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At first blush, it looks like a pretty damn edgy move for the White House Correspondents’ Association to choose Jay Leno, the current supervillain of late night, to speak at their dinner this year. They even announced it on the day of Conan’s last show.
You forget, this is the White House Correspondents’ Association. They’re not big fans of edgy. According to Association President Edwin Chen, the choice of Leno (unlike, presumably, the timing of the announcement) was only accidentally timely.
According to Chen, a White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, he asked Leno to take the job months ago, back when he was merely the host of a low-rated network talk show facing a talent boycott. Still, his new status probably hasn’t hurt him with the DC establishment.
Sister publication Newsweek may see him as a “pitiable” figure with a “stench” clinging to him, but Washington Post media pundit Howard Kurtz is pretty sure Leno is the big winner of the late-night wars. Kurtz, always a reliable overflow channel for the cliffdweller zeitgeist, explained on CBS this morning why Leno is made of win here: “I know he’s gotten badly bruised, his nice-guy image not quite intact, but he gets to go back to ‘The Tonight Show,’ at 11:30, where he was No. 1 for so many years. I think he’ll probably win back most of his audience, although some people may have developed habits of watching some of the competition.”
So let’s review the bidding: Leno graciously agrees to leave the job his agent knifed him into on five year’s notice. Then he puts the casts and crews of five hours of network programming on his own network out of business for a low-cost vanity project competing with dozens of other hours of network programming, which project fails so badly that NBC affiliates revolt because his lead in is gutting the ratings for their local newscasts.
So then Leno, instead of falling on his sword the way you’d sort of expect someone who refers to himself as a team player the way most people use punctuation, offers his services to NBC to fix the ratings on the Tonight Show, something he could have done by walking away from his contract and letting the ten o’clock hour go to programming people actually watched, but this is, you know, better.
So his nice guy image may not “quite” be intact, but he won. Which makes him bruised, but the winner, because the people who have issues with his behavior (especially, Howie says, Conan) are losers. And besides, Edwin Chen says the Obamas like Leno a lot.
Expect a standing ovation at the dinner, certainly at Senator Lieberman’s table.