I opened up my podcast app this afternoon to find that Marc Maron had interviewed Jay Leno on the WTF Podcast, and I’m a guy of a certain age who is probably never going to stop being fascinated with the Letterman/Leno late night wars. Moreover, while I have seen and heard both Letterman and Conan talk, at length, about getting screwed over by Jay Leno (Conan pretty much made an entire documentary about it), you don’t often hear Leno talk about it and never with an interviewer as confrontational as Marc Maron (it helps, too, that Maron was a Letterman/Conan guy, and not a Leno person).
So, I buckled in for what I assumed would be an explosive interview, and well … It wasn’t. That’s not to say that it wasn’t satisfying or fascinating, but it was amicable. They did talk at length about Leno taking The Tonight Show over Letterman, and they also spoke about Leno stealing The Tonight Show back from Conan.
And here’s the thing: After listening to Leno for an hour, I don’t like him any more as a comic than I did before. But I respect him — not as a person, or as a comedian — but for his honesty. Leno admitted to Maron that he was a “company man,” and that Letterman was not, and that’s why he got the job. Leno was prepared to gladhand, to kiss the ass of whatever suit needed its ass kissed, to meet with all the affiliates, and sell a product, and he wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed about it.
Letterman was not willing to be that guy, which is why Letterman is Letterman.
Look: There were a lot of factors in NBC’s decision to choose Leno over Letterman. Leno had been the exclusive guest host on The Tonight Show for five years. He was a known quantity. Letterman was killing it at 12:30, and NBC wasn’t sure he’d play as well at 11:30. NBC thought it could have its cake and eat it, too, so they gave Leno The Tonight Show and prayed that Letterman would stay on at 12:30. Letterman bailed, which is why Letterman is Letterman.
But the real reason NBC went with Leno over Letterman can probably be epitomized in a story that Leno told about how one of the NBC suits went to Letterman and asked for free tickets for his kids to see Late Night. Dave — who always hated suits — basically told the guy to go fuck himself, and the suit basically said to Leno, “Imagine having to deal with that for 20 years.” That’s why Letterman is Letterman.
In other words, Letterman wasn’t willing to sell his soul. He wanted The Tonight Show on his own terms, and Leno was all-too-willing to hand his soul over to the NBC brass in exchange for the best show in late night. End of story. Letterman harbored resentment for 20 years, and Jay Leno collected $30 million a year and bought literally 183 cars and something like 175 motorcycles. Now, while Letterman and Leno are not exactly friends, they are “friendly” and they have a mutual respect for one another. Whatever that means.
As for Conan? As Leno tells it, at the height of Conan’s popularity, he told NBC that he wanted The Tonight Show, in effect pushing Leno out. NBC let Leno finish out his five-year contract, however, and in those intervening years, Conan lost some heat. Craig Ferguson put a dent in his ratings, and when Conan took over the show, NBC wasn’t prepared to stick by him. According to Leno, Conan also refused to take some notes from NBC, which — as Leno willingly admits — is something he had no problem doing (he’s a “company man.”) Conan, like Letterman, wanted to succeed on his own terms.
Meanwhile, Leno took the 10:00 spot because, well, he wasn’t ready to retire, they offered it to him, and so he took it, because it meant he’d get to continue to work and keep his staff on for another two years. When Conan’s ratings didn’t pick back up, NBC offered the job back to Leno. Leno’s only sin here, according to Leno, was saying “yes.” He didn’t force Conan out; he just made himself readily available in the event that Conan stumbled, and then Conan stumbled. That’s show business.
“What was I supposed to do? Say ‘no’?” Leno asked.
I guess that depends on what kind of person you are. You’re either a person who takes $30 million a year, or you’re the kind of person who turns it down and lives on your principles. If you choose the money, you’re going to engender a lot of resentment, and I guess you just have to decide if having a large part of the comic community hate you is worth $30 million a year and a nightly spot on NBC. Leno decided that it was.
Does Leno regret anything? “No,” he says. He doesn’t regret a damn thing. I don’t admire his decisions, but I guess I admire his honesty about it. (And for the record, he also says he’s friendly with Jimmy Kimmel now, having called in to check on him after his son’s surgery).
My takeaway? Leno is a putz, but he knows he’s a putz, and he’s not at all apologetic about it. I guess there is something to be said for that. Letterman and, to a lesser extent Conan, both could have had The Tonight Show job and kept it if they were willing to be “company men,” but being “company men” would’ve meant being someone they weren’t. Basically, it was a lose/lose situation for both of them.
But the biggest surprise of the interview? Just how much Jay Leno loves Michelle Wolf, something he shares in common with Letterman, as both former late-night hosts have recently gone on at length about Wolf. It’s funny, though, because the reasons why they love Wolf again illustrate their differences: Letterman loves her because she’s so unapologetic, and Leno loves her because Wolf seems to find so much joy in what she’s doing.
Source: WTF with Marc Maron
Header Image Source: NBC