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Plenty of reasons to just say no to Leno

NBC had a case of buyer’s remorse.

Roughly seven months after taking over "The Tonight Show," the new host wasn’t living up to expectations. But rather than wait for him to find his footing, NBC offered "The Tonight Show" to another host on its payroll.

David Letterman said no.

It was 1993, and after having been embarrassed by NBC, Letterman famously packed up, moved to CBS and carved out his own place in late-night.

And the fact that Jay Leno refused to follow Letterman’s example when presented with the almost exact scenario 17 years later — 17 years he would have spent toiling in various Knock-Knocks and Giggle Shacks across the country had Letterman not taken the high road — tells you pretty much all you need to know about the man.

But it’s only one of several reasons I won’t be watching when he resumes hosting the forever-tainted "Tonight Show" (11:35 p.m. Monday, KVBC-TV, Channel 3). And it’s one of several why you shouldn’t, either.

If you’ve ever been screwed over at work, don’t watch "The Tonight Show." Conan O’Brien passed up lucrative offers, waited five years and moved, along with his staff, across the country to take over "The Tonight Show," but NBC never really gave it to him. By putting Leno on in prime time, with more fanfare and better guests — not to mention giving viewers who just wanted to watch any talk show the chance to do that and get a decent night’s sleep — NBC set Conan up to fail from the start.

If you have any business sense whatsoever, don’t watch "The Tonight Show." During his last two weeks on the air, Conan stopped being intimidated by "The Tonight Show" and started making captivating television. While Leno’s ratings ticked up slightly, Conan’s surged. Then there was the "Evita"-style scene with hundreds of Conan fans rallying for hours in the driving rain outside his studio. By contrast, Leno played The Mirage two days earlier, only doing one show instead of his customary two, and the venue had to offer half-price tickets. And NBC still dumped its newly minted folk hero in favor of the weasel with whom only 4 percent of Oprah’s audience, some of the most forgiving viewers in the world, sided.

If you’ve ever been bullied, don’t watch "The Tonight Show." Between slamming Conan in the press when he’s contractually forbidden to respond and the tacky "Get back to where you once belonged" commercials for Leno, NBC’s behavior has bordered on the shameless.

If you’ve ever actually been fired, don’t watch "The Tonight Show." For someone who considers himself a man of the people, Leno’s whining about how NBC "fired" him twice has been surprisingly tone deaf. Especially considering he doesn’t even need the job, as he boasts of living solely off his stand-up money. Millions of Americans, including Conan, have genuinely lost their jobs over the past two years; Leno had his start time moved forward, then back, by 95 minutes.

If personal responsibility is important to you, don’t watch "The Tonight Show." When his manager at the time maneuvered Johnny Carson into retirement, Leno said he was shocked. When his move to prime time put a thousand or more people on other shows out of work, that was all NBC’s doing. And when it was announced he’d be replacing Conan, that was the fault of the network. Or the affiliates. Or Conan. Honestly, Leno cries "Not me!" more than those kids in "Family Circus."

If you care about honor, don’t watch "The Tonight Show." When "Joey" — NBC’s previous modern benchmark for disastrous programming — tanked, Matt LeBlanc didn’t shove Steve Carell aside and take over "The Office." Just as Conan didn’t try to steal his old "Late Night" job from Jimmy Fallon. They just went away. That’s what grown-ups do.

If you enjoy originality, don’t watch "The Tonight Show." "Jaywalking"? Stolen from Howard Stern. "Headlines"? That’s Letterman’s "Small Town News." Leno’s "Don’t Try This at Home"? You might remember it as Letterman’s "Stupid Human Tricks." Even the "Green Car Challenge," the Jar Jar Binks of late-night bits, is a watered-down version of "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car," a recurring segment on Britain’s "Top Gear," of which Leno is an admitted fan.

If you’ve ever taken a risk, don’t watch "The Tonight Show." Sure, some of Conan’s bits struck out, but that tends to happen when you swing for the fences. Leno, meanwhile, has been content slapping out singles for years, and you just know he’d still be making fun of Monica Lewinsky and O.J. if he thought he could get away with it.

If your attention span is longer than a drunken Snooki’s, don’t watch "The Tonight Show." Between all the feel-good patriotism of the Olympics and that bowing-down-to-Letterman Super Bowl spot, NBC is counting on viewers to have put the whole Conan mess behind them. But if you need a 21st-century rallying cry, forget the Alamo. Remember Conando!

I’m not suggesting you watch Letterman. Or Jimmy Kimmel. Or even George Lopez.

You could catch up on your DVR list. Talk to your significant other. Read a book, if you’re desperate.

Just, for the love of all that’s good and decent in the world, don’t watch "The Tonight Show."

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com.

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