Jay Leno Does Damage Control

Don't cry for Coco. Granted, following weeks of speculation, Conan O'Brien will finish his truncated run as the host of NBC's Tonight Show following this evening's swan song. And, yes, he'll be out of work until September, which is the earliest he can return to television per the terms of his settlement, which also stipulates a penalty payout of $45 million for Conan and his staff. But of all the characters in NBC's late-night imbroglio, Conan isn't the guy we should be feeling bad for. It's Jay Leno who is the pitiable one.

Despite Jay's best efforts to lambaste NBC's mismanagement of the situation, the stench will hang onto him, if only because he's the public face of Conan's displacement. (Would anyone be able to identify a photo of Jeff Zucker in a "Jaywalking" segment?) The person who has to shoulder the weight of the backlash is Jay, regardless of whether his role in the contretemps was of the cackling mastermind or merely the all-too-eager beneficiary of Conan's misfortune. The clause in Conan's contract that mandates his time off the air is actually a blessing disguised in legalese: it's an eight-month palate cleanser, which is a luxury Jay (who returns to Tonight on March 1) doesn't have.

It's possible that none of this will radically affect Jay's triumphant return. He still has a loyal following, and will quickly be able to outpace Conan's ratings, since he'll have a lead-in who is not named Jay Leno. But if the hope is to return Jay to his place as the King of Late Night, he needs a new message. Because while the superfans are dividing themselves into Team Jay and Team Coco, there's a not-insignificant number of late-night viewers who aren't terribly particular. They want a brisk, bruising, topical monologue, some celebrity jawing, maybe a musical guest or some freaky animals, and they don't necessarily care if it comes from Jay or David Letterman. They are the undecided voters, if you will, those who can be swayed by a high-profile guest, a well-timed promo, or a viral disaster interview.

These viewers can be had, but not by a guy they hate. In order to consistently win those viewers, the ones with which a ratings victory is forged, Jay will have to ensure that this unfortunate affair hasn't irrevocably besmirched his nice-guy image. He can accomplish this by using the following damage-control tips:

Stop saying you got "fired." If he does nothing else, Jay needs to drop the F-bomb from his vocabulary immediately. When the country's unemployment rate is mud-stuck at around 10 percent, it's not a minor thing for Jay to complain about having been "fired" when the result of said termination was him still making a zillion dollars by working at the place he was employed before he was "fired." The other result, of course, is that Conan actually lost his job. Jay certainly doesn't have to sit idly by and let himself be made the villain, but playing the victim isn't going to work either. In fact, it'll only make matters worse.

Don't tussle with Dave. Schools of piranha attack with less ferocity than with which David Letterman has chewed up his old rival. Despite his own admission that he doesn't have a dog in the fight, Letterman has delighted in using Jay for target practice, telling his audience, "I'm telling jokes and making fun of Jay Leno relentlessly, mercilessly, simply for one reason: I'm really enjoying it." Then, earlier this week, Jay hit him back where he lives: "You know the best way to get Letterman to ignore you? Marry him." While the temptation to retaliate is understandable, Jay has to remember that engaging with Dave only reminds people that Conan isn't the first guy whose job he's taken. The only way to float above the fray is to grin and bear the potshots until the whole thing blows over.

Blame the "experiment." The relationship between Conan and NBC is so hostile at this point, there's no way NBC will resist the urge to trumpet Jay's numbers at the expense of Conan when Tonight's ratings recover. Jay can't do anything about the network's spin, but he can give some spin of his own. The new talking point: we tried something revolutionary, it didn't work, such is life. In other words, no grousing about how stupid the NBC execs are. That suit doesn't hang right on the guy who still has a job. And absolutely no more suggesting, as he did in an explanation of his side of things earlier this week, that Conan's ratings problems were of his own making. Merely: "Hey, we tried to move up the show to 10 and people didn't watch it. NBC wanted to move me back, and who am I to complain?"

Open his wallet. Perhaps the most unsettling detail of Conan's demise is that his staff will now be out of work, a staff that uprooted in its entirety from New York to Los Angeles so it could keep working together. Conan's NBC settlement provides severance for the employees, and Conan pitched in some extra money as well, according to his agent. Now Jay should toss some cash into the pot. Why? Because in his explanation of the situation, he suggested that while he didn't think the prime-time show was a good idea, he agreed to it in order to keep his 175-member staff employed. For a guy so concerned about the working man (and woman), he doesn't seem particularly considered about putting Conan's staff out of work. Contributing to the severance fund out of his own pocket would be a classy gesture.