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10.24.10

Comedians Laugh as Leno Sinks

With Jay Leno's Tonight Show ratings now below what Conan O'Brien's were, many in the comedy world see it as just desserts for Leno. Gina Piccalo reports.

To hear most comedians talk, Jay Leno committed a crime against comedy last winter when he reneged on a promise that would have, once and for all, given NBC's The Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien.

There were anti-Leno tirades for weeks from Rosie O'Donnell, Jimmy Kimmel, and others. Then, O'Brien headed off to a successful comedy tour, a new network in TBS, and a new show set to debut Nov. 8. Leno returned to The Tonight Show in March, and shot back up to his No. 1 spot in late night. It seemed everyone had moved on.

Now, however, there's fresh blood in the water. The Tonight Show With Jay Leno has lost 21 percent in overall audience compared with 2008, and 25 percent of its viewers aged 18 to 49, according to Nielsen. This comes after the show's ratings hit historic lows last summer. Among 18-to-49 year-olds, advertisers' preferred demographic, Leno is attracting even fewer viewers than O'Brien did during his brief stint as host—those same ratings spelled doom for the Conan Tonight.

Cue the schadenfreude.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!" comedian Andy Kindler said in response to news of Leno's ratings. "You reap what you sow."

Kindler, a well-known critic of Leno, is not the only one taking some bitter satisfaction in Leno's latest ratings. Comics on both coasts are quietly taking note that what they suspected all along is finally coming to pass. "Jay wanted The Tonight Show back in the worst way," says comedy writer and standup Dana Gould. "And he got his wish."

Show business, of course, provides florid conditions for contempt. Folks on the way up are comforted by kicking those that are their way down. But there's no question that among some comedians, Leno inspires an especially vicious, willful disdain.

Some of it stems from an overall distaste for Leno's mainstream material, what one comedy veteran called "idiot pandering." But for others, his behavior last January was the last in a series of offenses that date back nearly 20 years, when Leno beat David Letterman for Johnny Carson's seat on The Tonight Show. Indeed, it's hard to find a working comedian today who will admit to watching Leno.

Comedian Patton Oswalt was the first notable comedian to go public with his resentment of Leno back in January, calling the talk-show host "Nixonian" and "passively aggressively mean."

"Comedians that don't like Jay Leno now—and I'm one of them—we're not like, 'Oh, Jay Leno sucks!'" Oswalt said on the Jan. 8 edition of Comedy Death Ray Radio. "It's that we're so hurt and disappointed that one of the best comedians of our generation willfully shot that switch off and was like, 'No more for you guys!'"

“Jay wanted The Tonight Show back in the worst way,” says comedy writer and standup Dana Gould. “And he got his wish.”

Back in the 1980s, Leno was a comic's comic. He was a regular guest on NBC's Late Night With David Letterman, known for having the most cutting one-liners on any news event and for calling out other comedians who pandered to the masses. Then in 1992, he took over The Tonight Show, toned down his material and championed comedians whose acts went counter to his early persona.

"The first person that he got behind on The Tonight Show and made a star was Carrot Top," says Gould. "He immediately went against what he preached to other comedians. It left everybody scratching their heads."

To be fair, Leno has his supporters who argue that NBC executives deserve the blame for the time slot debacle that prompted O'Brien's departure and returned Leno to the Tonight Show chair. They consider Leno ambitious, ego-driven, but a respectable guy who was put in an untenable position. They still want to be invited to his show.

Even Gould pointed out that Leno has been known to fund medically necessary surgery for struggling comedians who don't have health insurance. And despite Leno's declining ratings and loss of young viewers, his show still routinely beats CBS' Late Show With David Letterman and ABC's Nightline.

"Once he's gone, people will kick him when he's down," says one longtime comedy manager. "But he's still got the seat and no one knows who's next."

Still, today, Letterman and O'Brien have the popular votes. Letterman is the elder statesman, the natural heir to Carson. O'Brien is relatable, someone perceived to be taking chances, trying to stay true to himself. (Though, O'Brien, a Harvard grad who walked away from NBC with a $47 million consolation prize, is an unconventional underdog.)

Of course, Leno isn't the only host struggling to hold on to his market share. Late-night TV is a format that grows increasingly more irrelevant every year. Only Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—who have many fewer viewers than the network shows—routinely make news. And that leaves Leno's style trailing pretty far behind.

Anecdotally speaking, young comedians are more apt to watch a viral video from NBC's Late Night With Jimmy Fallon than tune into Leno. Most of them consider Leno the antithesis of the sharp, smart creative comic they want to be.

But Leno's idiosyncrasies haven't helped his image among comics. In 2008, the Writer's Guild of America investigated him for writing his own monologues because his show writers were on strike for better earnings. Leno wasn't penalized, but his actions didn't exactly endear him to the union comedy writers.

He's famously sensitive to the way people perceive him. As Letterman has gamely reminded his audience, Leno is one of those celebrities occasionally spotted coming to the aid of a stranded motorist. Comedians who lampoon Leno will sometimes get a personal phone call from him, asking, "What's up?"

That ritual backfired on Leno last winter after he invited Jimmy Kimmel on his show following what Leno called Kimmel's own "cruel" impersonation. Naturally, Kimmel used the opportunity to fire off a zinger about Leno's refusing to give up his show to O'Brien.

Then in a January interview with Oprah Winfrey, Leno seemed to blame O'Brien's poor ratings for everything that went wrong with NBC's late-night lineup and admitted to telling "a white lie" when in 2004, he said he would step down in five years to give The Tonight Show to O'Brien.

"If Conan's numbers had been a little bit higher, it wouldn't even be an issue," he told Winfrey. "In show business, there's always somebody waiting in the wings. Being me."

A spokesperson for The Tonight Show did not respond to an interview request. But NBC ratings specialist, Tom Bierbaum, wrote in an email that given Leno's nine-month break from late night and the drama of January, Leno's slipping ratings are "not a surprise at all." In fact, Bierbaum noted, compared with the tremendous drop in ratings on O'Brien's Tonight, Leno's decline "is actually a major recovery."

All things considered, though, it's unlikely this hollow victory is what Leno had in mind when he told Winfrey that "it all comes down to numbers."

Gina Piccalo is a senior writer at The Daily Beast. She spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood and is also a former contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine. Her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.