Not many late-night hosts would take a pay cut to help keep their staff from facing layoffs due to budget cuts. No matter what you think of Jay Leno's reputation in the late-night arena, his move to cut his own pay in favor of keeping production staff is a move other hosts might never do. Conversely, if the cuts are over some of "The Tonight Show" writers, why doesn't Leno lend his pay toward hiring more astute bards of comedy?
Say what you want about Leno's brand of comedy serving the "everyman": The material since the host's return has been subpar compared to what Letterman and the rest are still doing. This isn't to say that any of the writing within the network late-night arena is as cutting edge as it was when Letterman and Leno first started. You can especially say that as "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" replay in late night hours for most time zones.
That might give enough concern to "The Tonight Show," even if it's still deemed the #1 show in late-night TV. Yet such budget cuts for a supposed top show might sound akin to a new way to broach the idea that "The Tonight Show" needs some changes. Despite all the #1 talk, far too many viewers are still unhappy with what happened during the Conan O'Brien ouster as host, including viewers who've made Letterman win the time slot more than once in the last year.
No doubt it's a conundrum for NBC execs to approach Leno about stepping aside for a new host at a time when the show mostly wins its slot. The same can apply to recommending that Leno hire better writers to up the comedy game. With Leno having to forfeit some of his own pay, it might be a slight hint from the suits of what more could happen to take the show over the top should someone new not take over.
I've already suggested Rove McManus as the logical successor to "The Tonight Show." His brand of comedy has a fresh edge that would beat everybody in the entire late-night landscape if given the chance. Let's only hope Rove isn't being cut from his current recurring comedy bits on "The Tonight Show" as a form of unpleasant irony.
The next best step for Leno is realizing what the future holds and announce permanent retirement by 2014 at the latest. By that time, Letterman may be retiring and can set up a new guard of Rove v. Craig Ferguson in the 11:35PM slot. Such a winning late-night showdown would bring in more than enough money for Rove (and Ferguson) to a point of no budget concern.
If Jay Leno learns anything here it's that a top show working on a lean budget usually equals low morale. "The Tonight Show" simply can't afford to have writers who think in mediocre terms combined with no motivation to be better creatively.