If you think the most recent late-night wars, between longtime Tonight Show host Jay Leno and his younger, funnier successor, Conan O’Brien, are over, you’ve got another think coming. While Leno may have his show back, Conan has amassed an army of fans, won the unconditional support of just about everyone on the Internet, launched a massively successful comedy tour, and is set to premiere a new series on TBS. With both careers still going strong, we don’t see this rivalry ending any time soon.
This weekend, both comedians made high-profile public appearances. While Leno addressed President Obama and the White House Correspondents Dinner, Conan opened up about the ordeal of losing his show on 60 Minutes. Who came out looking better? Watch video of both and check out our take after the jump.
Jay Leno at the White House Correspondents Dinner
We’re not sure anyone knows quite why Jay Leno, the Obama generation’s most unpopular man, ended up headlining the administration’s annual White House Correspondents Dinner. Sure, he’s safer than last year’s pick, Wanda Sykes. But would anyone argue that he’s funnier? His speech didn’t stray from the expected, and even President Obama (perhaps to win back some of the cred he lost by appearing with Leno in the first place) took a few digs at the man who killed The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.
Leno’s best zingers: Well, there was a joke about the First Lady’s hindquarters: “Michelle Obama has made child obesity one of her causes…She has started a more intense program. It’s called ‘Leave No Child With A Bigger Behind.’” Funny! Leno also noted that he was “the only person on the panel not subpoenaed by Rod Blagojevich.” Of course, the right-leaning comedian also managed to get in a terribly original “socialist” jab, telling the audience that Obama “loves to socialize. Health care, car companies.”
Obama’s best Leno quips: “I am glad that the only person whose ratings fell more than mine last year is here to night, great to see you Jay. I’m also glad I’m speaking first, because we’ve all seen what happens when somebody takes the time slot after Leno’s.”
Conan vs. Leno: Who won? Despite the fact that Conan didn’t even appear at this event, the combination of the president’s Leno jokes and Leno’s own bland humor means the point goes to Conan.
Conan O’Brien on 60 Minutes
Conan caught us slightly off guard on this week’s episode of 60 Minutes. In an unexpectedly candid and intimate conversation with Steve Kroft, he discussed everything from his shock at learning NBC’s plans for his show to his decision, after going off the air, to grow a beard. Although he wasn’t short on humor, Conan didn’t hide behind it, either, choosing instead to speak frankly about his bitterness, despite an agreement he made not to badmouth Leno or NBC in the press.
Conan’s best quotes:
On his new beard: “That was my small victory, you know. OK so I lost the Tonight Show but I’ll show them, I’ll stop shaving.”
On his post-Tonight Show state of mind: “I got very depressed at times. It was like a marriage breaking up suddenly, violently, quickly. And I was just trying to figure out what happened. When we started putting this tour together, I started to feel better almost immediately. And then this there is this, there is almost no better antidote to what I’ve just been through than to do this every night.”
On whether NBC wanted him to leave his show all along: “Uh, yeah, that’s crossed my mind. Again, I don’t know how thought out this whole thing was. But if they wanted me to leave, [thumb’s up] it worked.”
On Jay Leno thinking that he’s the one who “got screwed”: “How did he get screwed again? (LAUGHTER) Explain that part to me. I’m sorry. Jay’s got The Tonight Show. I have a beard and an inflatable bat. And I’m touring city to city. Who can (LAUGHTER) say who won and who lost? I’m laughing ’cause crying would be sad. “
On whether he’s heard from Leno recently: “No, I do not think I will be hearing from him We should get him in here.”
On what Leno must have been thinking: “It’s hard for me to get inside his head and argue his side of this whole thing. Here’s what I can say. I’m happy with my decision. I sleep well at night. And I, you know, hope he’s happy with his decision.”
On whether Leno handled the dispute honorably: “I don’t think I can answer that. I can just tell you maybe how I would have handled it. And I would do it differently.”
On moving to TBS: “I do not look down my nose at cable. And I think anyone who does isn’t paying attention to television these days. ‘Cause it is — this world is changing very quickly.”
On whether his six-month run was a failure: “My Tonight Show? No. Absolutely not.”
Conan vs. Leno: Who won? Conan managed to express entirely valid concerns about Leno without seeming small-minded (or violating his agreement). And his candor showed another, more serious but equally endearing side. This point, too, goes Conan.
FINAL SCORE: Conan 2; Leno 0.
Conan transcript via Deadline.