Jay Leno contrived a self-referential joke from the news that Matt Lauer had signed a new contract to stay with NBC’s “Today” show.
As you’ll see, if you watch the above clip from Monday night’s “Tonight Show” on NBC, Leno’s Lauer joke (coming near the end of the clip) reveals that Jay still feels he was mistreated when NBC replaced him with Conan O’Brien back in June 2009.
Leno’s Monday joke about Lauer went like this: “Congratulations to our good friend, Matt Lauer! He is staying at the ‘Today Show.’ We are very happy about that. Of course, he’s staying! The show is Number One, he’s Number One, he worked hard … Why would NBC possibly ever screw up a magic formula like that? Doesn’t make any sense! It makes no sense at all!”
The studio audience and viewers watching at home understood clearly that Jay was referring to his own situation in the years leading up to the Conan takeover of “The Tonight Show.” He too had “worked hard” and maintained “The Tonight Show’s” position as “Number One” in late-night television.
And yet, NBC got him to agree back in 2004 that he would relinquish “The Tonight Show” and turn it over to Conan in 2009. And as the turnover date approached, the TV industry wondered if NBC would go through with the plan, since “The Tonight Show” was still the time period’s top-rated show and Leno was arguably NBC’s biggest star — in any time period.
And yet, NBC made the move anyway, Jay moved to prime time for that short-lived variety show every weeknight at 10/9c, and “The Tonight Show” lost viewers with Conan. We all know how the story ended: Conan was out and Jay was brought back in.
The thing I still don’t understand: Monday night’s monologue joke, and a number of jokes and public statements that came in the months before the 2009 turnover, all indicated that Jay was unhappy with NBC’s “Tonight Show” succession plan. And yet, Jay was a party to that plan — at least that’s what everyone said publicly back in 2004 when it was announced. Maybe the truth was that he was reluctant to agree to the plan and NBC more or less forced him to concede.
Who knows? One thing’s for certain, Jay’s getting the last laugh.