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Reassessing Jay Leno, Late-Night Television's Most Popular Villain

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | January 7, 2014 | Comments ()


cn_image.size.jay-leno-nbc-jimmy-fallon.jpg

Jay Leno is set to leave The Tonight Show again next month, and though there won’t likely be the fanfare the surrounded his last departure, the next few weeks will unfortunately involve a lot of celebrating of the host and his legacy. Interrupted though it may have been, he still is the second longest running host of The Tonight Show, a network television institution since the 1950s. Weaselly or not, he’s owed some respect, I suppose, for his longevity.

To me, however, I’ve always characterized Jay Leno as the enemy of my own boyhood hero, David Letterman. I’ll probably never fully be able to let go of that grudge I’ve held against him since he swooped in and took The Tonight Show away from its rightful heir, even if Letterman has. It’s something that happened early enough in my life that it concretized in my mind. He’s the enemy. But a few events during the last couple of years have forced me to at least attempt to reassess my opinion of Leno.

Foremost was his likable appearance on Louie a couple of years back. It wasn’t so much that it was a terrifically memorable appearance, it was that he allowed himself to be mocked. More importantly, it was the fact that Louie C.K. had him on his show at all, which meant — in my mind — that Louie had some respect for Leno. Likewise, Seinfeld has defended Leno, and Seinfeld seems to be as good friends with Leno as he is Letterman, and I am a guy who affords people some respect based upon the friends they keep. Indeed, with the exception of Howard Stern (vocally), regular guests of both The Tonight Show and The Late Show have never really taken a side (others, like Jimmy Kimmel and Patton Oswalt, of course, spoke out against Leno), which led me to believe that there’s some begrudging respect for Leno in the comedian community. It can’t all be simple self-promotion, can it? Does Leno command such a huge audience that self-respecting actors like, say, Tom Hanks (a big friend of Conan O’Brien and Dave), would overlook personal animosity for a little publicity on a show that reaches four million people, most of whom are older than their target demo?

I have to believe that’s not the case.

Is Leno secretly one of those comedian’s comedians, like Bill Hicks, or Patrice O’Neal, or until relatively recently, Louis CK? Was there a time when people loved this guy? Is he secretly a friend to have? A guy who looks out for fellow comedians? I don’t know, but the fact that Letterman — who used to be very close friends with Leno — has warmed up to him again (they’re exchanging the occasional phone call) has to mean something. Is it that, after 20 to 25 years of competing with each other, they’ve put aside their differences and conceded their admiration? Is it that they’re the only two people on the planet in a similar position, and they have enough in common to bring them together, to talk about old times, to catch up on the last two or three decades once again as friends?

I really wanted to find out what it was at one time — before any of the initial controversy over Leno’s transition to The Tonight Show in the early 90s too place — that people liked about Leno. Unfortunately, Google is not that much help for material from the 70s and 80s. I listened to some of his old bits from the 70s (with the father of Freddie Prinze) and his routine actually felt very familiar. It’s the same vanilla, populist material that he still delivers on The Tonight Show. It’s agreeable, but edgeless. I watched some of Leno’s old appearances on Letterman’s show, and likewise, there wasn’t much to it that would give me any reason to think that Leno was admired for being a trendsetting, groundbreaking, or particularly original comic.

The only thing that really stood out in all that I read about Jay Leno from the 70s until today is his work ethic. He claims that he doesn’t spend any of the money he earns from The Tonight Show and that he lives entirely upon his stand-up earnings. In the 80s, he was tireless, spending most of his time on the road, and earning around $300,000 a year from his stand-up act. (He couldn’t land a sitcom because, as one TV executive said, he had a face that frightened children). Whatever else you might want to say about Leno, he’s always put in the hours, and the people who do have nice things to say about Leno almost always cite that work ethic.

Maybe there is something about that to respect. Maybe other comedians could look past some of the backstabbing, and much of his insecurity (Letterman recently said of Leno that he’s the funniest guy he’s ever known, but also the most insecure) and recognize that, though his talent may not have earned him much respect from the critics or other comics, his effort has. When viewed in a certain way — as a guy with no kids, not a lot of friends in the business, few vocal supporters, no critical respect, and a ton of insecurity — even I can feel both a sense of admiration and pity for Leno. Maybe he fought so hard and turned on so many people for so many years because that’s all he had, and without The Tonight Show stage, all he’s left with are bad jokes and a face that frightens children. It’s kind of a sad thought, and even I can feel sympathy for a guy who is being put out to pasture when he’s still winning in the ratings.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Kit

    This entire story makes you come across as an elitist, bitter snob. Leno didn't "take" the Tonight Show from David Letterman, NBC executives chose him for it. END OF STORY. One guy got the job, the other didn't. Leno also didn't steal it away from Conan O' Brien, Conan stole it from him under his nose and then squandered it so NBC gave it back to Jay after Conan did not want to move back 25 minutes.
    Aside from D bags like Jimmy Kimmel and Howard Stern, the so-called "unloved" Jay Leno has lots of friends in Hollywood. Off the top of my head Jerry Seinfeld, Chelsea Handler, Craig Ferguson, Arsenio Hall, & Tim Allen are just a few of the stand up comedians who are fans and friends of Jay.

  • If you haven't you should really read The War For Late Night. It explains a lot of the relationships you're curious about - especially Letterman and Leno.

    They both came up at the same time, so I think there was always a professional courtesy. Dave was deeply hurt by what Leno did to secure The Tonight Show in the 90s. But I think the older you get, the less those things matter and you kind of circle back to the group of people you knew growing up.

    I always thought Louis CK's affinity for Leno came partially from them both being Boston comics. But he also has a tendency to stick up for comedians taking hits amid controversy. He never attacked Dane Cook over the "itchy asshole" joke theft accusations and he stood up for Daniel Tosh's right to make a horrible rape joke.

    Incidentally, I saw someone in the thread say Conan is a douche. The War For Late Night characterizes him more as highly-intelligent, tightly wound and woefully insecure. Which is pretty much who he is on television. Just food for thought.

  • Col. Kickass

    My dad has told me that back in the 70s, Jay Leno was some of the best stand up around. He actually ended up having to dumb down his shtick because it was going over everyone's heads.

    All the people you mention that love Jay are stand up guys. They respect him and like him because he's a great stand up comedian. The only people that seem to dislike him personally are people that host their own talk shows and their audience.

  • kirbyjay

    I remember when Carson was still hosting the Tonight Show, I would always tune in when Leno was a guest. He was actually really good back then but I think he was castrated by the show's core audience when he took over as host.
    The fact that he has done several bits on different shows lampooning himself makes me have a grudging respect but I don't watch his show or any talk show anymore. Nobody could interview like Carson. He made the guests funny while the current crop make it about themselves and getting their laugh. I'll DVR a show if there is a guest I want to see, and I'll only watch that segment, then DELETE.

  • solafidex

    I was surprisingly touched by the honesty of Leno's Louie cameo performance.

  • I think he does have the respect of other comedians for still working as a stand-up despite having comedy's plum job and still using the Tonight Show as an arena to break young comedians.

    Now that some time has passed I think NBC has to shoulder most of the blame for the Leno/Conan transition disaster. If they would have just stuck to their guns instead of being afraid Jay was going to go to ABC or to cable, I'm sure Conan would still be in the Tonight chair. At this point Jay has no leverage with Conan on TBS and ABC putting their eggs in the Kimmel basket.

  • kimk

    Yeah, I don't really watch late night talk shows (if I am awake after 11:30 on a weeknight I am probably watching a "Law and Order" rerun) but I never quite understood why Leno was such the bad guy in this. NBC wanted him to step down before he wanted to so they didn't risk losing Conan- he said fine but didn't rule out the possibility of looking for work from a competitor. NBC should have just let him go rather than make the epically stupid move of offering him the 10PM slot, which not only set all the rest of the crap in motion but also put a dampening on quality dramas on the network, which was one of their calling cards from as far back as "Hill Street Blues" (and that they still haven't recovered from - "The Black List" doesn't count!). I think a lot of the animus towards Leno has roots in him originally getting the TS gig over Letterman, but again that is NBC's dumb move. Was Leno supposed to turn it down/not pursue it bc everyone else thought Letterman "deserved" it more?

  • e jerry powell

    My nitpick moment:

    The father of Freddie Prinze Jr. (aka Mr. Sarah Michelle Gellar) is standup comedian Freddie Prinze. As such, Leno was doing the bit with the late Freddie Prinze.

  • wsapnin

    Even though Jay may be winning in the ratings, they are terrified that Jimmy Kimmel is slowly chipping away at the share for that time slot. Plus Leno costs a whole lot more than Fallon.

  • dizzylucy

    I don't know enough about him to have a comment on him personally, but professionally, while he does have a strong work ethic, his success often seems to have come at the expense of others. Nothing new for most business, except in show business everyone is watching and then discussing it.

  • Modiano

    Although, I've also heard stories about how he has selflessly helped a lot of comedians with their careers. Opinions are all over the map.

    That said, I can't believe I'm defending him at all. During the late night wars of the 90's I hung his picture on a dart board. I was ridiculously Team Letterman as a tween.

  • He'll also have his stunning car collection.

    A friend of mine met Jay because his company manufactured electric motorcycles and they did a segment where they met with Jay (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... to talk about their latest bike. He wasn't aware of his perception in the business but he spoke really highly of Jay saying that he was extremely warm and accommodating.

  • LwoodPDowd

    He should be hosting Top Gear America rather than the lifeless idiots currently hosting. It would have made a perfect transition from hosting the tonight show so that he could still give work to some of his tonight show staff.

  • Art3mis

    I know very little about the late-night wars and have no particular opinion on Jay Leno, but I *hate* it when someone assumes that people who don't have kids are sad, lonely figures. Leno has been married to the same woman for 30 years and he and his wife have both said that they never wanted children. He doesn't need or want your pity on that score.

  • Bad Superman

    Here are some facts: In real life Conan O'Brien is a bit of a douche and Leno is a lovely guy. Don't believe everything you see on TV people.

  • JJ

    Here's another fact: I don't believe everything I see on the internet that follows the phrase "Here are some facts".

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I'm pretty sure those are their TV personas you just described.

  • crispin

    There's T.V. Leno and then there's Leno the person.... who's a snake in the grass.

    He purposely broke the writer's strike a few years ago, then found out that Conan and Dave were paying their staff out of their own pockets and only then gave his Tonight Show people about $100 each.

    After leaving The Tonight Show (the first time-- shouldn't that in itself tell you something about his character), he starts a 10pm show that's an instant failure... putting THOUSANDS (if not more) of people who would be involved in fiction hour-longs out of work.

    About three months ago, I was driving through the surface streets of Burbank (which are usually traffic-free) and got caught in this traffic jam from hell. The line from where I was to the next light was about half a mile long. After about 20 minutes of waiting (something which would normally be about one minute or less), I notice that people are going around "something" and honking their horns like crazy.

    The cause of the traffic was Leno driving some old-timey, steam-powered firetruck. As I was finally able to go around him, I yelled, "You goddamn SNAKE!!"

    It felt sooooo good.

    He is not a nice or kind man.

  • Nothing satisfies quite like a hearty old "FUCK LENO!!!" once in a while. That whole Conan fiasco pissed me off (yeah, it was more Zuckerman, but still)

  • Sara_Tonin00

    http://www.condenaststore.com/...

    This is a weird piece to me. When Letterman says he thinks Leno is the funniest guy he's ever known, I can't take the sentence at face value, because that's standard patter. And how does not having kids fit into the pity you feel for Leno?

    I was never invested in the late night battles. Leno isn't particularly funny to me, but neither is Letterman, who is kooky but rarely made me laugh, or gave an interview I was entertained by. His manufactured awkwardness always seemed to get in the way. As for Hanks - I have a feeling that he, and other big Hollywood names who might have had a personal friendship involved - would not let secondary feuds be a part of their publicity tours so long after the issue's been resolved. Someone like Sean Penn - that I could see. But I feel like so much of Hollywood is people being burned in a big way (even if we don't always see it) that grudges don't interfere with PR SOP.

    And Leno's managed to grow into his chin. The jowls help.

  • BWeaves

    I miss Steve Allen, Jack Parr, and Johnny Carson.

    When I was a teenager, I thought Steve Allen was funny. But Parr and Carson had something different. They had a very easy going manner that made you relate to them. It's been years since I could stay awake long enough to watch any of the late night shows. Now, get off my lawn.

  • my neighbor's sister Μ­­­­­­а­­­­­­K­­­­­­е­­­­­­ѕ $­­­­87/հ­­­­­­ο­­­­­­ս­­­­­­r on the і­­­­­­ո­­­­­­τ­­­­­­е­­­­­­r­­­­­­ո­­­­­­е­­­­­­τ. She has been laid off for 5 Μ­­­­­­ο­­­­­­ո­­­­­­τ­­­­­­հ­­­­­­ѕ but last Μ­­­­­­ο­­­­­­ո­­­­­­τ­­­­­­հ her ρ­­­­­­а­­­­У check was $­­­­21091 just W­­­­­­ο­­­­­­r­­­­­­King on the і­­­­­­ո­­­­­­τ­­­­­­е­­­­­­r­­­­­­ո­­­­­­е­­­­­­τ for a Ϝ­­­­­­е­­­­­­W հ­­­­­­ο­­­­­­ս­­­­­­rs. blog հ­­­­­­е­­­­­­r­­­­­­е,... WWW.Googleproject2014getnowact...

    ██ ██ ██ █ ██ █ ██ ͨ█ ͨ██ █ ██ █ ██ █ ██ █ █But I feel like so much of Hollywood is people being burned in a big way (even if we don't always see it) that grudges don't interfere with PR SOP.

  • Joey.blowey

    I boycotted Jay when NBC didn't even have the decency to let Johnny do one more season for a nice round 30 year run.

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