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Jay Leno: Seabiscuit or War Admiral?

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The other day, I suggested that, since Jimmy Kimmel agreed to do the “10 at 10″ segment on last night’s Jay Leno Show, he must not actually have much bad feeling towards Leno, despite his brutal hourlong imitation of the chinny host earlier this week.

I may have been mistaken.

Kimmel started the segment gamely, but halfway through turned it into a point-by-point roast of Leno on his own air. Asked if there’s any other show he’d like to host, Kimmel answered, “Oh, this is a trick, right? Where you get me to host the Tonight Show and then take it back from me? Listen, Lucy, I’m not Charlie Brown.” The segment starts at around the 30:00 point: [Update: Hulu's down back up, for those of you who prefer it, but here's the segment from Jimmy Kimmel's YouTube channel]:

What was that about? It was about Kimmel—and the Tonight Show controversy overall—hitting Leno where it hurts most: his regular-guy image.

I’ve said before that I don’t think Leno is the villain in all this, in that I don’t blame him for taking back a job that he didn’t want to leave in the first place. NBC hosed Conan O’Brien by never really giving him The Tonight Show. It announced a second Tonight Show to run before Conan’s before Conan even debuted, which not only badly weakened Conan’s lead-in rating but made his show redundant. But that’s on NBC, not Jay.

However, as I’ve also said, it’s clear from Jay’s monologue that he doesn’t just want not to be the bad guy; he wants to be seen as the wronged party here, even though he is walking away from possibly TV’s greatest failure of all time into a promotion.

Because if Leno comes off otherwise—as a very fortunate, very rich man falling upward and getting what he wants—it could devastate the image that made him successful. Jay is the guy next door, the guy who, yes, may be a lot richer than you but is essentially like you: he eats fast food, clips coupons, works hard and likes cars.

America likes that. And America likes underdogs. Americans don’t like—as you may have noticed with the bank bailouts—people failing spectacularly in public and getting promotions and rewards for it. (Which, to be fair, Conan is reportedly also likely to get, at least in the form of a severance buyout.)

So Leno realizes that he cannot afford to come across as the overdog. He jokes in his monologue about The Jay Leno Show being “cancelled,” but doesn’t mention that he’s returning to the most prestigious job in talk TV. This doesn’t make Leno a schemer. But it does make him full of bull.

People want to cheer Seabiscuit. Kimmel, with stunning directness, reminded Leno, and his audience, that he is in fact War Admiral.

Is Leno hurt by this in the long run? There may come a point where all the jokes about Leno come to seem like piling on, effectively turning him into the underdog. But he’s not the underdog yet. Maybe Kimmel’s most damaging dig was his last: “You’ve got eight hundred million dollars! For God’s sakes, leave our shows alone!”

Leno’s audience laughed.

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