Cultural historians are desperately seeking a precedent to the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien fiasco. They are looking in the wrong places. True, Pat Sajak, Chevy Chase and Joan Rivers all got axed from late-night talk shows after shockingly brief stints at the helm, but none of them got $32.5 million to take a hike. And none of them got replaced by the person they had replaced. And none of them pouted about getting canned for general incompetence while millions of their countrymen—who had not actually failed at their jobs—were unable to find work.
No, the most appropriate parallel to the debacle that has humiliated NBC took place in central Europe in the late 1930s. It happened at Munich.
Jay Leno, much like Adolf Hitler, is a master of making secret demands for foreign territory and then acting like the wronged party. First he pretended that he wanted to annex only the first half-hour of Mr. O'Brien's "Tonight Show." Here he was mimicking Hitler, who insisted that he merely wanted to annex the German-speaking Sudetenland, not all of Czechoslovakia.
Then, adopting the craven British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as a role model, NBC stabbed Mr. O'Brien in the back by agreeing to let Mr. Leno reoccupy the first segment of his old "Tonight Show" slot. NBC's defense was that Mr. O'Brien had dismal ratings, and the show was a bit of a mess. But the same can be said about Czechoslovakia, a hodgepodge cobbled together after the First World War that never really got its act together.
Returning from Munich, Chamberlain joyously waved a piece of paper in the air and proclaimed that the accord with Hitler guaranteed peace in our time. Returning to Burbank, NBC officials expected the same result from its deal with Messrs. Leno and O'Brien.
Here's where the parallels become even more eerie. In acquiescing to Mr. Leno's sotto voce demands to annex one-half of "The Tonight Show," NBC thought it could put the whole ugly controversy to rest. Wrong. Interpreting generosity as weakness, Mr. Leno began to maneuver for complete control of "The Tonight Show." Here he was again taking his cue from der Fuhrer, manipulating his outgunned adversary into a position so humiliating he literally had no choice but to surrender. Just as Edward Beneš, president of Czechoslovakia, was forced to abandon ship once he had been betrayed by his erstwhile allies, Mr. O'Brien was forced to abdicate and cede his entire one-hour program to the man he had replaced. He did get a significantly bigger going-away present than Beneš, however.
Today, NBC—much like Chamberlain—is daft enough to believe that Mr. Leno's demands will now cease. If history is any guide, this is unlikely. After pocketing Czechoslovakia, Hitler immediately took dead aim at Poland. Using the same game plan, Mr. Leno will soon go after Jimmy Fallon, who follows "The Tonight Show," quite possibly demanding that NBC expand "Tonight" to its original 90-minute length.
Just as Hitler sought to return Germany to its prewar stature by acquiring Austria and the Sudetenland, Mr. Leno will seek to restore "The Tonight Show" to the mythical stature it enjoyed under his predecessor. Hitler wanted to be thought of as the second coming of Frederick Barbarossa. Mr. Leno wants to be thought of as the second coming of Johnny Carson. Joey Bishop might be more appropriate.
And just as Hitler made his annexation of Austria appear to be the Austrians' idea, Mr. Leno will need Mr. Fallon to invite him to assume command of the show. Perhaps NBC can offer him the same $32.5 million Mr. O'Brien got, and an extra $10 million not to kick up a fuss. At this point, who's counting?
Some may say that drawing comparisons between Jay Leno and Adolf Hitler is unfair. These people have obviously not been paying attention to the horrible things Messrs. O'Brien and Leno have been saying about each other the past two weeks. It's enough to make Josef Stalin blush. No, the more you look at it, the more disturbing the parallels between today's Los Angeles and yesterday's Munich seem.
NBC probably believes that once Mr. Leno controls both late-night television and late-late night television, his dreams of global conquest will be sated. Well, everyone knows what happened in the Danzig Corridor in 1939.
So if you're anchoring the 11 p.m. news program that precedes "The Tonight Show," don't get too comfortable. The blitzkrieg is right around the corner. And you're Poland.