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'Tonight Show:' Will Jay Leno ever tell his bosses to shove it? No.
Last week, NBCUniversal - Comcast accountants straffed the “Tonight Show” demanding significant cutbacks and layoffs -- which in large measure they got.
Which got me thinking: What did the host do about this? A few things. He fought a rear-guard action, which he lost, then peeled off five or so million dollars from his own (estimated) $30 million salary to preserve jobs. Some reportedly were, but at least 20 were lost. News of this was leaked -- presumably from someone in Leno's camp -- to put the host in the best possible light. “Hey! I did everything I could!” was the phrase you could read between the lines, if you chose to.
The show went on and Leno made some obligatory jokes about the affair last night.
And so it goes. Another budgetary scrap in an endless series of them in the network TV business these days.
But what COULD have Jay told his bosses to do? Well, he could've begun with this: No. No, you're not getting your cutbacks and I'm certainly not kicking back a dime. In fact, you're going to increase the show's budget (it was about $2.3 million a week, knocked down to $1.7 million, per the LA Times). "And while you're at it, I want a raise - a couple million a year should do, but send it to my favorite charity.”
He could have said that. Then he could have added for good measure, “and I want negotiations reopened on a new contract since you're undercutting my efforts to put on this show every night.”
And what could Comcast have done in the face of such un-Leno-like blowback?
To quote Ralph Kramden, it would have been reduced to “ha-ma-na, ha-ma-na, ha-ma-na.”
It could have done nothing. Not a single thing. For though it may not be necessary to spell out for you what is so obvious to them, I will do so anyway: There is no one who can take Jay Leno's place at the moment. No one. No one in-house. No one at another network. No one anywhere on the planet, or any other planet that I'm aware of.
“The Tonight Show” is the top-rated late night show on television, and the reason is the host. In other words, Leno has bargaining power. So, you ask, why didn't he use it?
Because that's Jay, and sadly, that will be part of his legacy -- the late night host who always said yes to his bosses, no matter how wrongheaded they were. Flashback! A president of entertainment comes into Jay's office to tell him he has the best idea ever! Jay will “retire” in seven years and be replaced by Conan O'Brien. Isn't that brilliant, Jay!
Jay nodded glumly.
Flashback! A president of entertainment, the same one, wanders in to tell Jay about his latest brilliant idea. Jay will get a 10 p.m. show on the network! “Never been done before! We'll support you to the hilt on this Jay! We'll make this a success! Isn't this brilliant Jay?!"
Jay nodded glumly.
At what point does Jay look in the besodden hysterical glazed eyes of a network executive with yet another brilliant idea and utter the two most powerful words that talent can utter: “Shove it.”
In fact, I've come to the sorry conclusion that Jay Leno will never do that. He'll always play along, go with the flow, do what he's told, and take it on the chin. He'll do whatever it takes -- whatever -- to maintain his hold on the one thing in life he covets most -- Johnny Carson's “Tonight Show.”
It's sad, really, because Leno isn't a bad guy -- in fact, he's a good guy despite all you've read or heard -- but he is terribly weak at the moment when he needs to be strongest. He buckles when his spine should stiffen.
This isn't about the money. Really, it isn't. Jay is worth -- conservatively -- half a billion dollars. The guy stuffs his money in a very large mattress then forgets about it. But it is about pride and power. Leno's pride was wounded on Friday. He can take a bow for being the first late night titan in history to take a salary cut, even though it was voluntary.
There were reports Friday that David Letterman had taken a cut in 2009, but those reports were wrong. In fact, CBS got a lower license fee from Worldwide Pants for the show. It had nothing to do with Letterman's salary and in fact, Pants probably got other baubles -- like production deals -- in lieu of an increased license fee. Letterman was triumphant.
And this latest battle also has to do with power -- power that Leno absolutely refuses to exercise even though his predecessor did year after year, decade after decade. Carson was the ultimate power broker. That's what made Johnny's “Tonight” so potent and thrilling -- the man standing there with the air golf swing and effortless manner was the same guy who had just told Fred Silverman where to stick it. Wonderful!
That's just one reason why we loved Johnny. Jay's legacy will be a radically different one. I just don't get it.