Amid reports that NBC is readying an “exit plan” to replace Jay Leno on The Tonight Show more permanently this time, the late-night host has been fighting back by skewering the network with the lacerating wit for which Jay Leno is known. “For the first time in history, NBC is going to finish fifth in the ratings period. We are behind the Spanish-language network Univision—or as we call it here in Los Angeles, ‘Cinco de Ratings,’” Leno said recently, in a biting nod to the fact that “cinco” means “five” and that throwing it in there sounds like the approximation of a joke about a Spanish something or other.
And while most network presidents would likely take that in stride, accepting it in the tradition of all jabs aimed at the Powers That Be by Johnny Carson, David Letterman et al., and with the gracious pity accorded to small children who haven’t quite figured out how jokes work yet, NBC’s Robert Greenblatt did not. Instead, in keeping with the magnitude of this war, he reportedly fired off several “pointed e-mails” at Leno, demanding he aim his softballs elsewhere.
But Leno, ever the Dad’s-wearing-jeans-to-work…jeans! version of a rebel, has refused to put a stop to his gentle tirade. He will be heard, damn it, then defiantly ask his audience whether they heard about it. “Did you hear about this?” he began last night, the listless rattle of the toothless cobra preparing to strike by saying, “Hi, I’m a cobra. Have you seen one of me before?” Leno continued: “A 28-year-old woman from Serbia has a rare brain condition where she sees everything upside down. The good news? She’s now been given a job at the White House as President Obama’s economic adviser. Isn’t that crazy? It’s unbelievable. She sees everything upside down. In fact, she thinks NBC is at the top of the ratings.”
Leno’s satiric proposing of this crazy, unbelievable comic scenario—which, some suspect, was constructed under intense labor solely to mention NBC’s ratings—came a day after Leno had similarly “riffed” on the legend of St. Patrick’s Day. “St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland, and then they came to the United States and became NBC executives,” he said during Monday’s monologue, making a humorous allusion to the fact that “snake” can be a synonym for a “deceptive person.” Anyway, there’s no telling what insolence Leno will get up to tonight, should this pattern hold, but maybe tune in if you’ve ever wanted to watch a man take a stand by murmuring stale truth to weakened power.
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