Jay Leno Tried and Failed to Make You Hate Matt Lauer a Little Less

Esther Zuckerman

Somewhere, Conan O'Brien and Ann Curry are laughing. Or crying. Last night NBC's two reigning on-camera villains, Jay Leno and Matt Lauer, came together on Leno's Tonight Show for a bit of cool comfort in NBC's latest public face-saving operation. But if this was an attempt to rehabilitate Lauer's image, it didn't really work. 

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Leno—and he should know—portrayed Lauer as the victim in the recent Today show debacle, asking him about how he's "holding up" after "taking a lot of hits in the press." Lauer responded that "it's been an interesting year," but then insisted that he's not complaining. "I love this job," Lauer said. "I really do." The crowd applauded. (Probably because the applause signs told them to.)

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We don't doubt that Lauer is telling the truth. He seems to love this job (or at least his paycheck) so much that he's willing to hold on to the Today gig — no matter how much he would have taken the "cyanide pill" (cough, cough NBC party line), and no matter what the cost to those around him (cough, cough "Operation Bambi").

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Leno also recast that whole story of Kathie Lee Gifford coming to Lauer's defense into a sweet story of support, when really it was something rather awkward. Gifford actually wanted to take out an ad in USA Today, but Lauer stopped her, and she instead gave an interview to the New York Daily News. Last night Lauer clarified as best fit his propaganda: "She is one of the dearest people," he said of Gifford, "and she's kind and she's compassionate and she's been there. My mother always told me in times of adversity you find out who your friends are. Kathie Lee is a great friend."

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The Tonight Show exchange was very simple but clouded with layers of irony. Leno, a man best known for ousting people in order to hold on to his job, sympathizing with Lauer, another man now best associated with getting someone out of his way. No one really feels bad for either of them. The only thing that separates these two is that the Today show is flailing as Tonight still somehow maintains its ratings dominance

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The segment ended with a discussion of whether or not Savannah Guthrie flipped Lauer off on television recently. Feels somehow fitting.