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January 17, 2010


     I once read a story about how David Letterman, in 1981, had pointed out Jay Leno as the funniest stand-up comedian working.  At the moment, Leno was on a street corner outside of a comedy club, doing a routine lambasting Pat Cooper for a Tom Snyder appearance in which Cooper had insulted several prominent celebrities.  Leno's bit included pantomiming slashing his wrists & throat, implying he had committed professional suicide.     

      For me, this story simply reinforced my perception of Leno.  Namely, that he is an opportunistic prick.


     I was around 11 years old when I first saw Letterman's "Late Night" in the early eighties.  I was enthralled with the show, & watched it whenever I could get away with staying up that late.  It shattered the tedious, creaky tension that was Carson's "Tonight Show".  I never understood Carson's prominence, aside from his success-gatekeeping power to expose an up & comer to a large audience, & the stubborn nostalgia of an audience that wants safe, bland, largely topical humor served on plain white bread with a glass of lukewarm water.

     I developed a deep fondness for Letterman which I've carried into adulthood, the kind that you have when someone has helped draw out & define your sensibilities, & assisted you in forging your own sense of humor.   He was a wonderful blend of progressive, self-aware, ironic, & sarcastic, & it spoke volumes to me.  I rarely watch him anymore, but have always rooted for him & been pleasantly surprised by his staggering success.  Guys like him are not supposed to stay around. 

     Conan O'Brien, while completely his own creation, drew similar feelings.  I can't say I was rooting for him when he first got "Late Night", but I became a disciple fairly early on, & that pleasant surprise happened again when he managed to be successful & got comfortable enough to let his comedy really shine.  When it was announced that he would take over "The Tonight Show", it seemed things were coming full circle, & it made me feel a little old that what I had considered to be something like Comedy Rebels were becoming The Establishment.  Without the Carsons & Lenos to contrast, it wasn't as cool.  But ultimately I was okay with it, & happy that they were successful, & accepted this advancement in comedy sensibilities, albeit packaged in the rather stale format of "late night talk show".

     Leno has changed all that.  

     NBC's truly disappointing decision to stick with Leno, first of all, is completely conventional & unsurprising.  They're a business, & that's a textbook "bottom-line" decision.  Conversely, it's also a knee-jerk, short-sighted declaration of just how creatively (& fiscally) bankrupt NBC is.

    Secondly (& more abstractly), it's a sign that perhaps comedic sensibilities haven't progressed as far as I'd thought.  

     Leno's success  has always been a triumph of The Milquetoast: safe, bland comedy delivered by a very petty, vain man (I'm not saying pettiness & vanity are exclusive to Leno, but they are his stock in trade).  That the pinnacle of Leno's career on "Tonight"  is inevitably cited as the night he asked Hugh Grant "What were you thinking?!" (you see, Grant had sex!  with a prostitute!  & he's a successful movie star!  or something) is so lame, & a cultural "non-moment" in my book.  That's Leno for ya, drooling at the idea that someone so successful could do something so stupid!  Leno prides himself on his business savvy, career focus, & general smarts.  He may as well have said to Grant, "I am so glad I'm not you!  I can't believe you got
caught!".  The true "magic" of his question that night was that he spoke for every passive-aggressive, trifling numbnut watching, & they loved him for it.    

     This is the guy who, when "The Jay Leno Show" was announced, proudly went on record that his show could be produced for a fraction of the cost of a weekly scripted drama (this is also the guy whose idea of self-deprecation is [in high-pitched, nasal, schtick-voice] "I-i-i-i've got a big chin!"  *rimshot*) .  I remember what I thought to myself when I first read that.....it went something along the lines of, "hmmm...really?  what a douche."  Congratulations, Jay.  I'm sure all the writers, actors, directors, wardrobers, lighting technicians, etc., who would otherwise have a job will be watching your show & cheering, since they now have the fantastic opportunity to vicariously achieve creative fulfillment through you!  I bet they'll all be staring out of the windows of their cheap LA apartments while they wait for a phone call for a gig, gleefully awaiting the opportunity to cheer you on when you eventually drive past in your newly selected 200th Very Expensive Vintage Car!  Go, Jay, Go!

     Recently, Leno also demonstrated how truly fucked-up he is by taking characteristically reactionary, gutless swipes at NBC & Letterman.   NBC has backed this guy for so long, with so much money.  They made a "New Coke"-type series of decisions to effectively void the promise they made to Conan O'Brien, all in an effort to accommodate Leno.  Apparently, back in 2004, when the decision to give O'Brien "Tonight" was made, Leno didn't have the savvy to raise his hand & ask, "uh, what happens to me?", & get a straight answer.  So at 2 minutes to midnight, as Conan moves in, Leno's ego keeps him up at night, urging "what are you doing?  you're a winner!  you're gonna march right down to the bosses & tell 'em that you won't go quietly into the night!".  And NBC actually moved heaven & earth to accommodate him.  And it failed.  And Leno wants to play victim.  Obscenely rich, undertalented, whiny, self-important, undeserving, sarcastic, fluke-success, devoid-of-irony, probably-often-thinks-of-himself-in-the-third-person victim.  The Letterman swipe?  Basically Hugh Grant revisited (I sure am glad I'm not him!  *rimshot*).  I never watched Letterman because I thought he had a healthy attitude towards women.  Next!  

     Suffice to say I hope Conan finds a gig befitting of him, & wouldn't begrudge him if he slashed a few tires in the NBC executive parking lot, as Leno slides his greasy reptilian ass back into the Tonight Show chair, & congratulates himself on being so valuable.  As little respect as I have for the Tonight Show, & its undeserving status as a Pillar of Television Comedy, I'd hoped O'Brien might change my opinion.  However, NBC has ensured that that's not going to happen, as it puts the show back into deep-freeze comedy Siberia, with Leno at the helm joyfully keeping things sharp as a spoon & devoid of relevance.    

     Thanks for the chat, Ichronic.  I really hope there is a backlash against Leno, & NBC takes a P.R. bath over their soulless allegiance to him.  But I'm not holding my breath.