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Scott D. Pierce: Is backstabber Leno taking the high road?

Published April 8, 2013 11:33 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Is it possible that Jay Leno is going to leave "The Tonight Show" behind with a bit of grace and class?

I hope so. But that has not been his pattern.

Remember, he stabbed Johnny Carson in the back to get him out of the job. He stabbed his longtime pal, David Letterman, in the back to get the job. He also stabbed Conan O'Brien in the back to regain the job.

And just a couple of weeks ago, Leno joked that he had been backstabbed. He told of how doctors had removed a knife from a man's back. "Imagine that," he said. "The guy had a knife in his back for three years. He must have worked at NBC, too."

That lack of self-awareness is monumental.

It was no surprise when NBC announced that Leno will "retire" in 2014 and Jimmy Fallon will take over "The Tonight Show." Yes, Leno is still in first place in the ratings. But, apparently, the show isn't particularly profitable, in part because of Leno's $15 million annual salary.

Leno got some great publicity last fall for taking a 50 percent pay cut from his previous $30 million a year salary to save "Tonight Show" jobs.

Less publicized was that the staff had not been reduced after it was increased during Leno's ill-fated foray into prime time, and the show reportedly barely breaks even at the current staffing and salary levels because ratings have fallen significantly.

NBC execs are clearly hoping that Fallon will attract a younger audience that advertisers pay to reach. They're trying to head off a challenge from ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, who does well in that demographic.

Leno lovers and Leno himself have declared that unfair. That Leno is being stabbed in the back.

For the sake of argument, let's stipulate that what goes around, comes around.

"Congratulations, Jimmy," Leno said in a statement. "I hope you're as lucky as me and hold on to the job until you're the old guy. If you need me, I'll be at the garage."

Very classy.

But don't forget, Leno went on the air when it was announced that O'Brien was getting "The Tonight Show" and said, "I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor, and there is no one more qualified than Conan."

And look how that turned out.

This time, let's hope Leno really means it. Let's hope he retires from TV, makes millions doing stand-up and doesn't try to undercut Fallon to make another comeback. Or let's hope he doesn't try to find another network to take him, which will make him look angry and bitter.

Then, maybe all this late-night fighting will end. Fallon, Kimmel, O'Brien and David Letterman all get along. Kimmel, O'Brien and Letterman obviously don't much care for Leno.

And that kind of points to the problem.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.