Jimmy Fallon can finally breathe easy because Jay Leno says he wouldn’t want to host The Tonight Show ever again. On Tuesday, Leno went on Today to talk about getting your cholesterol checked, but also about how things are too political nowadays and there’s no civility in comedy anymore: “I don’t miss it. You know, everything now is … if people don’t like your politics, they … everyone has to know your politics.” Then two days later, he was on The Tonight Show doing a monologue. So maybe Fallon does have reason to worry.
Leno truly checked every box on the Old Man Yells at Cloud checklist. (Remember Sears?) But when it comes to how political late night has gotten, he’s not entirely wrong. The game has changed significantly since Leno’s (first) tenure.
“I kind of used Johnny’s model. People couldn’t figure [my personal politics] out,” Leno said on Today. Playing the equal-opportunity centrist class clown was a well-known Carson move, and Leno relished getting hate mail from the left and the right: “‘Well, you and your Republican friends,’ or, ‘Well, Mr. Leno, you and your Democratic buddies.’ And I would get hate mail from both sides equally.” I’m not even going to get into how, despite what Carson and Leno and the creators of South Park seem to think, centrism is a political position. Nor will I note that Trump tweeted basically this same sentiment Thursday. Instead, I will agree with Leno that you can’t play it like Carson anymore. Being apolitical is a bad look for 2019. Hosts like Stephen Colbert or Seth Meyers were explicitly hired for their political takes. Centrism is not popular right now — just ask Nancy Pelosi. Or Trevor Noah. I’m not saying Trevor Noah is a both-sides-ist, but he loves engaging in dialogue. He invited Tomi Lahren to The Daily Show, which made everyone furious (except Noah, who lapped up the ire like ice cream because he enjoys coming off as puckish). But nowadays when you piss off both sides, you get death threats from both sides.
This clip from Noah illustrates how late night has changed both in content and in form. Not only is one inundated with death threats today, but one has to produce so much auxiliary content. Noah has been doing Q&As with his audience in between takes for a while now. The “Between the Scenes” clips are the most shareable content for his Daily Show, appearing in the YouTube feed hours before desk segments. The Daily Show has also been releasing extended interviews with their guests. The show is more a multimedia data cloud that hovers around Trevor Noah than it is a half-hour of comedy that airs on Comedy Central at a certain time. Noah said as much at his SXSW panel, posted to — you guessed it! — The Daily Show’s YouTube channel. He’s not alone. Busy Philipps did a SXSW show, and she brought pigs. Can you imagine Jay Leno at SXSW? If he brought a bunch of his cars it could make a decent brand activation/Instagram spot, but I just don’t think he could tweet about queso enough.
Late Night With Seth Meyers posted a SXSW episode of its podcast to YouTube to try to lure subscribers to the podcatcher of their choice. Because not only do late-night hosts have to be YouTubers, they need to be podcasters. Late Night has a podcast, Conan has a podcast, and a YouTuber is replacing Carson Daly in the 1:35 a.m. slot on NBC. Even The Tonight Show bolsters its online engagement with social-media challenges that even @midnight wouldn’t touch.
The version of late night that Jay Leno knew is dead, and it was dying while he was still on the air. On Today, he said that Trump is to blame: “I did it when, you know, Clinton was horny and Bush was dumb, and it was just a little easier.” But people are still horny and dumb. We just know more about their circumstances.
Stephen Colbert had a whole run of massage-parlor puns that would have fit seamlessly into any number of ’90s sex scandals. Hugh Grant’s, for instance. But for Robert Kraft, it was less than optimal. Somehow people keep omitting that the women in that massage parlor were trafficked and forced into sex work against their will. Colbert’s jokes were well-executed (like the hand jobs) but also denied the basic humanity of the women who were held as sex slaves (like Robert Kraft). You can’t have fun with dick jokes anymore, because women are people? Not fair.
The Jay Lenos — the hosts that want to appeal to everyone — are caught in an unwinnable game. They have to do political humor because the 24-hour news cycle demands it and because being apolitical today looks weird. And Leno acknowledged this during his Today interview, saying, “You just have one subject [on the news], so it’s the same topic every night, which makes it very hard. I mean, all the comics — Jimmy and Colbert and everybody else — it’s tough when that’s the only topic out there.” And any opinion these late-night hosts project will piss viewers off. Some of these people send death threats, some of them control the advertising budgets of Merck, and some write think pieces. You can’t win all the quadrants; the best you can do is find a demo that responds to you and pander, pander, pander. And the format itself is dying, which means you have to spread your potentially controversial opinions to further platforms. Each podcast, tweet, and snap is a chance to make a fool of yourself and tank your career. If I were Jay Leno, I’d stick to talking about cholesterol, too.