Call it the scorched earth policy of bad comedy: Jay Leno, soiler of Johnny Carson's late night legacy and time slot bully, is making his rumored forced departure a reality. It is increasingly and infuriatingly a reality littered with terrible jokes aimed at his future former employer. Apparently, the whole concept of employee decorum, respected by normal humans in normal human jobs who don't trash their bosses with lame backhanded jokes in public, does not apply to the man The Tonight Show doesn't want anymore.
The first rule of Jay Leno's guide to losing your job is using comedy to signal that your bosses want you gone. This, in turn, leads to nasty media reports about you actually losing your job. And then you probably lose your job. First, nasty ratings battles in the press may have led to lame "Cinco de Ratings" jokes, which definitely led to nasty emails with the executive floor. Then Leno called his bosses in the boardroom "snakes" in a monologue on Monday, and then he compared NBC's ratings to a woman with a brain disease who sees things upside-down. This, of course, was followed by the report that NBC wants to move Tonight back to New York for Jimmy Fallon, and then we all had a sad for Conan. But Leno didn't top! Last night he made a joke about NBC and dinosaurs:
According to several reports, scientists say they are getting closer and closer to being able to do Jurassic Park-style cloning of extinct species. Imagine that? Things that were once thought to be extinct could now be brought back from the dead. So there’s hope for NBC. It could turn around.
Zing? Not zing. The only funny part may be that cloning — or at least bringing things back from the dead — is the only way Leno has proven he can save himself. (Hey, it worked in 2010 when Conan exploded.) Anyway, executives at NBC have been telling The New York Times that Fallon will replace Leno by the Fall of 2014, at the latest. Hence the comedic temper tantrums. And Leno might have a point — as the Times's Bill Carter points out, Leno still leads in the ratings. But NBC's setting itself up for the future, and that future is notorious Leno-hater Jimmy Kimmel:
Mr. Leno’s “Tonight” show still regularly leads in the late-night ratings. But by turning to Mr. Fallon, NBC hopes to counter what it regards as its biggest late-night competitor of the future, Jimmy Kimmel, who in January moved his show on ABC from midnight to 11:35 p.m.
Of course, we've seen all this before with Conan O'Brien, who was promised Leno's show and an easy Leno departure three years out, only to have the Tonight gig taken away from him almost immediately because of mediocre ratings. In that awkward spot now is Fallon, who is showing restraint, and whose writers at least have some halfway decent material to acknowledge everything that's swirling around. Fallon barely and briefly addressed the rumors with a bit more class, and a few more laughs, on his own show last night:
Before we get started, I have to talk about the rumors that came out today which say that I’ll be moving up to 11:30 or as my parents call it ‘umm, still too late.’ Actually the rumors are true. NBC is turning The Tonight Show into a diving competition. So exciting ...