Thursday night on NBC, Late Night With Conan O’Brien was offering a rerun, and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno was offering Conan O’Brien. The self-deprecating absurdist has visited the folksy wisecracker many times before, but this appearance promised and delivered an especially odd vibe. It was a blip of inside-showbiz awkwardness.
In 2004—with the end of O’Brien’s contract approaching and ABC batting its eyelashes at him—NBC announced that O’Brien would ascend to Leno’s swivel chair in 2009. But, for more than a year, there have been reports that the lame duck has quacked that he doesn’t want to give up his gig. Last month, Bill Carter—author of The Late Shift, the classic account of Leno’s getting this job in first place—reported that ABC and Fox were playing footsie with Leno. The piece quotes an anonymous suitor hoping that Leno will be motivated to seek “revenge” on the network that’s laying him off after his many years of service at the observational-comedy mill. Thus, the quarter-hour Jay and Conan shared together had the potential to offer a special lesson in funnyman psychodynamics—or at least a good workout for armchair analysts at 30 Rock and paranoids in Peoria.
There was a slight chill in the studio air. The greeting was rote. Motions were gone through. I don’t doubt that the two hosts share a personal relationship that’s anything less than cordial. But before these clips get disappeared from YouTube, take a look and see if you think that the cordiality seems forced. Scan for signs of Leno—who, in O’Brien’s presence, never mentions that the anointed heir has indeed been anointed—being passive-aggressive. “So, you’ve been hosting the show,” he queries. “What other stuff have you been doing?”
Conan at one point told an anecdote about Jerry Lewis. Doing a gaily awful imitation—a voice more Edith Bunker than nutty professor—he passed along an inscrutable axiom that Lewis said he learned from Stan Laurel: “Always do this. Tell the audience what you’re going to do. Do it. And then tell them it has been done.” Then, in his own voice, O’Brien pleaded, “If anybody knows what the hell he’s talking about, please tell me, because it’s been ringing in my head for years.” Leno responded, “We should call Jerry and ask him.” Well, this points to the essential friction of the evening: O’Brien getting a touch mock-hysterical in puzzlement at a comedic koan, Leno being stiff and clubby and patriarchal, none of us feeling terribly elegant.