Jay Leno's new role? NBC insult comic -- and the network's not amused

The host of "The Tonight Show" could be jeopardizing his future with his network with every snarky joke

Published March 20, 2013 4:30PM (EDT)

Jay Leno
Jay Leno

There's a long tradition of late-night hosts biting the hand that feeds them and making fun of their networks -- it's a good way to show you have a little edge. Johnny Carson would zing NBC, while David Letterman has made sport of dull old CBS for as long as he's been there. Conan O'Brien even jokes about his basic-cable bosses at TBS -- you'd have thought that might be a sore subject.

But Jay Leno, somehow, may be crossing a line on "The Tonight Show." Some three years after his reinstatement as that program's host and the dismissal of O'Brien, the host has called NBC executives "snakes" and, last night, mocked the network's bottom-of-the-barrel ratings. (Indeed, late night and the evening news broadcasts are the only elements of the schedule NBC consistently wins.) David Letterman's jokey prank phone calls with CBS president Les Moonves this isn't; indeed, NBC head Robert Greenblatt has reportedly asked Leno to desist.

Leno's in a position of power, it would seem: NBC's last attempt to jettison Leno didn't go very well, thanks to, as Bill Carter reported in the book "The War for Late Night," the strength of his contract. He's also popular among the affiliate stations, whose rebellion against NBC's weak primetime slate (anchored by an odd 10 p.m. Leno show) helped bring Leno back to late night in 2010.

It's easy to take jokes at your expense when you're in second or third place -- harder when you're in fifth out of four networks. Perhaps the best strategy is to stay out of the fray altogether, as with Leno's fellow NBC host, Jimmy Fallon. He's practically the only person in late night who didn't weigh in on the O'Brien/Leno debacle as it was happening (Letterman relished their bickering over 'Tonight,' while ABC's Jimmy Kimmel inserted himself into it on O'Brien's behalf). Fallon has the most to gain if Leno (who still does draw ratings!) eventually leaves NBC. The network tried to get rid of him once, after all.

No wonder GQ, in a profile of Fallon in its new issue, is so bullish. "Anyone paying attention can see that the famously improbable Fallon is getting groomed for the 'Tonight Show' throne," Jeanne Marie Laskas writes. "Even 'Late Night' executive producer Lorne Michaels concedes as much: 'I'm not allowed to say it—yet. But I think there's an inevitability to it. He's the closest to Carson that I've seen of this generation.'"

Fallon demurs as to questions about "Tonight," and says: "I'm not in a fight with Jay or Conan, or any of them. I don't have that story." That may be just what beleaguered NBC wants to hear.

UPDATE: The New York Times is reporting that Jay Leno is to depart "Tonight" by next year, at which point Jimmy Fallon, who has "a commitment" but not a deal from NBC, will likely take over.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Conan O'brien Jay Leno Jimmy Fallon