Now that it’s been six whole days since Conan said his final good-byes as host of the Tonight Show (“Free Bird”!), the almost universally despised Jay Leno clearly feels like comedy-loving Americans have had enough time to grieve and that it’s high time for him to start rebuilding his tarnished reputation. To that end, Jay quickly lined up an interview with the queen of daytime television, Ms. Oprah Winfrey, in an attempt to stem the tide of harsh criticism and shitloads of bad press he’s been besieged by over the last few weeks. Things started off on a weirdly misogynistic note when Leno addressed Queen O with the phrase “Hey doll,” but over the course of the rest of the hour, Leno stuck to a series of carefully crafted talking points that attempted to shift the blame for Conan’s demise away from himself and back in the direction of NBC and, interestingly enough, Conan himself.
During the 60-minute chat, Jay Leno actually did a pretty admirable job of playing the victim. Sure, educated entertainment consumers like you, the loyal Vulture reader, are quick to see through statements like “[NBC] fired me twice, how valuable can I be?” and “I got sucker punched” and recognize them as being little more than carefully constructed comments intended to sway the perception of him back to where it was before he was very publicly exposed as being a hack during his short-lived stint as host of The Jay Leno Show. You see, over the course of the last 25-odd years, Jay has been very successful at convincing the public at large that he’s a regular Joe just like them, a guy who works two jobs in order to make ends meet and loves nothing more than tinkering around with cars in his garage. And because Jay’s reputation (and wealth and fame) have been built on his Everyman status, he’s savvy enough to recognize that in order for him to regain his standing, he needs to put on a show and pretend as if he’s owning up to his own shortcomings. “I take full responsibility [for the failure of The Jay Leno Show],” he told Oprah. “I did it because it’s an interesting challenge.”
Despite this admission, a closer read of his statements shows that Jay doesn’t actually think he’s to fault for this mess. Instead, he redirects the blame to his time slot (“Well, I think the show failed because it was basically a late-night talk show at ten o’clock”), his budget (“You’re competing against dramas that are $3 to $6 million an episode”), and the network’s blundering ways ("NBC could not have handled it worse, from 2004 onward”). We’d be hard-pressed to disagree with that last bit, but it doesn’t absolve Jay from shouldering a hunk of the blame for his show’s creative failure. Additionally, Jay’s hubris showed through with his later comment to Oprah that "[The show] was making money for the network, but not for the affiliates.”
He also didn’t hesitate to get in a few shots at Conan, although he ensured that his attacks were never personal. He had the gall to tell an anecdote (see below) about how the two of them remained friends after the events of 2004 (when Jay promised to turn over the Tonight Show to Coco come 2009), but calmly and methodically repeated statements that Conan’s ratings weren’t cutting the mustard without ever acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, his crappy numbers at ten o’clock were partially to blame. “It all comes down to numbers,” he told Oprah. “NBC came to me and said ‘Look, your show is down 14 percent and Conan’s is down 49 percent.’” And when Oprah pressed him to respond to Conan’s statement that moving the show to 12:05 would destroy the Tonight Show franchise, Leno saw a perfect opportunity to take an unobstructed, below-the-belt shot at his successor: “Well, if you look at where the ratings were. [Long pause.] It was the ratings that were destroying the franchise.” True, but ouch!
All that said, the sad truth of the matter is that America, amazingly, looks as if it may have bought Leno’s humble spiel. According to a poll over at Oprah.com, before today’s interview, 54 percent of the voting public was on Team Conan. After today’s interview with Jay, Leno’s approval ratings shot up to 50 percent, climbing even with our fallen hero, Coco. Even more disturbingly, if you pore through the 500-plus comments, the majority seem to concur that “Jay is a good guy” and that NBC is entirely at fault for this whole mess. So, until Conan decides it’s time to speak up and finally put Jay in his rightful place, we hate to say this, but advantage Team Leno.