Jay Leno Is Not Evil

Unpopular Opinions is a weekly column in which a writer takes a stand against popular opinion, whether it’s asserting the true merit of a supposedly guilty pleasure or dissenting against the universally lauded.

Jay Leno is not the Antichrist. There are no devil’s horns underneath his thick gray hair. He does not exist in this world to bring harm and misfortune to those more deserving of the spotlight. He is a man that has amassed a plethora of enemies because he gained employment on two separate occasions on account of poor television network decision making. He is a man that has lost friends for the same reason. And he is not someone that has ruined a sacred institution with unfunny jokes; he is someone making best due with the tired premise known as the late night talk show.

On February 2, 2010, a lot of conflicting thoughts should have raced through Jay Leno’s mind. He was sitting on an NBC jet being flown from Los Angeles, where he had canceled that evening’s edition of The Jay Leno Show, to Teterboro Airport, to then be whisked to The Late Show studios to tape a Super Bowl commercial with Oprah Winfrey and his old buddy, David Letterman. The friendship began when the two were starting out as comedians performing at The Comedy Store in the mid 1970s, and it ended in 1992, when a hurt Letterman no longer deigned to speak to the soon-to-be new host of The Tonight Show. Ever since, most of those passionate enough to hold strong opinions on late night television portrayed Leno as an evil, banal, lame, talentless hack and Letterman as his antonym: a cool, comedic genius that was criminally passed over when it was time to replace Johnny Carson.

While Leno won the ratings war, Letterman was always more respected, and Leno had always known it. In reality, while Letterman admitted that Leno was the stand-up everyone respected back in the day, Leno respected the hell out of Letterman as a broadcaster, so much so that after Letterman ignored him for eighteen years and hadn’t shown the slightest bit of contrition for repeatedly mocking him on his show, Jay Leno wasn’t angry at all. All Leno wanted to do, according to Bill Carter in his book The War For Late Night, was be besties again:

“Right away Jay fell into the pattern he had always followed with Letterman: He tried to make him laugh. He knew Dave’s formal way with language and how certain turns of phrase amused him, so he pulled up a line that had worked on Dave before, saying, ‘The old Manson place has really changed.’”

It’s true that Dave once guffawed at the phrase “the old Manson place.” You can see that for yourself below in this clip of one of Leno’s many appearances on Letterman’s Late Night show during the 1980s. The joke featuring the magical three words that in order is the skeleton key to David’s heart begins at the 7:20 mark.

The very next joke out of Leno’s mouth is about the then recently released We Are The World song. Because it was 1985. Almost literally twenty five years before the commercial taping.

Jay Leno is not a man to be hated. He is a man to be pitied.

* * *

This story has been told a million times before, but some details seem to always get glossed over: Johnny Carson was Johnny Carson, host of The Tonight Show since 1962. In 1982 David Letterman, after NBC thought it would be a good idea to do his thing in the morning, replaced Tom Snyder in the post Carson slot at 12:35. Letterman quickly established himself as a detached, ironic, counterculture God. Not coincidentally, after hearing this for a year, David became a bit of a closed-off asshole to friends and, more importantly, to NBC executives.

Throughout the decade Johnny Carson was getting older and taking more days off, and stand up comedian Jay Leno — who for what it’s worth was a cutting edge comedian back then — racked up over fifty guest appearances on Letterman’s show. By 1985 Letterman began to blow off NBC affiliate functions, only to have Leno, a tireless worker who continued to work the clubs nightly despite the increasing television exposure, host the events instead. The network rewarded Leno with some prime time face time and eventually the guest host gig on The Tonight Show when Joan Rivers unwisely bolted for Fox.

By the end of the decade Leno’s powerful and abrasive agent Helen Kushnick was grooming him for Carson’s seat, planting false rumors about NBC considering forcing Johnny into retirement, insisting that Jay wear suits on David’s show and steering Leno to more family friendly humor (not as funny, but definitely more 11:35 friendly material.) When Carson announced he was walking away, NBC went with Leno, and all hell broke loose. How could they not choose Letterman? Because Letterman showed nothing but contempt for the company he worked for. He had too much pride to ever ask for anything to have it implicitly stated verbally or in writing that he was to succeed Johnny. And he didn’t have the ball-busting Helen Kushnick on his side (Leno fired her in 1994 after, among other things, discovering she had planted the NBC/Carson story). If David Letterman made less assumptions and played the showbiz game even a little bit, the job would have been his. Jay Leno, like anybody else would do when being offered his dream job, accepted NBC’s offer, and immediately lost a powerful, influential close friend in the process.

The first time Jay Leno got The Tonight Show gig it was a result of the peacockers making a dubious an overly emotional decision. The second time was a result of myopic reasoning from an infamous bespectacled bully by the name of Jeff Zucker. In 2004 Zucker read Hans Brinker and decided to give Leno a five-year contract extension and the message that Conan O’Brien was going to take his job when it expired. Leno, when given the choice of losing his dream job in 2009 or right then and there, opted for the former. Leno’s first place status never changed, so NBC desperately tried to keep him on their channel, offering him pretty much anything short of playing Chandler Bing in a Friends reboot that wasn’t The Tonight Show. The 10pm Jay Leno Show idea failed for a variety of reasons, mostly due to hilarious executives of affiliates telling Leno’s executive producer Debbie Vickers and the network what was funny and what time during the show it would best be funny in. That and 10pm eastern/9pm central sold all of its rights away to cable some time ago. When the show failed and the Nielsens began to insist that Conan was losing to Letterman, Zucker impatiently decided that after seven months he wanted to move Leno back to 11:30, albeit for only 30 minutes; Conan would be bumped to midnight in that scenario. O’Brien loved that idea so much that he quit the job he always wanted. Leno returned, and nobody was happy about it.

O’Brien had every right to be angry about the network’s impatience, but there is an aspect about Conan’s The Tonight Show that Coco fans willfully ignore: It sucked.

Conan’s Late Night show, which took over NBC’s post-Leno timeslot when Dave moved to CBS in 1993, dropped Letterman’s irony and expanded on his weird, surrealistic bits that were influenced by Ernie Kovacs. After a slow start, it really hit its weird stride, at times bordering on brilliant. O’Brien worships Letterman, but he too had the I Want To Be Johnny Carson disease. Even though he promised in his last episode before moving to California that he wouldn’t stop being weird, Conan’s Tonight was clearly Coco trying too hard to make everyone in the entire country happy; it was almost as if he was on a really long first date with a woman he thought was out of his league and was thinking a lot more on what not to say so he wont scare her away than with the things he should. Awkward, but not ha ha awkward. Of course, when the shit hit the fan and when O’Brien and crew knew they were on their way out at NBC and had nothing left to lose it resulted in must-see television. During those last two weeks, it was appointment viewing. The Tonight Show actually felt subversive.

The lesson learned from what I imagine NBC refers to as “The Conan O’Brien experiment” — besides give the host more than seven months to find some footing — is that being funny and entertaining at 11:35pm on a broadcast network is not easy, and it’s kind of a thankless slog. The more people you try to entertain, the more vitriol you’ll hear from those that will compare you to a late night talk show that doesn’t have to deal with countless affiliates and executives telling you what’s funny.

The 11:35 network show has been stuck on the same monologue-desk talk-two guests-musical guest format for over seventy years — and if Jay Leno decided one day that he wanted to do a Chris Gethard type free-for-all talk show he’d be out on the street the day after. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien (now on cable), Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon seem to have more fun and occasionally try something new at night because they’re not thinking about the thousands of notes they were given earlier in the day. David Letterman is the only other human being in the world who comes close to knowing what Leno has to deal with, and he actually owns the production company that produces his show.

Here is Letterman’s monologue from this past Wednesday:

And here is Leno’s:

Was one person’s monologue jokes funnier than the other? No. Newt Gingrich is fat! And poorer than he was before his campaign! The only difference between the two was when Letterman, as he’ll sometimes do, interrupted the monologue with a brief skit. It’s interesting that when it didn’t go as well as he hoped, Dave seemingly apologized for it (“That was a skit…”) Before you can give him credit for the effort, Letterman goes for the laziest fat joke in the world at the close of the clip.

The celebrity interviews aren’t that much different either. On Friday, Leno smartly sat back and let his guests Jason Segel and Anna Faris be charming just through their trained faux humbleness. Leno detractors like to point out that he sometimes doesn’t care about his guests. I think it’d be weird if a 61 year old man *did* care about Anna Faris.

Leno lets Segel spin his yarn. Celebrities being scared to meet the President is nothing new, but Jason Segel going through the story is what most of the people want, and he’s kind of good at it anyway. Letterman’s guest that night was Julia Louis-Dreyfuss.

Complaining about Twitter and talking incessantly about not understanding it is a part of the “Letterman is your cranky but not creepy uncle” shtick that he’s been using the past decade. It’s sometimes funny, but other times it just sounds like an old man complaining about how everything a young person holds dear is stupid. Comedians articulate thoughts through caricatures of themselves all the time, and if David Letterman is just letting his “Hogan’s Heroes was never topped!” part of himself out that’s totally fine. However, it is incongruous to the long held belief that Dave is the punk who suffers from realness and Leno is the one who hides his true self behind toothless jokes. Letterman is actually the one with the shtick.

The part when Letterman and Louis-Dreyfuss switch chairs is cute, but my uncle would never do that.

Being number one in late night for fourteen years interviewing celebrities about meeting the President should earn Jay Leno respect, but to the loud minority he receives just the opposite. David Letterman will always be loved, even by the man whose reputation he helped destroy.

We cast heroes and villains every day of our lives. Maybe it’s just easier to love the man that represents the crusading underdog who pretends he doesn’t give a shit than to love the man who got what he wanted. It’s simpler to hate the seemingly friendless court jester that you don’t always find funny instead of the faceless mega-conglomerate that got him the job in the first place. To willfully look at the shades of gray is about as easy as finding a new way to say that Newt Gingrich is fat.

If you have your own Unpopular Opinion you want to make a case for, send a pitch to Jesse David Fox.

Roger Cormier doesn’t think that Leno is funnier than Letterman, just that Leno doesn’t get a fair shake. Please don’t ban Roger from the internet.

Jay Leno Is Not Evil