Don't Blame Jay or Conan -- Blame Jeff Zucker!

For a situation involving people who make light of things for a living, the Mexican stand-off between Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno has become remarkably acrimonious. Comedians from David Letterman to Jimmy Kimmel to Howard Stern have rushed into the fray on O'Brien's behalf, accusing Leno of working hand-in-glove with the suits at NBC Universal to crush his Tonight Show successor's hopes. Meanwhile, Leno, who normally shows about as much fang as a newborn, took personal shots at both O'Brien and Letterman Tuesday night, calling the former "overrated" and invoking the latter's recent infidelity admission.Letterman, who has no personal stake in the matter other than his apparently-unresolved resentment over losing the Tonight Show job back in 1992, has been a particularly acerbic critic of Leno's. In a lengthy sit-down segment last night, he skewered Leno for urging his viewers not to blame O'Brien for the present ugliness. "No one is blaming Conan," Letterman said, witheringly.

And that's true enough. But why, exactly, are so many people blaming Leno? No doubt if he were to decline the network's offer to restore him to his old 11:35 p.m. time slot, NBC would have no choice but to give O'Brien a longer time to prove himself, but is that really fair to expect of him? Things would be different if it were revealed, as Letterman and Stern seem to suspect, that Leno has been whispering in NBC Universal chairman Jeff Zucker's ear this whole time, but until evidence that he did so emerges, doesn't he deserve the benefit of the doubt?

A lot of the disagreement about who's right and who's wrong here has to do with different and incompatible codes. O'Brien and his supporters are viewing everything through a lens of friendship and tribal loyalty: You don't do something that screws another member of your clan, even if it means accepting a sacrifice. "Comics on the whole support each other," Rosie O'Donnell, no fan of Leno's, is quoted in the New York Observer saying.

Leno, meanwhile, is treating this as a business situation: NBC is seeking a supplier of late-night comedy, and it's free to choose the one it likes best; the suppliers, meanwhile, are free to ask whatever price they choose for their services. The only ethics that apply are those of the free market, where enlightened self-interest brings the greatest benefit to all. (It's probably no coincidence that Leno is a Republican while most comedians tend to vote Democratic.)

Leno isn't necessarily being phony, therefore, when he exhorts his viewers not to "blame Conan" (although his plea would be more convincing if he didn't follow it up with mean-spirited mockery). As he sees it, O'Brien, too, is only pursuing his own self-interest -- a pursuit that will likely carry him to Fox, where, perhaps, he'll create a show that will take a bite out of The Tonight Show's ratings.

But that doesn't mean there's no one blameworthy in this whole mess. If you're looking for a villain, you can always finger Zucker, whose consistent inability to anticipate the desires of either his talent or NBC's audience was responsible for this cock-up. Unlike O'Brien and Leno, Zucker is a corporate officer, and therefore responsible for safeguarding not only his own interests but those of his shareholders. Some job he's done of that.
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