Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 1097 from February 4, 2010. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
Jay Leno — he played this one beautifully. Five years ago, when NBC turned Leno into a time bomb by promising his job to Conan O'Brien, he ticked quietly, keeping his rage to himself — but, oh, how it must have burned. Now he gets to taste the sweet nectar of vengeance. By sucking so bad that NBC could no longer tolerate him in prime time, he sucked his way right back into his old job. The tragedy of all this is that NBC has somehow turned two winning hands into a lose-the-farm fold.
We've never seen Conan pissed off before, and it suits him. Now that he's showing his claws, he's finally proving himself fit for the job just as he walks away from it. His charm has always been his refusal to act like we owe him anything; he doesn't have the angst or neurosis that drives Jay and Dave. If he did, he'd be unbearable. (Actually, he'd be Norm MacDonald — same thing.) Early in his career, he got lucky breaks because people liked him. Nobody wants to see a lucky guy get mad — it's bad manners, and for Conan, bad manners is bad comedy.
In rage mode, Conan is funnier than he's been since moving to 11:35. But it's strange to see him tangle with Jay. We're used to seeing Letterman rage at NBC, CBS and Sarah Palin. Dave thrives on conflict — as he joked, he's the product of "Lutheran Midwestern guilt." Leno and O'Brien seem like nice Catholic boys, most comfortable when everyone's getting along. Yet behind Leno's Guy Smiley-Muppet mask, he's a killing machine — the Terminator of late-night comedians.
Conan's a writer and Jay's a performer, and you can't overstate how different those mentalities are. Jay got The Tonight Show after getting up in front of hostile drunks in countless shitty late-night dives around the country, year in and year out, and making those assholes laugh. Conan got the job by being funny in a room full of other writers. This isn't to slight either of them — but Jay has always been tougher and darker than people realize.
Leno doesn't need TV. He could just go to Vegas and make more money doing what he loves best, which is stand-up. Last year he told Rolling Stone he banked his Tonight Show money and lived on his stand-up earnings.
So why did he hang around NBC long enough to bring the whole network down in flames? Maybe he just felt pushed around. Leno's got the stomach for fights. Like Paul McCartney, another nice guy wrongly dismissed as a cream puff, Jay made his bones in the sleaziest, nastiest showbiz shark pools on earth. He plays nice for the old ladies, but his street-fighting instincts are off the charts. He's left plenty of carrion on the late-night highway. Arsenio Hall, Chevy Chase, Magic Johnson — Jay knocked them all off the air, and you can bet he still savors the memory of their death cries.
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