Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Early last week the New York Times reported that Jay Leno was back in first place, ratings-wise, in network late-night. This may not be the proudest moment in the history of the American TV-viewing public. But it’s quite an achievement for Leno, coming less than three months since the departure of his ill-fated replacement on The Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien, a likable, genial fellow & brilliant writer of & performer in sketch comedy who’s never really seemed at ease as an interviewer.

It’s strange to remember it now, but in the early ‘80s Jay Leno was the hip cutting edge of stand-up comedy. I was in college at the time, & an insufferably enthusiastic fan of Late Night with David Letterman on NBC. When Leno was Letterman’s guest, as he was pretty frequently in those days... was a special occasion that I’d make a particular effort to see. I cut short a trip to Toronto with my girlfriend in 1984 because I had tickets to see Leno perform at the Warner Theatre in my hometown of Erie, Pa., & was crushed when the show was cancelled.

Leno, who at the time was a close friend of, & acknowledged influence on, Letterman, brought an irascible, cutting-through-the-nonsense tone to his often topical jokes that you didn’t see anywhere else. He was convulsively funny. It’s rare to spot more than a glimmer of this young wiseguy in the well-groomed, smiling man who now cracks safe, obvious, not-very-funny jokes in an unctuous, eager-to-please manner as the host of that TV institution The Tonight Show.

If you compare the pre-Tonight Show Leno with the post-Tonight Show Leno, it’s almost impossible not to reach the conclusion that what you’ve seen is the most spectacular sell-out in modern show-business history, a deliberate, two-decade long act of dumbing-down & emasculating an authentic comedic talent—maybe even a genius—in order to repackage him as unthreatening & easily palatable for the masses.

About a decade ago I spent a little over a year as a publicist for a major comedy club, driving many of the top stand-ups in America around to radio & TV interviews, & (in private conversation of course; they weren’t likely to commit career suicide by saying so publicly) the sneering contempt in which they held Leno for his phoniness & opportunism knew few bounds. Even allowing for the envy & spite to which stand-up comedians tend, severe even by show-business standards, I found it unlikely that there could be no truth in this at all.

As you probably remember, Leno ended up with the Tonight Show job—traditionally the most prestigious in American comedy—after a bitter struggle with David Letterman’s camp, when Johnny Carson retired in 1992. As you certainly remember unless you were in locked in an attic somewhere a few months ago, Leno is now back because of NBC’s rather unceremonious dumping of O’Brien after a 7-month run at the desk. O’Brien will now host a late-night show on TBS starting in November.

It’s all been one more chapter in the dramatic & sometimes ungracious history of The Tonight Show, a program once synonymous with the gold standard of show-biz graciousness. Despite the talent of the various hosts involved in these power struggles, none of them could hope to bring the same old-school class that Carson did to the show.

Carson’s persona was one-of-a-kind—somehow both unpretentious & sophisticated, both middle-American & West Coast hip, & it’s hard to imagine anyone ever approaching it. Letterman comes closest (Carson reportedly agreed, & would have preferred Letterman as his successor), but Letterman’s Midwestern everyman routine is complicated by his unconcealed neuroses. He’s arguably funnier than Carson was at times, but his company isn’t the same simple pleasure. Nobody’s is.

Still, you can watch clips of Carson’s Cellar...

...a show that Carson hosted on an LA station in the early ‘50s, & see him doing sketches about as odd and scrappy as those of Letterman’s early days, & far less funny. Somehow Carson, Letterman & O’Brien all managed (with varying degrees of success) to let their styles mature with their audiences, while Leno’s style has amounted to a lucrative insult, to which the public refuses to take offense.

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