These are angry days in America, in the world, really. It’s a time when everything feels out of control. With every passing day, every single one of us is realizing even more just how powerless we are within our lives, and that’s making us angrier and angrier than ever. When Jay Leno first overtook David Letterman in the ratings in the mid-90s, he got a lot of credit for being the “nice” host, but there’s very little written about just how nasty of a show his show can be. Leno himself is a mostly affable presence, but he presides over a show that is very weird and mean-spirited and cruel indeed.
I haven’t watched a ton of Leno in big gulps in the past, largely because I just don’t watch a ton of late night television period and because Leno’s broad-based humor has never been a big draw for me. But, as corny as Leno’s jokes can be, I don’t think I realized quite how much his show has been about picking on the little guy, and in most cases, the little guy is just your ordinary, average, everyday Joe. There’s an undercurrent to that that’s really disquieting and uncomfortable, and after watching a full week of Leno’s new show, it’s the overriding feeling I get from the series so far.
This is not to say that Leno can’t be a nice guy still. Take a look at these two sketches for a comparison between the two sides of the guy:
When I mentioned in my review of the first episode of The Jay Leno Show that Leno’s shtick is based almost entirely around the idea that Leno and his viewers are smarter than the subjects of Leno’s jokes and thus better than them, someone in the comments section pointed out, quite rightly, that nearly all comics use this as the basis of their acts, at least post-George Carlin. And that’s a valid point. To watch a comic perform is to be invited into a universe where you and the comic are the smart, with-it people, fighting valiantly against the idiots of the world. But Leno’s show is based almost entirely on fostering a weird, populist anger that’s free-floating and non-partisan, yes, but definitely present at all times. Leno works hard to whip his audience up into what sort of approaches a humorous fervor. His broad, corny jokes have an acid core to them that can make one squeamish.
Check out that first clip again. Listen to how the audience hoots after it. The very core of the joke is not so bad, I guess – celebrities keep speaking up, and they’re stupid when they do it, and don’t you wish they’d shut up? – but the way the joke is executed is just about as nasty as possible. Celebrities won’t shut up? Then make them – and everyone else in your life who speaks their mind – shut up in the most forcible way possible. It’s duct tape! You’re a common man in middle America. The world is strange and frightening to you. Duct tape it is! (This is to say nothing of the weird, racial undertones here. Sure, they bent over backward to get Roger Federer in there, but you can’t tell me you didn’t think about that when watching the bit.)
Coming from middle America, obviously, I don’t think that all common men from there find the world strange and frightening, but there’s a strange, audience-hating undercurrent to Leno’s show. He certainly THINKS that’s how middle America feels about the world, and he’s happy to indulge the base impulses he believes middle America has. To some degree, this isn’t such a big deal when the targets are celebrities, politicians and other newsmakers. Living in the U.S. is living in a place where snarking on the people in the news is something that happens all the time, and if Leno wants to ride Kanye West apology jokes into the ground (since he did one in every episode this week), West chose the life of fame and can almost certainly withstand the wisecracks.
It’s the other stuff in Leno’s show that leaves the nastier aftertaste by far. Leno’s standard stuff is all about identifying with the common man, yes (hence the “I love cars! I love working hard!” persona he’s adopted in the years since he took over The Tonight Show), and he gets that making broad jokes about celebrities like, say, O.J. Simpson or the president is a part of that. But a lot of his regular segments are predicated on the idea that you, the common man, most want to guffaw at other regular people who maybe aren’t quite as smart as you. Leno’s show is designed to make everybody feel superior to EVERYbody, and that’s what makes it distasteful. A lot of comedy is based on elitism (even, like, the Blue Collar Comedy guys base their comedy around the idea that common-sensical folks are smarter than those coastal hippies), but Leno’s comedy too often turns into something approaching bullies making fun of a kid on the schoolyard.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! Look at that second clip. I don’t find any of this funny, per se, but I still really LIKE the bit. I think it’s nice to see Leno out and about in his LA neighborhood, talking to the neighbors and finding out what they do for a living and helping them get their days over so they can watch his show. It’s surprisingly sweet, and it lives up to the “nice” reputation Leno had in the ‘90s. The jokes here are still a little corny for me (in that they’re all eminently predictable), but it’s still a fun little bit to watch.
I wish Leno would re-embrace this side of himself, since I think that would make the pill that he’s America’s number one late night talk show host easier to swallow for the hipsters of our great nation. Leno’s ratings have been enormous this past week, and even though he went virtually competition-less this week, there’s no reason to believe he’s not going to settle in as a reliable alternative to whatever CBS and ABC are airing in that hour, rather than fade so far into oblivion that he just goes away. That he’s gotten this far by indulging in the baser instincts of his audience rankles.
And the worst thing is that there are the elements of a good show in The Jay Leno Show. His Ten @ 10 segment, where he talks to celebrities around the world and asks them ten questions about their lives is a potentially good concept, but for the fact that the questions he’s come up with are boring and overly worshipful. (Leno has never been a strong interviewer, but these sort of segments would allow for him to have ten really incisive questions pre-prepared.) Similarly, the idea that certain guests will have to earn the right to show their clips – as Michael Moore did by singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in Tuesday’s show – is a potentially good one. I also have liked some of the comedy segments with folks like D.L. Hughley (which felt like a Daily Show bit) or Rachael Harris. But the problems of the show keep circling right back to the tone that the host has set for it, and that seems like something both Leno and his producers will be loath to change.
Week 1 Grade: D
- That’s it for our coverage of The Jay Leno Show. Unless it suddenly becomes into the re-invention of The Ed Sullivan Show I wish and hope it could be.
- Jaime Weinman wrote about some of these same issues (and probably did it better, too) here.
- Also, just to prove I am not a humorless crank, I laughed at this, even though it goes against everything I said above. Butterflies!