Taking on America’s ‘nice guy’

Last year, the Harris Poll crowned Jay Leno as America’s favorite TV personality. But amid NBC’s messy late-night drama, the comedian who has painstakingly cultivated a “Mr. Nice Guy” image has suddenly found himself cast as a villain and become a national punch line.

Conan O’Brien: An article in Section A on Saturday estimated that the annual salary of “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien was $20 million. The Times has previously reported that the figure is closer to $12 million. —

Breaking a long-standing tradition of avoiding personal attacks on one another, TV hosts have been unloading on Leno all week with a fusillade of acerbic potshot and pointed barbs usually reserved for philandering politicians and bonus-taking bankers. “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien, who notably refused to mock David Letterman months ago after he was the victim of an alleged extortion plot, took aim this week at the man who is poised to retake his current time slot, joking that kids should be inspired to do whatever they want in life “unless Jay Leno wants to do it too.”

Leno’s other colleagues have been just as unsparing in their attacks. CBS’ David Letterman, Leno’s fabled nemesis for the “Tonight Show” slot back in 1992, proposed a new drama for NBC: “Law & Order: Leno Victims Unit.” Even former daytime talk show host Rosie O’Donnell weighed in: “Shame on Jay Leno.”

Perhaps the most withering attacks came from ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, who struck up a friendship with the NBC host during the 2007-08 writers strike. But any remaining chumminess didn’t stop Kimmel from savaging him Thursday during a remarkable guest appearance the ABC host made on “The Jay Leno Show.”

Kimmel suggested Leno had tricked O’Brien by handing off “The Tonight Show” to him and then taking back the time slot. When Leno, good-naturedly playing along, suggested he might make a move to ABC, Kimmel hit his everyman image: “You’ve got $800 million. For God’s sake, leave our shows alone!”

In moving Leno back to a time slot held by O’Brien, NBC effectively pitted the two hosts against each other and created a situation in which viewers were bound to take sides, said Jeffrey McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University in Indiana. The feud lit up Twitter, where many users labeled themselves “Team Conan.”

“Leno’s image has been getting warped in public . . . from that of a fun-loving comedian to a guy who ends up looking like he has a more dark, selfish side,” McCall said. “That can’t be good for someone whose gig is to make people laugh.”

The larger issue is whether the wave of anti-Leno sentiment, which Time’s television critic dubbed “the Jaypocalypse,” will permanently taint Leno among not just colleagues, but ordinary viewers. That’s a key concern for NBC as it contemplates returning Leno to the “Tonight Show” and tries to salvage what was for more than a decade TV’s No. 1 late-night lineup.

“Whenever there’s a loser and a winner and there’s sympathy toward the loser, the winner” -- in this case, presumably Leno -- “is going to be looked upon potentially in a negative way,” said Bill Carroll, vice president at Katz Media, which advises local TV stations. Carroll added that many affiliates were nevertheless pleased with the prospect of Leno’s return to his old throne.

Leno did not respond to a request for comment. But on his show Friday, he noted that Fox will premiere a series called “Human Target.” “I thought it was about me,” he joked.

Meanwhile, NBC executives aren’t laughing.

“There’s a certain amount of kidding that goes on between these personalities which can often be funny. But this has definitely crossed the line,” Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment said in a statement. “Jay is the consummate professional and one of the hardest-working people in television. It’s a shame that he’s being pulled into this.”

The network’s sports overseer, Dick Ebersol, blasted Letterman and O’Brien in a New York Times interview published Friday, saying it was “chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn’t beat in the ratings.”

(Meanwhile, NBC and O’Brien neared agreement Friday on a settlement that would pay O’Brien up to $35 million to end his employment with the network, according to people on both sides of the divide.)

“Jay’s not the bad guy -- the bad guy is NBC, really,” said Bill Zehme, who co-wrote Leno’s autobiography “Leading With My Chin” and is working on a book about Johnny Carson, Leno’s predecessor on the “Tonight Show.” “However, Jay has all the power now.”

Leno is believed to make more than $30 million a year in his current job. But the other hosts have not fared too badly either. Letterman, who owns his “Late Show” on CBS, earns well over $30 million annually. And O’Brien reportedly gets a $20-million paycheck for the “Tonight Show.”

Although Leno was the first to take on-air swipes at NBC in the current debacle (he joked the network’s name stood for “Never Believe your Contract”), Zehme said it’s getting tough for the host to portray himself as a victim -- especially when his bosses have apparently kept his 11:35 p.m. seat warm for him after a disastrous four-month experiment with the low-rated “The Jay Leno Show,” which airs at 10 o’clock weeknights but will be canceled next month after pressure from local stations.

Whatever the eventual result, it’s clear that the current imbroglio is only the latest -- and probably the strangest -- chapter in a show-business saga brimming with runaway egos, corporate screw-ups and merciless one-liners. Comedians are paid to make fun of other people, after all, but when they turn their guns on each other, the bullets blast away the curtain that usually conceals backstage dramas.

Viewers learned this 18 years ago, when Carson’s retirement touched off a battle over the “Tonight Show” that pitted heir apparent Leno against Letterman, the critics’ darling. The face-off was memorialized in a book, “The Late Shift,” which was later turned into an HBO movie.

The climactic scene found Leno, in a Machiavellian move, secreting himself inside a closet to eavesdrop on NBC executives as they pondered the future of the “Tonight Show.” This week, Letterman gleefully reminded viewers of the incident and joked that he would let Leno stay in a closet at the “Late Show.”

Indeed, Letterman has been particularly venomous in recent days toward his onetime pal from the comedy-club circuit of the late 1970s, ridiculing him as “Jay ‘Big Jaw’ Leno,” patronizing his 10 p.m. show and mimicking Leno’s high-pitched voice.

Before the latest incident, the pair had seemed to have patched up some of their old wounds. In a 2008 interview with Rolling Stone, Letterman said he wondered why NBC had at that time decided to push Leno out of his “Tonight Show” chair “after the job Jay has done for them” and added: “I think he has greater appeal for more people than I do.”

But on Friday night’s show, Leno lashed back at Letterman for “taking shots” at him. He joked that he was surprised by Letterman’s actions because the CBS host usually just takes “shots at the interns.”

At least publicly, Leno presented the image of a regular guy unspoiled by show business. He has been married to the same woman, Mavis Leno, for 30 years, and loves cars and motorcycles so much that he’s developed a sideline with his auto enthusiast website, Unlike Letterman, he’s never been accused of sleeping with members of his staff and enjoys work so much that he spends weekends honing material at comedy clubs.

What remains to be seen now is whether Leno’s millions of old fans will now return to his corner.

Doug Spero, a former TV news director and NBC employee who is now an associate professor of mass communication at Meredith College in North Carolina, predicted the bad feelings stirred by this episode will quickly blow over for Leno. “This is going to solidify him at ‘Tonight Show’ for as long as he wants,” Spero said.

But Zehme, Leno’s onetime coauthor, isn’t so sure. He said he understands Leno’s desire to remain in the limelight: “For Jay, life is a parade, and he is a float.” But the situation over the last week has grown so nasty that it contains very few rewards for Leno, he believes.

“The thing Leno should do is walk, period,” Zehme said. “He’s got everything to lose in terms of public popularity by going back. People will look at him differently. He’ll be viewed as the bad guy.”