Let's try a thought experiment. Let's try to see if we can't work up a little sympathy for ol' Jay Leno.
Now, I take a few things as a given. One is that I am never going to enjoy the comedy of Mr. Jay Leno. Another is that the kind of thing he does is the kind of thing that sells tickets, as it were. I try not to get too worked up about this fact, since the taste of mainstream America skews toward the bland and safe. (Seen NCIS lately? It's a fairly competent show, but it's not exactly taking huge risks with the medium.) And that's fine! As long as the shows most people like don't blatantly offend me, I try not to begrudge people liking them. (Except for Criminal Minds. That's just terrible television right there.) There's been a lot of invective spewed at Leno over the past few weeks. I've actually spewed some of it. And, to be sure, the guy's tone-deaf about what people want to hear right now. He continues to make terrible, terrible jokes about how he's the victim in all of this, and his passive-aggressive streak against Conan O'Brien - not to mention his seeming inability to realize why so many people hate him so much - give him the uncouth appearance of a Wall Street fat cat smoking hundred dollar bills while everybody else is unemployed.
I say in the most recent episode of my podcast (which should go up tomorrow) that the loss of Conan at The Tonight Show represents, in some ways, the latest in a long series of crushing defeats for everyone who's not an angry, white Baby Boomer, like the universe was willing to give us a few good months there in late 2008 and early 2009 but after that, we had to realize just who still controlled the purse strings. Now, this is kind of far-reaching, and I'm not entirely sure I buy it (even though I said it), but I think one of the biggest frustrations about the fact that Leno is reascending to the Tonight Show throne is the fact that it seemed like things could change, that things could get better, and we all suddenly realized that, no, they couldn't.
But, again, that thought experiment.
Let's imagine for a second that, for whatever reason, Conan O'Brien had been doing The Tonight Show for the last 15-plus years, while Jay Leno did Late Night. Assume both men's talent levels stay roughly similar to each other, that Conan digs up the Masturbating Bear and Triumph and all the rest at 11:35 somehow, that Leno invents Headlines and Jaywalking and so on at 12:35. Now assume that both men are so popular that NBC doesn't want to make a decision and lose either. So they come up with a ridiculous scheme to make Conan O'Brien retire (in some accounts) and turn over The Tonight Show to Leno. Remember. Same shows.
As time wears on, Conan's Tonight Show is ridiculously popular, still, handily beating the competition, while Leno remains at the top in his time slot. But NBC still has this deal with both of them, and it intends to honor it. So before Conan can jump ship to ABC (which never set an end date for Lost in this alternate universe), NBC comes up with a wacky scheme to put him on at 10 p.m. Now, everyone can see this is a pretty terrible idea from any point of view that doesn't involve NBC saving lots of money, but all involved go along with the plan. Everybody wants to keep their jobs, right? And then, after four months of The Conan O'Brien Show and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno airing on the same night, NBC decides to toss Leno aside in favor of Conan, instead of sticking to the plan it had set up. Assume, then, that Conan is just as big of a dick in this universe as Leno has been in ours about the whole thing.
Here's the thing. I came up with this thought experiment, and all I can think is that this is somehow just. This despite the fact that I'm someone who gets all of the ins and outs of the TV business and just why NBC can't think long term because it needs to stanch the bleeding short term and worry about the long term (The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon? Really?) at some later date. I mean, yeah, I'm a critic first and foremost, and that means that I need to be most interested in who has the most talent, ultimately, but it still surprises me how little I care about Leno in this scenario, even though he's the one getting screwed over by NBC executives (who have fallen under too little scorn from the Internet hordes, to my mind) and, indirectly, by Conan. (Also, consider this: This is pretty much what almost happened when Letterman almost pushed Leno out of The Tonight Show. And that's still seen as a triumph of mediocrity!)
And even if Leno had come out and said, "Y'know, this sucks, but it's business, and I hope Conan lands on his feet" WEEKS ago, everyone would still just think he was a douchebag.
And I think a big part of that stems from the fact that there's this creeping fear that Leno is not going to have to pay, that he failed at 10 p.m. (though there was no way he could possibly succeed) and somehow got promoted, pushing a better, funnier man out of the timeslot. Regardless of the ratings conundrum (and I'd argue that a healthier NBC could have given Conan the room and primetime support he needed to grow, so this is really ALL Jeff Zucker's fault), there's a sense that Conan, just by being funnier, was somehow more righteous ALREADY, that all of these travails are the icing on the shit cake. He is, I guess, the Job of late night (who gets a sweet $40 million payout!). And there's the sense that when Leno returns to The Tonight Show, he's going to, well, go right back up to the top of the heap. And that's nauseating. Because the people who like Leno just don't give a shit. They don't give a shit about anything you and I care about. They just want to see weirdly mean-spirited borscht belt humor.
I've watched way more of The Jay Leno Show than anybody ever needs to, but I'm surprised at just how similar the damn thing is in every episode, how little it stretches to do anything. I say this as someone who was genuinely excited to see what Jay could come up with by trying to ditch most of the trappings of the late night talk show, even though I didn't like him much as a host or interviewer. But it's like every episode he does involves the same four or five jokes endlessly recycled. Got some footage? Add Jay's face over something incongruous (like a ballet dancer, as in tonight's show). Got something you found on the Internet? Build an elaborate joke around it (like the Bing image search thing which tried hard to seem unscripted while never making the jokes good enough to survive the scripted nature of the gag).
I say all of this as someone who's enjoyed Conan's Tonight Show but has mostly thrown in with The Daily Show and Letterman (part of the problem, if you will). I say this as someone who watched Late Night with Conan O'Brien through Andy Richter's leave taking and then drifted away from the show. And I say this as someone who thinks the late night format is worn out in general. I spend all of my time trying to figure out ways to like Jay Leno and understand why he's doing what he's doing, but I spend almost all of that time failing as well. The guy's a hack, and hacks shouldn't be on TV. But, oh, sadly, they are.
And forthwith: Your late night roundup!
The Jay Leno Show: I've outlined a lot of stuff I just didn't care about above, but I was surprised to see Chelsea Handler sucking up to Jay, honestly. Not that I thought she was on Team Coco (or whatever it's supposed to be), but I thought the comedians of the world had agreed they just didn't care for Leno anymore and would only do his show grudgingly. I guess not. Beyond that, Leno mostly toned down the humor about NBC, tossing in a few jokes (like a long list of shows canceled recently under NBC's watch that ripped off a Family Guy gag, of all things) but mostly returning to the toothless topical humor that made him so popular in the first place. There was one gag where he seemed to be sticking it to Conan (by typing "red hair + overrated" into the Bing image search bar) but really turned out to be sticking it to Carrot Top. So, you see? Jay's passive aggressive just like you, America!
The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien: The sheer anarchy that's taken over The Tonight Show since Conan pretty much got fired has been one of the best things to ever happen to it. Tonight, for God's sake, there was just a long shot of Andy staring into the middle distance that got funnier the longer it went on. The Max Weinberg Seven plays Zeppelin specifically because it costs NBC lots of money. And the best thing is that this sense of anarchy has spread to the interviews, all of which are looser and goofier than Conan's recent interviews (for all his strengths, I wouldn't say he's a consistently strong interview). His talk with Quentin Tarantino tonight - which involved the revelation that Tarantino choked Diane Kruger for the scene in Inglorious Basterds - was one of the better late night interviews I've seen in a while. And, best of all, the humor about NBC ditching him has finally turned self-deprecating, as he made a long list of what he would do after Friday's (final) show - check this space for future plans - and had on Norm MacDonald, of all people, to subtly mock him about how quickly he failed. Another thing I like about this last week of shows: Conan's turning the whole thing into an elaborate parody of the last week of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and that's the best way to stick it to Leno I can think of.
Everybody else: David Letterman, weirdly but awesomely, turned an entire segment over to someone from the World Food Program, Jimmy Fallon continued his weird descent into not very funny populist humor, Jon Stewart has been doing an excellent job of deconstructing the Democrats' implosion in Massachusetts, and Craig Ferguson continues to put on the late night show that will someday take down Jay Leno's empire. Mark my words.