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Leno pokes NBC again; the long tradition continues

NBC's late night host Johnny Carson in the

NBC's late night host Johnny Carson in the early 1960s. (Credit: Carson Entertainment Group)

Jay Leno popped NBC in his monologue again last night — nothing serious, just a mild dig at the network's woeful fourth place, or rather fifth place, status. Jay, as you know, may or may not have a gig there in a year, while NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt excoriated him in private — according to a New York Times report by Bill Carter over the weekend — because of a string of NBC-is-a-flaming-disaster jokes. Leno (per this report) objected saying "Tonight" bashing of NBC is a long tradition, and he is of course right.

Why Greenblatt (reportedly) doesn't understand or appreciate this tradition may say more about the security of his tenure than the content of the jokes. Fred Silverman didn't like Johnny Carson ripping him either — and his tenure was a brief one as well.

How old is this tradition? Ancient — so old Steve Allen joked about NBC and its lineup of new shows ("Today" and "Tonight") in the very first episode of "Tonight." (See below.) Every big NBC star has used NBC as a foil — from Bob Hope to Milton Berle; it was expected and the long line of NBC presidents-for-a-day expected it too.  

Why? Naturally, I have theories. In the early days of television there were basically two networks — or two and a half. All glory went to CBS, while NBC had a history of spectacular success interlaced with equally spectacular failure. It was in the very nature of this beast — that NBC would succeed, but by the next season (or two) fall flat on its face. For a "Tonight" host to ignore this would have amounted to toadyism — because, after all,  the audiences could see the fiasco, and if their favorite late night host couldn't acknowledge it, well then he was clearly under the lock and key of the nitwit who was running the network at the time. This would make the "Tonight"  host look like a lackey — and that would be a long slow kiss of death.

Yeah, it was the genius of Johnny Carson to execute this so perfectly — but he had precedent. Bob Hope jabbed the network during every one of those  anniversary specials (specials which, by the way, were so often thrown on the air because NBC didn't have much else to put on at the time.)  I don't believe Jack Paar ripped NBC too much — though famously quit when the network refused his use of a tame "water closet" joke. But that also stoked this tradition:  How foolish could a network be that refused a comic use of the term "water closet?"  

Meanwhile, I've assembled a handful of clips from years past to prove the point. (Beginning with last night; go to the two minute mark for the NBC dig.) NBC jokes were not necessarily confined to "Tonight" either: John Belushi famously began the 18th episode of the fourth season with a Fred Silverman impersonation, with this . . .

He's brilliant, he can do anything! I've gotten to know this young man over the past 11 months, and I have found that, besides liking the same foods, we also share similar tastes in programming. In fact, we are of exactly the same mind on almost everything! I only wish I would have listened to him about "Supertrain". Unlike a lot of people around here, he's not afraid to voice his opinion. He's a person who's not afraid to say "I like it", or "I don't like it", you know? His decisiveness has inspired me to have more faith in my own personal taste in opinions. And so, today, I am naming Gary Coleman as my new Chief Assistant, with the title of Executive Vice-President of NBC! Gary Coleman! Some say that Gary is too young to be a network executive; but some say no, 11 is old enough. Personally, I think age is not important. It's wisdom that counts, and guts. That's why Gary and I have decided to take a bold programming gamble, and move most of our Saturday morning programs to prime-time in the Fall!

 To the clips!

Tags: jay leno , the tonight show , David Letterman , jimmy fallon , nbc , tonight , late night tv , fred allen , jack paar

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