2009, like 1993 before it, will go down as a transitional and somewhat tumultuous year in late night television. In late February, Conan O'Brien stepped down as host of Late Night and passed the reins to doe-eyed talk show neophyte Jimmy Fallon, and three months later Jay Leno left the Tonight Show to make way for Conan. This domino effect spills over into prime time, where Leno will launch a new-but-more-or-less-the-same one-hour chatfest in September. This was not something that happened overnight, but rather a heavily orchestrated event strategized by the executives of NBC. Apparently, when you've been the #4 network for five years running, you're not as afraid to throw crap at a wall and see what sticks. Leno's new show is a rare attempt at prime-time block programming, a do-or-die move that The Peacock hopes will turn around their fortunes as well as retain one of the network's longtime cash-cows. Nonetheless, is Jay Leno all that he's cracked up to be?
With all due apologies to his fans, I must nitpick Leno's apparent status as a living legend. A proven TV star and a team player, yes, though far from a legend. First of all, he wasn't an innovator like David Letterman, nor does he have a distinctive style like Conan O'Brien. Jay borrowed heavily from Steve Allen's ringmaster approach to hosting TTS, with a dashes of Rodney Dangerfield and Johnny Carson thrown in for good measure. Secondly, Leno catered heavily toward middle America and let his pandering chip away at his comedic credibility in the process. I fully understand that Wade the Nebraskan pig farmer could use a good laugh just as much as the average college graduate, yet Leno's paltry turnout at the Emmy Awards speaks levels of his reluctance to get creative. Compared to Letterman, Leno's audience skews toward the 50-plus, the lily-white, and the bourgeoisie. At his worst, Leno is as flavorful as vanilla and as hip as prune juice. There's no question that Jay is a nice guy, nor do I doubt that he has a large circle of friends and well-wishers, but some of his recent accolades are over the top.
I don't feel that there's any need to elaborate on Leno's so-so (and often patronizing) interviewing skills, so I'll focus on the comedy. "Jaywalking," Leno's self-appointed signature bit, was little more than an excuse for twenty-something California hipsters to deliberately flub simple questions, fully knowing that Jay was interrogating them and they could nab their 15 minutes of fame. "Headlines," arguably his second-most beloved comedy segment, is a thinly-veiled variation on "Small Town News," a bit that David Letterman created on Late Night in the '80s and revived 20+ years later.
Although both of those bits had their moments, I grind my axe at his nightly monologue. Sure, the opening remarks are a hoary old prerequisite for any talk show host worth their salt, but Leno's might be the most egregiously banal. For 17 years, the Leno Jokebot 3000 has spat out one obvious joke after another, aimed squarely at a select list of targets: Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Dr. Jack Kervorkian, Michael Jackson, and George W. Bush. Kevin Eubanks, Leno's doting bandleader since the mid-90s, guffaws the loudest and hardest at these inoffensive one-liners, almost as if his paycheck depends upon it. In short, Leno's monologue has always been a curious sight to behold, intermittently entertaining yet drenched in obsequiousness.
This brings me to my final point: did NBC make a mistake in selecting Leno over Letterman to replace Johnny Carson? The short answer is yes and no. While The Peacock would certainly have a few more Emmys on their shelves, Dave's latent irreverance and my-way-or-the-highway approach would've clashed with potential advertisers (not a total exaggeration). Leno was the safe choice, a guy who could bend over backwards for the network higher-ups and put on a show without being a prima-donna. Letterman may be your TV pal; however, Leno is your goofy uncle, the clean-cut Working Joe, the guy that cracks wise in the church parking lot, the everyman that you can't help but like and admire. Jay Leno is a creation of middle America, and if it works for them, I guess I can't bewail that.