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

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | January 7, 2014 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | January 7, 2014 |

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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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.