Jay Leno revealed a degree of frustration with his NBC overseers when he and guest Craig Ferguson discussed the topic of late-night TV on “The Tonight Show” Friday night.
The guest appearance by Ferguson — who hosts another late-night show, “Late Late Show” on CBS — came just as news was breaking Friday evening about a clash between Leno and NBC’s top programming exec, Robert Greenblatt.
The news was breaking in New York at about the same time that “The Tonight Show” was taping in California. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we have a feeling Leno knew that the story was going to break when he and Ferguson had their chat about late-night television.
Here’s what happened:
First, the story, posted on the New York Times Web site at about 9:30 eastern time, revealed that Leno and Greenblatt recently exchanged a series of somewhat heated e-mails after Greenblatt objected to the many monologue jokes Leno has been doing lately about NBC’s nosedive in the ratings recently — to fifth place in the network rankings. As Leno has pointed out continuously for weeks, NBC’s prime time is now lower rated than Spanish-language Univision.
Among the jokes cited in the Times story that drew Greenblatt’s objection:
“For the first time in history NBC is going to finish fifth in the ratings period,” Leno said in one monologue. “We are behind the Spanish-language network Univision — or as we call it here in Los Angeles: Cinco de Ratings!”
“It’s so bad,” Leno said of NBC’s ratings situation in another joke, “[that] ‘The Biggest Loser’ isn’t just a TV show anymore; it’s our new motto!”
And, in another joke, Leno said: “It’s so bad, NBC called Manti Te’o and asked him to bring in some imaginary viewers!”
The Times story said Leno defended himself in his own e-mails to Greenblatt, citing the long tradition of late-night hosts — going back to Johnny Carson — lampooning their own networks.
So, while that story was breaking, Leno was taping his show, with guest Craig Ferguson. Bear in mind, neither Ferguson nor Leno brought up the e-mail story at all. Nor did they openly discuss the other story about Leno that broke early this month — that NBC is poised to announce a plan for Jimmy Fallon to replace Leno in summer 2014 (though NBC has denied that).
Instead, Leno and Ferguson got into a discussion about doing standup comedy outside of their television jobs. They agreed that going out on the road gives each of them a feeling of independence they don’t get on their late-night shows.
“I don’t know what your relationship is like with NBC,” Ferguson said to Leno, after Jay asked Craig how it’s going at CBS.
“I have a very good relationship with CBS and I know you have a very good relationship with NBC,” said Ferguson, who obviously knew that wasn’t true. “But I do like the feeling of being able to go and do standup just in case anything goes wrong and I have to earn a living outside of the world of [late-night TV] …”
“That’s true because when you do this show you don’t really know how you’re doing,” Leno said. And here’s the part we liked: “You get notes like this [Jay picks up a blue note card and reads], um, ‘You’re not doing well with immature boys between 11 and 14, so if you could do something … ’ So you don’t really know!”
By contrast, Leno said of his outside standup work, “When you go out on the road, they laugh, you get your check, you move on. You don’t get the network notes.”
“Yeah, you’re autonomous,” Ferguson said.
Leno has been joking about the Fallon replacement rumors all week in his monologues (see our previous stories above). And on Friday night, even before the segment with Ferguson, Leno made another NBC joke — demonstrating that he refuses to be silenced by angry e-mails from the higher-ups. “You know what today is?” Leno asked, setting up the joke. “Today [March 15] is the Ides of March. This is when Julius Caesar was stabbed in the back by the people he trusted. Not a good day to be working at NBC!”