The Vilification of Leno: Loud, Nasty and Fleeting

The world seems to be on ‘Team Conan,’ but history says we’ll all forgive Jay – eventually

Conan O’Brien didn’t directly slam Jay Leno in his fiery anti-NBC manifesto. He left that to just about everyone else.

Right or wrong, O’Brien has been cast as the underdog hero, while “Team Conan” – including Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman and seemingly the entire Twitterverse – has made Leno out to be the villain.

The question is, will it stick?  There are signs it could. But if Leno’s history of emerging unscathed from controversy is any indication, probably not.

It won’t be for his detractors’ lack of trying.

Kimmel made waves Tuesday night with an entire mock show dressed as Leno, making lame joke after lame joke. Letterman continued his assault on Leno and NBC, including a digital video bit called "Law & Order: Leno Victims Unit."

An "I’m with Coco" badge supporting O’Brien made the rounds on Facebook. O’Brien himself meade reference to the support during his monologue Wednesday. ("I’m getting a lot of support out there, especially from an online group calling themselves ‘Team Conan,’" he said. "It’s very exciting—it’s the first time in my life I’ve been on a team where I wasn’t picked last.")

And Twitter, well – let’s just say now would not be a good time for Leno to sign up for a Twitter account. (For a nice roundup of the social networking backlash against Leno, click here.)

Some "Coco" fans have even taken to the streets to express their displeasure: Check out the guy who chose to picket outside O’Brien’s studio on Wednesday (at right; photos by Joe Adalian).

While NBC is claiming Leno did not push to get his 11:35 p.m. time slot back – entertainment chief Jeff Gaspin said Sunday that it was his call — it’s not exactly a secret that the former “Tonight Show” host was angling for it all along. (When he was asked in November if he wanted his old time slot back, Leno replied: "If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that’s what they wanted to do, sure.")

And some of Leno’s own monologue jokes about the blowup have been an odd attempt to cast himself as thevictim of a "cancellation" and a reneging by NBC — even though the network has made it clear that it intends to keep "The Jay Leno Show" intact, and in a more desirable time slot.

But forget, for a moment, whether or not the vilification of Leno is justified. The question is, will it matter?

Ratings for Tuesday’s "Jay Leno Show" were down more than 10 percent from last week, according to early Nielsen estimates – this despite seemingly nonstop media and public fascination surrounding NBC’s late night fiasco. (However, as TheWrap’s Joe Adalian points out, Leno’s lead-in, "Biggest Loser," lost some audience poundage due to the premiere of "American Idol.")

Meanwhile, ratings for Tuesday’s "Tonight Show" soared more than 40 percent over the night before – crushing the "Late Show with David Letterman" in the coveted 18-49 demographic.

And the uncertainty of what NBC will replace Leno with at 10 is bound to hurt Leno’s return to 11:35 – it was, in part, his poor performance as a lead-in to Conan which hurt the ginger-headed comedian’s numbers as host of “The Tonight Show.”

But don’t forget that Jay has been publicly vilified before — taking over the “Tonight Show” after Johnny Carson in 1992– a slot Letterman, then host of NBC’s “Late Night,” thought he deserved (a grudge he’s held ever since, even calling him "Jay ‘Big Jaw’ Leno" repeatedly on his Tuesday night show).

Back then, Letterman’s loyal fans – let’s call them “Team Dave” – cried foul, but eventually people got over it, especially after Letterman got his own show at 11:35, albeit on another network.

“That wasn’t Jay’s fault,” said one former NBC executive, “and ultimately this isn’t either.”

And Leno found a home on NBC, where his lame bits and milquetoast humor were accepted by a strong lead-in audience in prime-time (“Seinfeld,” “Friends” et al). He won’t have that strong lead-in when he returns to 11:35, and he might only have himself – and NBC’s botched experiment — to blame.

Still, some folks on Team Jay aren’t too worried about a long-term backlash against the Chin. With news cycles now sped up to ridiculous proportions, the bet is that Leno’s role in Late Night Crisis 2010 will soon be forgotten.

Indeed, Letterman’s sextortion scandal now seems like it happened years ago.

"People have short memories these days," said an industry insider clearly on Team Jay. "This will blow over."