Or, "Jay Leno is the Enemy."
I love late night television. It is a genre of comedy in and of itself. It is also historically significant to television history. This is where personalities and greats and immortal figures of pop culture come from. It is the system of circulation for movies, tv, music, books, whatever. And when it gets into dramatic politics, it is just as riveting as election season.
Maybe I'm just spending too much energy thinking about the affairs of millionaires, but the drama of the day, Conan O'Brien vs. Jay Leno & NBC, is a fun, delicious distraction. It starts, as always, with The Tonight Show. The Tonight Show was the holy temple of American Comedy and an institution in our culture. There's a prestige to that chair and desk. Not a lot of shows have been around for so long. For any comedian who went on to reach mega-fame, Carson's Tonight Show was the gate through which that happened. For bands who got to play the show out, it was confirmation that they had made it.
Then sometime in 1991, Johnny Carson retires, picks David Letterman to takeover, but Jay Leno gets it instead and David jumps ship to CBS, where he has since built his own late night empire. It's a thrilling tale of big media power struggles, if you're into that sort of thing. What's interesting is to see the story continue to play out.
When the mantle was handed to Conan O'Brien, it was one of the few big pop culture rituals we have left. A passing of the torch of King Jester of America, if you will. There was also something positive about it being a "bloodless" transfer of power, proof that underneath all the laughs it wasn't just politics and the dreaded vampire of showbiz. A new era in comedy culture was on the horizon.
I've never been a Jay Leno fan. Partially because I'm under the age of 60, and partially because I am as Letterman-bound as you can get. As a child, he was one of my first exposures to real comedy — not Looney Toons slapstick, although that has a heart of its own, but actual joke-telling, traditional American comedy. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that The Late Show with David Letterman was a keystone piece in developing my sense of humor. The man, in his earlier days, was every bit as ludicrous, audacious, innovative and edgy in every facet of his show. From his legendary off-the-cuff spots with Harvey Pekar to his legendary encounters with Andy Kaufmann & Jerry Lawler to his brilliant-dumb velcro suit stunts. He may have rest on his laurels more often today, but he deserves it, and will always be one of the immortal greats.
Jay Leno is the opposite. Jay Leno, or at least Jay Leno humor, is in my mind the catalyst to the downfall of the Tonight Show's prestige. He rose to the top thanks to Hugh Grant getting caught with a prostitute and then appearing on his show anyway. He held the audience and has been king ever since. All the while, doing the same schtick where he reads typos in the newspaper, or finding dumb people on the street to say something dumb. Jay Leno isn't just unfunny. His comedy lacks heart and soul, thus making it difficult to connect to.
Jay Leno tells jokes that people clap to instead of laughing, as if to say, "Yes, I recognize this as humor." I don't even think the audience registers it as funny or unfunny, they're just playing their role. Leno's role is to set up, punchline, then the audience claps poltely and they all move on to the next one, like people completing a call & response at a concert. When I say joke, you go clap. Joke. Clap. Joke. Clap.
There's a tangible generation gap here. The only people I can imagine being Leno loyalists are middle-of-the-road baby boomers that value predictability. I know there's something ageist about that, but there's something ageist about thinking Leno is a better host & comedian than Conan O'Brien. There is a large segment of the older population that likes Jay because he doesn't say anything while this Conan guy is way too energetic and sometimes has a guy in a bear suit that masturbates.
So when Conan became the new captain of the Tonight Show, it was a great moment. Jay Leno would retire to his 200 car garage and we wouldn't have to be slathered in his sandwich spread of mediocrity ever again. Until he realized he didn't want to retire, and for fear of him going to a rival network, NBC gave him a show leading in to Conan at 10 PM. Which was kinda weird, because why are you diluting the Tonight Show with another show very close to it, but earlier? Why are you voting no confidence in Conan's new ship by having the old captain sailing in front of him? It was bizarre, uncomfortable, and unfortunate.
Then this shit happens. Jay Leno at 10 fails because it's up against popular dramas like CSI, and it hurts the ratings for the local news, which the affiliates need, which in-turn hurts Conan's Tonight Show. So NBC puts Jay back at 11:30 and Conan refuses to be bumped to midnight because that's not what the Tonight Show is for.
The most exciting thing to watch, on par with the most outrageous Presidential elections, was the rallying around Conan from not just his fans, but from his colleagues in the late night talk show host business. Craig Ferguson, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel all simultaneously shit on Jay Leno and it was a tremendously exciting week in television. It was akin to big comic book crossovers, where suddenly Batman and Superman live in the same universe. I mean, to be able to flip on any network and see people ripping on Leno? What vindication! What wonder! Jimmy Kimmel even got a wig and fake chin and hosted the show as Jay Leno, making awful jokes about boring typos and having his band do a cheesy riff after every punchline. It was an astoundingly ballsy and a hell of a burn.
Although he may have won his old show back, Jay Leno seems like a toxic asset. There is no saving face for NBC or Leno for a while. Part of that is Leno trying to play the victim on his own show, like some sort of sore winner. He made a joke about how he got cancelled after 4 months, as if it was such a blow to his ego to be given his old seat back, with more prestige and viewers. It rang with the same hollowness of a millionaire trying to convince you that he doesn't really in fact have a lot of money, why, he even had to sell two of his vacation homes.
If you're NBC, this is the worst time for a power struggle to erupt because the sad state of the world allows people to distract themselves and latch onto this drama. It feeds into the wider frustrations we have with our lives, today: our bosses, our goals, our dream jobs, our bullies, our losses, the talent we feel we have and the things we might deserve because of it. Even if we don't have anything to do with Conan O'Brien or Jay Leno or NBC, it's an outlet for our dissatisfaction so that maybe, in one very public case, we can make sure the arc of justice bends the way we want it to.
Well, okay, it's not really about these things. It's really about million dollar deals and showbiz status.
Yet for the average fan, when we see the drama unfolding, we can't help but project our own woes to relate to our celebrities doing battle. It's a guy we like and a guy we don't like, who have always played nice until, at long last, not anymore. Whether it's fair or not, Jay Leno and NBC have come to be stand-ins for the ills of our time. It couldn't have happened to a more mediocre guy.