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Friday night massacre: Late-night jokes, and why the anti-Conan, pro-Jay backlash won't work

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Last night, Jay Leno trotted out his unique new mixture of self-pity and aggression to close out this week on The Jay Leno Show.

“There’s a new show premiering on Fox called Human Target,” he said. “I thought it was about me.” And: “I’m getting beaten up in the press; you know things are bad when Tiger Woods calls to offer PR advice.”

And then: “Even David Letterman is taking shots at me. Which is weird, because usually he just takes shots at interns.”

Two points: the anti-Conan, pro-Jay backlash that Dick Ebersol tried to start yesterday in The New York Times is both inevitable (we live in a media time when people go “counter-intuitive” to stir up controversy, Web traffic, and make last-ditch efforts) and it won’t work.

Ebersol called Conan O’Brien “an astounding failure” and “chicken-hearted and gutless” for making jokes about Leno earlier in the week.

Now, consider the source. Ebersol is the NBC exec who recently announced with peculiar pride that his network will “lose money” on its broadcast of the winter Olympics. On its face, this is rather admirable: NBC may well spend more money giving you an extravagant look at the Olympics, and they’ll trade profit for esteem and media heat in that area. But…then why is it not okay to lose a little money, probably in the short term, to help build Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show into the ratings powerhouse Leno’s version was?

Ebersol uses the classic boss logic: If he likes something and it’s losing money, it’s a loss taken in the short term to improve the long-term value of the brand. But if he doesn’t like something and it’s losing money, his message is, we live in a capitalist society and everything needs to show a profit or die.

As I said, consider the source. Dick Ebersol is the kind of flamboyant exec with strong opinions about things — some of which, including comedy, he knows little about. This is the guy who, when he took over Saturday Night Live in the early ’80s, thought that then-SNL-writer Larry David was talentless.

Dick Ebersol is the guy about whom it is said by a source in Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s superb history Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, “Every time somebody in the world lies, Dick gets a royalty.”

That’s the guy leading the Conan-is-a-failure charge. Good luck, Jay defenders.

Bottom line: As many of you have written in your comments, this whole controversy is not a grand tragedy. This is sandbox-fighting among men, every one of whom is rich and will fare quite well, no matter what the outcome.

But this also one of the rare moments when things have gotten a little bit out of control, and that’s great — too much network TV is scripted down to the second, and so when Kimmel insults Jay on Jay’s own show, or Letterman depicts Leno as a grave-robber, that’s the kind of chaos and emotion and calculation we see all too rarely on TV these days.

Word has it that an agreement between NBC and O’Brien may be announced as early as this weekend. Too bad; this has been great television.

What do you think of Ebersol’s “astounding failure” comment? About Jay’s latest jokes?

Follow me on Twitter @kentucker

For more:

Exclusive: Source in Conan negotiations says deal ‘possible’ by the weekend