Jay Leno is Mr. Nice Guy no more — but was he ever?
In the year 2027, when Jimmy Fallon is trying to wrest control of “The Tonight Show” from its 76-year-old host, Jay Leno, he would do well to study the lessons of history.
Laugh if you will, but mark your calendar for 17 years from now, when Leno — half cockroach, half cicada — starts the racket that ignites the third round of Late-Night Wars.
When that happens, Fallon would be wise to pull out the “People of Earth” letter written last week by Conan O’Brien.
Then he will recall how, in the opening days of Late-Night War II, the world learned that Jay Leno would do and say anything to keep his famous chin in front of the cameras.
Of course, Leno’s survival skills became legendary in Late-Night War I of the 1990s, when he somehow held onto his job after blowing a big lead to CBS. He did this, in part, by eavesdropping on NBC executives and stealing elements of David Letterman’s show as he pleased.
But in 2010, Leno outdid himself.
Remember how he once made such a big deal of the fact that he was handing the 10:35 job to Conan O’Brien? Last week he shamelessly mocked O’Brien’s ratings in his monologue, even though “The Jay Leno Show” has turned into his own Nielsen crater.
Remember how Leno’s best bud, Jerry Seinfeld, advised him to step aside and give the spotlight to the heir apparent? Now Seinfeld belittles O’Brien for being upset that the spotlight is back on Jay.
“I don’t think anyone is preventing people from watching Conan,” Seinfeld sniffed last week.
Remember how executives at NBC spent years promising O’Brien “The Tonight Show”? Now, as they circle the wagons around Leno, they’re trashing O’Brien because he dared to criticize their brilliant scheme to reinstall Leno at 10:35 and move O’Brien to 11:05.
One network suit, Dick Ebersol, called O’Brien an “astounding failure” because he could not beat David Letterman in seven months of head-to-head competition.
Ebersol — who hasn’t had a good idea since he fired himself as the producer of “Saturday Night Live” in 1985 — knows full well that it took Leno 23 months to beat Letterman, even though at the time NBC was No. 1 in prime time, and viewers did not have the late-night options of Stephen Colbert, Adult Swim, DVRs or Hulu.
The final proof that Leno would do anything to survive is when he killed off his alter ego, Mr. Nice Guy, who was last seen in 2004 telling his “Tonight Show” audience why he had agreed to retire in 2009 at the age of 59.
“There’s only one person who could do this job into his 60s, and that’s Johnny Carson,” Leno said at the time. “There was a lot of animosity between me and Dave (over) who’s going to get it, and quite frankly, a lot of good friendships were permanently damaged. I don’t want to see anybody ever have to go through that again. This show is a dynasty. You hold it, and then you hand it off to the next person. So here it is, Conan!”
O’Brien studied all the late-night battles. He asked NBC for “The Tonight Show” in 2003 because he saw what happened when Letterman was coy about his ambition.
And now, with his “People of Earth” letter, O’Brien proved he has learned again from Dave, not to mention the Rolling Stones: If you can’t get what you want, you get what you need.
The letter was a tour de force — funny, self-effacing and direct — with a breathtaking leap at the end, as O’Brien publicly liberated himself from the show he had spent years dreaming about.