Comedy Darwinism: Survival of the funniest

KINGS OF COMEDY: Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno on the premiere episode of NBC’s ill-fated “Jay Leno Show” last September.

JAY AND JERRY ARE TWO PEAS IN AN EXCLUSIVE POD

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Jan. 19, 2010 — The most revealing commentary on the whole NBC/Leno/Conan mess came from Jerry Seinfeld.

It revealed all you needed to know about show business.

Seinfeld, who is so wealthy and successful that he can be as honest as he feels like, laid it on the line: Conan O’Brien wasn’t good enough, so he got yanked.

“What did the network do to him?” Seinfeld shot back when a reporter at the Winter TV Press Tour in Pasadena earlier this month probed for Jerry’s opinion on whether NBC wasn’t being fair to O’Brien.

“I don’t think anyone’s preventing people from watching Conan,” said Seinfeld, demolishing the complaint from Conan’s camp that poor lead-ins from local news and Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. show hurt the ratings for Conan’s “Tonight Show.”

“Once they give you the cameras, it’s on you,” Seinfeld said.  “I can’t blame NBC for having to move things around. I hope Conan stays — I think he’s terrific. But there’s no rules in show business, there’s no refs.”

The lesson learned?  Show business is a dog-eat-dog world.  And at the top of one segment of show business — the comedy business — there is only room for a few.  And those few are more likely to respect those who came up the hard way than those, like Conan, who didn’t.

Seinfeld happens to be one of the ones who paid his dues; Jay Leno is another, which might help explain why these two are friends, or at least as close to being “friends” as two people can be in their business, assuming they never wind up competing for the same thing, which hasn’t happened to them yet.

Conan O’Brien, a Harvard-educated comedy writer from “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live,” didn’t come up the hard way in the manner of Leno and Seinfeld.  They worked for years in malodorous comedy clubs — the places Seinfeld once characterized (in his 2002 documentary film, “Comedian”) as the “smelly gyms” of show business.

O’Brien didn’t rise through the ranks — he leapt over them when he was plucked from obscurity by Lorne Michaels to take over NBC’s “Late Night” when David Letterman left, one of the most unlikely and improbable lucky breaks ever recorded in the history of show business.

In the Darwinistic world of the comedy business, lucky breaks such as the one awarded Conan are an alien concept, which is why comedians such as Seinfeld and Leno will never admit a lucky break recipient such as Conan O’Brien into their exclusive circle.

In fact, if comedy has a hierarchy, Leno and Seinfeld are the business’ top dogs, measured especially by the yardstick that matters most, which is earning power.  They live in a rarefied world in which they two may be the only two residents.  Even Letterman, who paid his dues in the comedy clubs so many years ago, today eschews the live performances from which Seinfeld and Leno still make their bread and butter.

Seinfeld, swimming in residual money from the eternal rerun plays of his eponymous sitcom, and Leno, who makes so much money from live performances that he claims to bank his six-figure weekly paychecks from NBC and then never touches the money, are two peas in a unique pod.

Seinfeld was Leno’s first guest on “The Jay Leno Show” last September.  Seinfeld wore a tux, as if to say: Here at the pinnacle of show business, here is how we dress; it’s OK for the rest of you peons to go casual.  But not me.  (Leno wore his usual business suit and tie.)

Leno appeared in Seinfeld’s “Comedian” documentary and Seinfeld was Leno’s first phone call in 2004 when NBC proposed that he relinquish “The Tonight Show” to Conan O’Brien in 2009.  Seinfeld, playing the role of comedy godfather, apparently advised Leno to say yes.

“I called up my buddy, Jerry Seinfeld,” Leno said on “The Tonight Show” on Sept. 27, 2004, explaining why he agreed with NBC’s plan to replace him in five years with O’Brien — the news of which had broken earlier that day.

“I said, ‘Jerry what do you think?’ . . .  Jerry quit his show when it was the most popular, and I’m proud to say [“The Tonight Show’] show has been No. 1 and we’ll keep it No. 1 and then in ’09 I’ll say, ‘Conan, take it over, it’s yours,’ ’cause, you know, you can do these things until they carry you out on a stretcher or you can get out when you know you’re still doing good,” Leno said, the words seeming to pour out of him.

Carried out on a stretcher?  Dragged off by a team of wild horses was how Letterman put it back then when he commented on the transition plan two days later on his own show, “Late Show” on CBS.

“[Leno has] quit ‘The Tonight Show’,” Letterman said, setting up a joke.  “Jay Leno is leaving ‘The Tonight Show’ . . . He’s going to be gone in five years.  You know what this does?  It saves NBC the cost of a team of wild horses, that’s what that does!”

Now that Leno’s returning to “The Tonight Show,” NBC might have to reserve that team of wild horses after all.

Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com

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