Jay Leno: Working Class Hero

When I started this series I knew that sooner or later I would be writing about Jay Leno. No comedian has been as villainized in the past two decades as much as Leno. As soon as he replaced Johnny Carson as the host of The Tonight Show, Leno has been inundated with criticism from just about every corner of the comedy world. Almost overnight, Leno went from being a standup wunderkind to a representation of everything that is soulless and mediocre in the entertainment industry.

It didn’t help that all of the dirty details concerning NBC’s handling of Carson’s torch passing was meticulously detailed in Bill Carter’s illuminating book, The Late Shift. While David Letterman came across as a man wronged by corporate incompetence, Leno was portrayed as a craven and insecure man-child, allowing his manager to fight his battles all while he hid behind his nice guy image. Adding insult to injury was the fact that Leno owed much of his success as a comedian to his frequent appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. David Letterman, at this time, was the hippest and edgiest face of late night, and appearances on his show carried a considerable amount of cache’.

Not only was Leno repeatedly asked to come on Late Night, he usually sat with Letterman for informal “chat” pieces. And when the two of them got together, there was palpable electricity that comes from two sharp comics attempting to one up each other on national television.

To be fair, Leno was already on the rise even before Letterman started regularly booking him on his show. Throughout the 1970s, Leno appeared in television fairly often, either as an actor or doing his standup and even appeared in a couple of films, although most of these roles were generally along the lines of dumb, Italian tough guy types. Jay Leno was a hot commodity, however it appears few knew exactly what to do with him. While it’s true that there are some comedians who can easily transfer to acting, it was pretty clear that Jay Leno was not one of them (his acting nadir came with the straight to video film Collision Course, a buddy cop movie with co-star Pat Morita. Yeah, you read that right).

However, as guest host for Johnny Carson, Leno proved that he could skillfully deliver monologue jokes and he made for a genial interviewer, knowing when to turn off the brash, sarcastic humor. It is perhaps this untapped talent that made NBC execs sit up and take notice. While Letterman was a cultural sensation, he could often come across as gruff and dismissive during his interviews with celebrities. It was that quality that made him a hero to comedy nerds back in the day, but now gave NBC pause when deciding who to hand The Tonight Show reins over to once Johnny left.

At the end of that day, it simply made more business sense for NBC to give the earlier time slot to the more likable comedian. And while viewers felt that Letterman got a raw deal in the process, over time the ratings bore out the fact that NBC was right. To this day, Leno continues to outperform every other late night talk show in the market. Critics of the Nielsen rating system point out that those ratings were coming from older viewers who hadn’t yet adapted to the different viewing habits of younger people who now watched television when and where they wanted. Yet, even within the all-important 18yrs-49yrs demographic, only The Daily Show has been able to gain more viewers than Leno and even then, only by a minuscule amount.

So, even if you’re someone who prefers Letterman over Leno, it’s clear that NBC made the right business choice all of those years ago. No one expects large corporations to play fair, so why were people angry at Leno when he took over The Tonight Show?

More than anything, people were lamenting the loss, not just of Johnny Carson, but of Leno, too. The Jay Leno who took over for Johnny Carson was polished, affable, and told corny monologue jokes. Which would have been fine if this had not been the Leno that comedy nerds had become fans of almost fifteen years earlier:

This is the Jay Leno that comedy fans from a previous generation looked up to.  Brash, sarcastic, and funny, Leno was simply the best comic working. It seemed inconceivable that any comic would turn away from that sharp of an act only to trot out mediocre monologues and desk pieces every night. Those comedy fans didn’t just feel let down; they felt betrayed.

Of course, the recent kerfuffle with Conan O’Brien didn’t help Leno any. While Leno did have defenders within the comedy community, from the likes of Jerry Seinfeld no less, many felt that Leno should have stepped down and let O’Brien take The Tonight Show. I will confess I was one of those who felt that Leno should have just cashed in his chips at the time of the O’Brien fiasco. However, when I look back, I am glad that Leno took back the helm.

Conan O’Brien is at his best when shepherding weird, crazy, surreal comedic ideas. Ideas that would never have found a fit in such a high profile show. For years, he was able to do whatever abstract idea he wanted while in charge of Late Night With Conan O’Brien. On the Tonight Show, O’Brien was defanged in an attempt to appeal to the broadest audience possible. It was like asking Muhammad Ali to fight a toddler. O’Brien was just too much for The Tonight Show to bear.

However, in that role Jay Leno shines. Look, monologue jokes are monologue jokes no matter what show you’re watching. Most of the comedians present the jokes with an air of embarrassment around them. Conan O’Brien half apologizes while in the middle of the jokes, Letterman often seems resentful that he is asked to say the things on the cards, and the rest just treat the monologue joke as a kind of perfunctory job duty, like they’re putting together a PowerPoint presentation (although, Craig Ferguson truly makes the monologue portion of his show his own, with a punk rock flare of irreverence).

Leno, however, is the conscientious worker who comes in to work and delivers those jokes like a professional. That’s why Jay Leno gets better ratings than the other guys. After working a long, grueling day at a job they hate, and dealing with family and personal issues during their precious free time off the clock, people want to watch someone who is willing to put in the work.

It’s that willingness to show up and do the work that audiences respond to in Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show. And it’s that work ethic that has led to Leno making questionable decisions while dealing with the controversy surrounding his stepping down, and then stepping back in as host of The Tonight Show.

In Jerry Seinfeld’s excellent 2001 documentary Comedian, there’s a point in the film where he’s talking with Jay Leno in a green room backstage. In this brief scene, Leno confesses that he has never spent a penny of his TV money and lives exclusively off of the money he gets touring as a standup comic. This is a particularly revelatory moment for Leno as he explains that he lives in fear of it all going away and needing that money when it does.

When Jay Leno pictures life without The Tonight Show, he’s less worried about any level of fame or adulation that comes with said job and more with the economic security that comes with it. When Jay Leno fought for The Tonight Show, he wasn’t just fighting for a job, he was fighting for his life.

And that’s a shame. Jay Leno still tours the country as a standup comic at least once a week and while I have no idea what those standup shows are like, my guess is we see in those shows the sarcastic Jay Leno that became one of the best standup comics of his generation. His last episode of The Tonight Show, as has recently been reported, will air on February 6th, 2014. Already, there are rumors swirling around that he’ll be hosting a talk show on Fox. I hope that’s not true. After twenty years as a late night talk show host, it’s time for Leno to hang up his coat and tie and return to what he does best. It is time for Jay Leno, standup comic, to return.

And speaking of returning, I will not be! Well, I will still contribute to the site from time to time, but I have decided to saw farewell to the “Begrudging Respect” series. I have had a wonderful time writing these articles and I am glad I have had the opportunity to analyze standup comedy and to find what makes something work. I actually thought about doing an article about Jay Leno weeks ago, but decided to hold back. I wanted Leno to be the last comic I wrote about in this series.

One of the reasons people, especially older people, and by older people I mean people my age, tend to crap on Jay Leno is because we’re disappointed in him. He was great in his heyday. It is hard to gauge that now. While looking through YouTube clips, much of his material seems dated. When he tells the joke about local news anchors teasing a serious story at 11 0’Clock, it sounds like a hacky bit, but it wasn’t when Leno told the joke in 1976. He was the one who started it. Getting mad at Jay Leno for telling that joke would be like getting mad at Eddie Vedder for copping Scott Stapp’s singing style.

It’s easy to forget just how much modern standup comedy owes to Jay Leno, but he was truly front and center of a golden age of comedy during the 1970s. I think Leno also epitomizes exactly what it takes to make it as a standup comic and that’s one thing: hard work. Many people go into standup with the mistaken apprehension that it will be easy. You make people laugh at parties, why not do it on stage and rake in the bucks? The fact is, those bucks are few and far between. Like any art form, comedy must come from a real passion to present your point of view. And you have to be willing to be put through a host of embarrassing situations just to get to a point where you feel comfortable onstage. It takes a long time just to get decent. Don’t worry if it isn’t happening as fast as you want it to. Standup also comes from having courage, the courage to fail, because you will. A lot. Watch comedians you don’t like or respect. They made it, not by mindlessly pandering to the audience or appealing to the lowest common denominator or whatever else you might think. They made it by putting themselves out and everything they had on the line. They put in the work.

You think you’re better than them? Prove it.

Jay Leno: Working Class Hero