Playing devil’s advocate: The people vs. Jay Leno

You don't have to be on Team Coco to realize that Leno-bashing has reached a hyperbolic pitch. Just pick up the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, which put a photo illustration of Jay Leno on its cover and named him TV's biggest bomb ever. Ever? Forever ever? Clearly the mag went with the chin to win in an effort to move print copies, because if you look at their top 50 TV bombs list, several of them stand out as much worse things to have appeared on America's television sets. It's not as if Leno is Hitler, as the Wall Street Journal's Joe Queenan suggested in a crass satire yesterday designed to generate page views. They're both wrong, of course, because Leno has never wanted anything more than to hold onto his 11:35 p.m. (10:35 p.m. Central/Mountain) time slot, and he'll be getting it back soon enough.

But how did it come to this, where conventional wisdom and anyone who's funny clearly aligned against Jay Leno? He cannot really be that bad, can he? And if he were, why do all of those people still show up at tapings of The Jay Leno Show and rush up to shake his hand at the start of every show? For the latter question, I think the answer is one part tourists on a Los Angeles vacation who are just happy to be up close and personal with a very famous person, and one part Leno providing the same below-the-belt jokes about sex and stereotypes that has earned Jeff Dunham millions of fans. Leno has said that in terms of personal appearances and stand-up gigs, he's doing better than ever. Before I digress even more, let's get back to Leno.

When I watched him sit down with Emily Blunt at the start of last week's run, Leno seemed to enjoy a natural and genuine conversation with the actress. For a moment, I almost did not want to shake my fists at him. What has become of me?
How did it get to this? I used to like Jay Leno — he was the first headlining stand-up comedian I remember seeing live, when he performed in a packed gymnasium at my college. My parents used to live in, and my mother still works in Andover, Mass., Leno's hometown. Where did my goodwill for him go?

Jay Leno brought this upon himself, I thought. No. I knew.
He said that night that he still has no manager, no agent, no publicist, but he desperately needs someone to tell him that he has handled this latest round of NBC late-night disasters so so poorly.
For one thing. For the main thing, really: Jay Leno has no idea what it means to be fired from a job.
The last time I checked, getting fired means you no longer work for the company you're working for. When your bosses tell you they're replacing you, but before your contract is over, they give you a promotion, that's not being fired. When the people who control your pursestrings decide you're awful at your next job, and your bosses decide the best option is to give you your old job back, that's also not getting fired.
It's like this guy has no self-awareness, or is so self-aware that he's playing a prank on himself. Which is another way of saying, he needs someone to tell him how much of an idiot he is.

Here was his side of the story last week:

"If you don't get the ratings, they take you off the air." Unless you're Jay Leno. This also showed that Leno lied through his teeth six years earlier when he announced in 2004 that he had no intention of going on past 2009 and knew enough to retire when the getting was good.

The fact of the matter is, Jay Leno really wanted the Tonight Show when Johnny Carson retired in May 1992 and fought as hard as he could to get it.

When Leno's job was threatened — coincidentally seven months into his stint as Tonight Show host (the same amount of time Conan lasted in the gig) — and by the guy who was then following him on NBC in David Letterman, Leno had no problems jumping to his own defense in an interview with Bill Carter of the New York Times. In this article from Dec. 23, 1992, Leno asked: "Am I crazy? The ratings are going up, the advertisers are happy and so are the affiliates…I am disappointed. I feel like a guy who has bought a car from somebody, painted it, fixed it up and made it look nice and then the guy comes back and says he promised to sell the car to his brother-in-law." He also claimed: "I'm not going to do some little happy hour from Omaha at 12:30."

Cut to December 2008. Before Conan O'Brien has stopped doing his own Late Night show to move to California and Tonight, NBC announced that Leno would not be fired at all, but doing a show in Burbank at 10 p.m. Not quite Omaha. No offense, Omaha. Here was Bill Carter's article from then (Carter has had inside access to much of this mess, already working on a follow-up book to his tome on the 1992 fracas, The Late Shift).

Cut to Nov. 2, 2009. Conan has been on for five months; Leno for two. Conan hasn't held Leno's overall ratings, but is doing OK in the younger demos. Leno, however, is barely meeting the minimum expectations NBC had set for him and the affiliates are upset because they're getting hammered in November sweeps by their late local news competitors. And aside from ditching the desk some of the time, replacing his veteran comedy correspondents with newer comics, and launching some mostly inane new segments, Leno continued to do The Tonight Show, just in primetime. Making his viewers much more likely to fall asleep before the late local news or Conan's version of the Tonight Show ever had a chance.

In a lengthy interview, Leno told Broadcasting & Cable that he never wanted to leave late-night and The Tonight Show, and would take it back if given the chance. The relevant excerpt:

Do you want to go back to 11:35? If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that's what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to.

Would you rather do that than this? I don't know‚Ķ.Would I take it? I guess. But it's not my decision to make; it's really not. I don't know. Something makes me think we might be OK here for a while. It depends how long you're here; by that time I could be 61-62, I don't know. Personally, I think Conan is doing fine. He's beating Dave in the demo, maybe not in the popular one right now because Dave has a lot of other things going that have people watching for whatever reason, so I think that's not really a fair thing. It's a little too early to tell.

As Andy Richter pointed out later that month in an interview with my friend Nick Zaino for TV Squad, Leno already seemed to be posturing for his old job back. Not classy.

And that lack of class seemed to permeate Leno's responses to NBC's debacle — which NBC Entertainment chief Jeff Gaspin said was prompted because the network affiliates were unhappy with Leno. Remember back in 1992, when Leno said he should keep his job because the affiliates were happy with him? Well, as 2010 began, the affiliates told NBC they'd figuratively mutiny if Leno kept pulling down their late local news. He had failed them. Gaspin said he needed to make a bold move, and his idea, which we all now know didn't become a reality, was a Hail Mary that not only would avoid breaking contracts with Leno and Conan, but also potentially help both of their shows get better ratings.

So when Leno began taking nightly potshots at the network and claiming he was fired, it was both unseemly and disingenuous. The night after he decided to give his side of the story, he told a monologue joke about a study that "found that blaming others in the workplace is socially contagious" — at which point a female audience member began cackling, knowing where the joke was heading. Late in that Tuesday show, his "photo search sketch" took a cheap shot at Letterman with the search terms "infidelity, Viagra and AARP." When he followed that up with a photo search for "red head, overrated, millionaire," the audience groaned in anticipation. Leno had set them up. The punchline this time was Carrot Top. By this point, even Leno's own fans thought Leno was piling on. Which is weird for a guy who clearly won his old job back by failing at his new job.

I made a couple of jokes on Twitter last week suggesting that perhaps Jay Leno should have moved back to Massachusetts and gone into politics to win the late Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat. Leno certainly knows how to play politics. Would he be a Democrat or a Republican, though? Coincidentally, Leno will have that special Senate election winner, the GOP's Scott Brown, as a guest on his show this week. And when the paparazzi caught up with the comedian outside The Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Calif. — where Leno has a standing Sunday-night headlining gig — he showed he knows how to survive in show business.

The defense rests?

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

View all posts by Sean L. McCarthy →

One thought on “Playing devil’s advocate: The people vs. Jay Leno

Comments are closed.