Et tu, Hasty Pudding Theatricals? By naming Jay Leno as 2010 Man of the Year, the organization unnecessarily insulted alumnus and unofficial Harvard goodwill ambassador Conan O’Brien ’85.
Conan is right now one of the most popular Harvard grads this side of Natalie Portman. His bright red coif is a symbol of the wry, goofy persona that makes him beloved among the non-retirees who watch late night comedy. The Hasty Pudding, however, has bestowed its annual honor on his dastardly foil and comedic inferior, Jay Leno, only a year after their public battle over NBC airwaves.
For those who missed the ruckus, Leno was widely portrayed as conniving during last year’s highly-publicized conflict over the scheduling of NBC’s comedy line-up. Leno, who had hosted the flaghsip “Tonight Show” for 12 years, agreed to hand over the program’s reins to O’Brien in 2009. The network wanted to entice O’Brien not to jump to a bigger role on another channel when his contract expired. Fanfare soon surrounded the revitalized “Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.”
However, “The Jay Leno Show” quickly fizzled and lured few viewers away from the primetime’s popular crime dramas and game shows. Conan’s ratings were also down, and only eight months after the shift, the network announced it would move both Leno and O’Brien back to their old times. The move was a betrayal of the network’s promise to the comic redhead, and O’Brien’s supporters suspected a power play by a big-chinned wisecracker who was not ready to step aside for the next generation.
A public feud between O’Brien and the network ensued, ending with O’Brien leaving the network, contractually exiled from television. Leno does not deserve sole blame for the incident—it was horribly mismanaged by the corporation—but in the public arena he was understood to have betrayed O’Brien. The slogan “I’m With Coco” prevailed as comics and fans alike aligned with O’Brien and against Leno and NBC. O’Brien is now back on the air nightly with Conan on TBS, and Leno is hosting a diminished Tonight Show. No one emerged unscathed from the battle, but Leno came out looking like a usurper of the throne.
After being president of the Lampoon at Harvard, O’Brien went on to write for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons” before he established himself as one of the most powerful and likeable forces in comedy on “Late Night.” Harvard has benefitted from its association with him ever since, reinforced by the fact that the Class of 2000 chose him to speak at their Class Day before graduation.
Only a year after the dust settled from the late-night ordeal, Harvard should defend its noble Celtic graduate. There are a dwindling number of Harvard men and women in the public realm who are popularly liked and revered by the masses—even Barack Obama is barely scraping by with a 50.5 percent approval rating—and we should be loyal to those who make the rest of us here look good.
With all this in mind, I ask of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals: Why, of all people, Jay Leno? He is a recognizable name, and bringing in celebrities enhances the Man of the Year event and theoretically enriches our community. But in this case they confuse fame with notoriety. No matter how much his chops are busted during the ceremonial roast, Leno does not deserve such an honorific from anyone, least of all the alma mater of his honorable nemesis. In fact, if America took a vote for “2010 Jerk of the Year Award,” Leno would likely be in close contention with Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange. (2009’s award would be split between Kanye “Imma Let You Finish But…” West and Rep. Joe “You Lie!” Wilson).
When Conan spoke at the 2000 Class Day, he delivered a spin on a graduation cliché: “If you can laugh at yourself loud and hard every time you fall, people will think you’re drunk.” Upon his departure from NBC, he inspired again with another bleak aphorism: “You can do anything you want in life. Unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.”
Sam N. Adams ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Thayer Hall.