Jay Leno sharpened his attack on NBC Tuesday night, including two jokes in his opening monologue on “The Tonight Show” that left no doubt he’s miffed over the persistent reports that the network is poised to replace him with Jimmy Fallon.
It was Night Two of “Leno held hostage” — the second consecutive night in which Leno, 62, made pointed references to the story that broke March 1, just when “The Tonight Show” was starting a one-week hiatus.
The story, first reported on the Hollywood Reporter Web site and then picked up everywhere, said NBC execs were putting the finishing touches on a plan to ease Leno out and have Fallon, 38, in place as host of “The Tonight Show” by summer 2014.
In Monday’s monologue, Leno referred to the situation twice. But those jibes were not nearly as specific as the ones he included in his monologue on Tuesday.
“You know, we were on vacation last week,” he said on Tuesday’s show, opening his monologue as a very supportive studio audience gave him a standing ovation for the second consecutive night. “And when I came back yesterday, NBC had really beefed up security. Yet, despite that, I was still able to get on the lot!”
A few minutes later, Leno worked another joke about the situation into a group of jokes about the papal conclave now underway at the Vatican. “And of course rumors are flying at the Vatican,” Leno said. “The latest one, according to the Italian press, is that Pope Benedict did not retire. They say he was forced out by NBC!”
Our take: Sure, they might seem like just jokes, but coming from Leno, they’re more than jokes — they’re his way of commenting on these stories that concern him. While other public figures might consult their p.r. teams and come out with prepared statements to deal with news stories about them, comedy is the medium Leno’s most comfortable with. It’s how a guy like Leno communicates: He uses comedy to make people laugh, but also to get his point across when things are bothering him.
And, at the risk of over-interpreting some things we’ve observed after only two nights of late-night TV this week, here are a few other things we’ve seen and heard this week that we believe have some bearing on the late-night wars:
1) Tuesday night’s musical guest on the “Leno” show was blues legend Buddy Guy. In his introduction, Leno noted that the guitar master earned a Kennedy Center honor in December. What Leno didn’t mention: That David Letterman was also an honoree that very same night.
2) Among the guests scheduled for the “Leno” show this week: CBS “Late Late Show” host Craig Ferguson on Friday. That oughta be an interesting conversation.
3) Howard Stern, who we all know is no fan of Leno’s, said this week that even he doubts NBC will jettison Leno. Stern reportedly said as much when he returned to his Sirius XM radio show this week after he took a week off for “America’s Got Talent” auditions in New Orleans. Among other things, he said a New York Post story that reported he’s being groomed to replace Fallon on NBC’s “Late Night” was untrue. He said the idea was “an insult” and that he, Stern, makes 10 times more money than Fallon. “I was asking some of the [NBC] executives, when I was down there doing ‘AGT’,” Stern said, “and I was like you guys don’t respect Jay at all, do you? They go ‘We’re not firing him!’ That’s what they said to me, so I don’t know how any of this is true!” This story is reported here.
Stern might have something there: We all know Leno knows how to play this game better than anyone. He’s a wily veteran of these late-night wars, and these monologue jokes — along with the standing ovations he’s receiving in his own studio every night — are probably just part of his strategy for holding on to “The Tonight Show” as long as he can.