05.02.10

Conan Vs. Jay

The late-night rivals squared off this weekend: Leno with Obama and O'Brien on 60 Minutes. Who came out on top?

For the first time since January 22, when Conan O'Brien hosted his last night of NBC's The Tonight Show, O'Brien and Jay Leno—they are two well-known comedians and talk-show hosts in a country called America, in the case that only this recounting somehow survives nuclear Armageddon, and Twitter, and television, and everything else doesn't!—were both on TV in the same news cycle.

O'Brien, now legally free to speak his mind after his departure from NBC, appeared in a pre-recorded segment on CBS' 60 Minutes on Sunday; Leno made an appearance at a banquet with the president, where he was paid to make with the ribbing about politics.

Leno’s face, although it glows with the rubbery health of the often-exfoliated, is falling, and jowls are begging to form. He looked a bit like Ted Kennedy, although Leno does not drink.

Both appearances were about 20 minutes long; Leno's, probably contractually mandated, was nearly exactly that.

One of these appearances was atrocious and one was mediocre.

It's important to remember in the Leno-Conan situation that having one's job disappeared is hard. Conan O'Brien, however, was not laid off. He quit his job hosting The Tonight Show six months after taking it over, because he believed that the network's plan to move the air time of his show a whole 30 minutes later (so as to accommodate putting Jay Leno's preceding show in a later slot) would be bad for him, and for the show and its—and by extension, his—ratings. Actually, the most cruel part of this move was that it would cut Jay Leno's show in half. And yet, $33 million dollars in NBC payoff money later, Conan O'Brien was unemployed and also the recipient of most of the sympathy from those who cared about this matter.

At 13 years younger than Leno's 60 years, O'Brien is certainly more beloved by the younger people, particularly the younger people who made their outrage known on the Internet. And Jay was, like, gross, dude.

And in fact he is, in a way. Over the years, much has been made, for one thing, of Leno's monstrous, grotesque collection of 200-plus automobiles. (Less is made of O'Brien's $10 million-plus housing arrangements, although, in any event, whatever little apartment Leno lives in is surely valued in the eight figures as well. Although let us be fair and acknowledge that they pay taxes for our socialized health care and commit major charitable giving.) And a nation of financially insecure people, citizens in a country where around one in five working people were not at all employed or were not employed fully, projected all their senses of underdog yearnings upon O'Brien. The bully Leno had deprived him of his dream job! NBC and that jerk Jeff Zucker tried to make Conan O'Brien have his dream job take place 30 minutes later at night!

What is America for but not to have our dreams fulfilled? But evidently only fulfilled perfectly, not 30 minutes earlier or later than when we want to have our imaginary late-night talk shows.

And then Jay Leno confirmed strongly at this banquet—it was the annual awkward gathering called the White House Correspondents' Dinner, where politicians and Supreme Court justices must make jolly with newspaper hacks and a bizarre and enormous array of celebrities—that he is unlikable.

He was not very funny, for starters, which while not a crime is a mistake for someone whose profession is making with the laughs. He is now all white-haired, so it was odd that he began with a joke about the president graying in office. Leno's face, although it glows with the rubbery health of the often-exfoliated, is falling, and jowls are begging to form. He looked a bit like Ted Kennedy, although Leno does not drink. He seemed on the verge of running out of breath, nearly wheezy.

O'Brien, on the other hand, benefitted at least from 60 Minutes’ traditional outrageous use of lighting. The lighting they do! It must take hours to set up each interview, whether it is O'Brien's wife awkwardly posed in the kitchen pass-through (their housekeeper does a very good job, though the O'Briens have an annoying habit of putting up their childrens' drawings everywhere) or Conan in his… den or something. Who knows, they have so many rooms in their houses.

Conan revealed that he felt unwanted by NBC; his wife revealed that "this was really hard for him." There was a central conversation between O'Brien and interviewer Steve Kroft over who got "screwed," to which O'Brien decided that "Jay's got The Tonight Show and I've got a beard and an inflatable bat."

O'Brien was frequently pictured laughing derangedly in the segment, which was unnerving. He was also pictured singing a song out on his tour, which has been playing to capacity in large venues all across North America; he has been singing a song about how he "hung around the house eating frosting from a jar" and "sleeping in my car." When he sings, his perfect white orthodontia is mesmerizing. There's not a gap to be had with those chompers.

He is still winning—obviously, a smart, cool guy—despite this bizarre insistence that he is just another one of us unemployed folk. How he pulls this trick off bears further study. It is a sham, of course. It's actually a millionaire telling lies, in the pursuit of more money. Still, he is a pleasure! That is just charisma.

During his own 20 minutes, when he was not riffling through index cards with jokes on them, Leno made use of at least 10 video gags, which was pitiful. (Three of them were funny, and at least one of them had been a YouTube hit some time ago.)

He used the phrase "John Edwards sex tape" and the word "screwing" in front of the president, which somehow—even in this age, even to those of us who have essentially no moral center—seemed outlandish.

He made a dumb joke about Toyotas, and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter's enormous hairdo could be seen in the audience, beneath an unlaughing face.

He made a joke about the disastrous Gulf oil spill, and got a "too soon" groan.

Leno closed at 10:42 p.m. "This is the greatest job I've ever had," Leno said by way of parting.

"He was no match for the president," said a commentator on MSNBC that same minute. "I actually thought he did better than Jay Leno," said another commentator of the president.

But these were the cautious, embryonic opinions of professional commentators. The Internet would grow meaner and meaner toward Leno throughout the night. But, in the end, who cares? All the old people were dozing off. It was nearly 11 after all, and the vast majority of America had turned off the TV.

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Choire Sicha is co-proprietor of The Awl and is at work on a nonfiction book for HarperStudio.