillusionment and anger over years of incompetence and malfeasance can now be channeled into a single roar. Go on, let it out: Team Coco!

Photo: Getty Images