Tonight Show Shakeup: As NBC Grooms A Younger Jimmy Fallon, Media Finally Defends Jay Leno

Paging Team Jay?

Ever since the New York Times’ Bill Carter reported that NBC is courting Jimmy Fallon to replace Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show,” there are signs that the normally critical levels of Leno hate on the Internet may finally be stabilizing.

The longtime host is rumored to be leaving the program in fall 2014, when his contract expires. As first reported by the Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters on March 1, the popular theory is that Leno is being pushed out. NBC executives are apparently afraid that Jimmy Kimmel’s move to the 11:35 p.m. time slot on ABC -- which put him in direct competition with Leno -- will ultimately erode Leno’s audience in the coveted 18 - 49 demographic, around which virtually every executive decision in the television industry is based.

Leno, it should be noted, is still the late-night ratings champ, but at 62, he’s decidedly less fresh than Kimmel, who at 45 has built up a loyal following among younger viewers. But what’s interesting about the news of Leno’s departure is that Leno is now discovering something he had very little of in the past: people willing to come to his defense.

New York magazine’s Josef Adalian wrote on Wednesday that NBC would simply be “crazy” to let Leno go. Citing Leno’s decades-long tenure, during which he has consistently stayed at No. 1 in the ratings, Adalian wrote that Peacock execs will likely live to regret their decision to push Leno out -- particularly at a time when the network has so few hit shows. “There’s a temptation to think that Fallon, who's younger and hipper, would automatically boost NBC’s numbers,” Adalian wrote. “But that’s what NBC thought would happen when Conan replaced Jay. It didn't.”

And Adalian isn’t the only one cheering for Team Jay. BuzzFeed’s Richard Rushfield called the proliferation of Leno hating among media insiders an “official religion,” saying essentially that people both in and out of the TV industry want to see Leno punished for his success. “[To get to No. 1] on a network that for most of the past decade has been America’s longest running car wreck is a feat worthy of a Marvel comics superhero,” Rushfield wrote. “And what has been Leno’s thanks for this? A constant, never ceasing demand from the chattering classes that he be replaced.”   

To be sure, the sizable number of celebrities and media pundits who don’t like Leno is well-documented. Some high-profile Lenogynists, like Howard Stern, simply decided a long time ago that liking David Letterman meant one cannot like Leno. Others have never forgiven Leno for stealing “Tonight” out from under Letterman's nose more than two decades ago. And still others began to sour on Leno after the more recent debacle with Conan O’Brien, who was given less than a year to prove himself before NBC execs tossed him out of the “Tonight” chair and returned Leno to his post. This summer, following an observation that not even offering to take a pay cut in order to save his staff could earn Leno any love, the Globe and Mail called the host “the most hated man in television right now.”

In some sense, the criticism of Leno is understandable. The tepid host admittedly lacks a coolness factor in comparison to his late-night counterparts. And that lack of cultural cachet, like all things pop culture, is reflected on Twitter, where Leno has a mere 519, 197 followers versus Jimmy Fallon’s 8.1 million, Conan O’Brien’s 8 million and Jimmy Kimmel’s 2.3 million. Letterman refuses to tweet at all, which may make him the coolest of the lot.

Granted, Jay Leno’s new victimhood status in his ongoing battle with NBC top brass is not winning over everyone. The Los Angeles Times’ Robin Abcarian, who clearly doesn’t get the concept that the job description of a late-night host includes telling jokes, wrote that she was downright insulted by Leno’s recent monologues in which he’s been firing zingers at the expense of NBC executives. “You gotta be impressed by a guy whose paycheck is in the several-kajillion-dollar range and can nevertheless stand on a stage in front of millions of people and call his bosses ‘snakes,’” Abcarian wrote.

Despite such objections, Leno was at it again on Wednesday night, taking a shot at NBC’s programming choices as he addressed the rumors of his departure. “Actually the rumors are true,” Leno said on the show. “NBC is turning ‘The Tonight Show’ into a diving competition.”

See the full monologue below.

Expect more jokes at NBC’s expense in the coming days and weeks. Seeing how Leno may not have this platform for long, what does he have to lose?

Got a news tip? Send me an email. Follow me on Twitter: @christopherzara

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