I guess I should begin this piece with a confession: I have never, in my adult life, watched a single episode of Jay Leno's The Tonight Show from start to finish. Oh sure, I've caught bits and pieces here and there–it's hard not to–but my exposure to it consists almost entirely of suffering through the last few minutes while waiting for Conan. This is not because I think Jay Leno is untalented. On the contrary, I think that in the eighties at least Leno was a consummate professional, a master craftsman who more or less perfected the tricky business of telling jokes to strangers.
But after gracelessly taking over The Tonight Show Leno seemed to have made a calculated effort to pander to the lowest common denominator. He became an exemplar of lazy sub-mediocrity, a prototypical hack whose contempt for his audience and their intelligence shines through in every lame one-liner and hackneyed bit. The purest example of Leno's contempt for his audience is Jaywalking, a bit whose underlying conceit seems to be "Aren't the people who watch my show morons? God, I've made a fucking fortune off these slow-witted dullards and even I have nothing but seething hatred for them." It's a sneaky form of class warfare really, where a rich, rich man laughs derisively at the mouth-breathing proles who make it possible for him to have a garage full of sports cars and motorcycles. The mere sound of Leno's opening and closing muzak–as soulless and bland as the show it bookends–is enough to induce Pavlovian shivers of revulsion.
Actually the music tells the whole story. Conan's opening theme sets the tone for the show: hip, jazzy, infectious and caffeinated to the point of being coked-up. Leno's theme and closing music, on the other hand, are musical sleeping pills gently lulling his audience to dreamland.
I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that Leno is the lead-in for Conan. Leno and Conan aren't just dissimilar; they're fucking antithetical. It'd be like Mad TV serving as the lead-in for Mr. Show. Who out there chases Leno with Conesy? Do fans of both of these programs even exist? If there really are folks out there who enjoy Leno and Conan equally I'd very much like to hear from them.
So I am watching tonight at least partially out of Schadenfreude. Tonight's episode provides a fascinating opportunity to see Leno perform without a net, without his writers and the support system that allows him to be so staggeringly banal day in and day out. Would he rise to the challenge? Would the Leno of old return after a lengthy hibernation or would the fundamental emptiness of his shtick be exposed? Would a performer perpetually stuck on autopilot find his feet or fail before an audience starved for fresh funny? How many Miller Genuine Drafts would it take to get me through the show?
Alas, my hopes of a once-in-a-lifetime trainwreck of televisual hideousness were squashed early as Jay Leno minus writers turned out to be a lot like Jay Leno with writers–a slick, smooth-running pandering machine. Despite beautiful, beautiful drunk talk of late-night hosts eschewing monologues Leno plowed his way through a series of groaners and eye-roll-inducing one-liners (complete with rimshots!) in the opening monologue like a joke-dispensing android. Oh boy, that Dennis Kucinich short joke was nearly as hilarious as the gratuitous Monica Lewinsky reference.
Deep into this opening awfulness Leno introduced an online cartoon that barreled through all of 2007's most obvious punchlines and satirical targets. Wow, a crudely animated current-events themed "We Didn't Start The Fire" parody. Did I somehow slip into a time warp and end up back in 1989? The retro vibe was only strengthened when Leno was looking for an edgy, dangerous rock-band to name-check while interviewing Mike Huckabee. The best he could come up with was Whitesnake. Clearly, this is a man with his finger on the pulse of tomorrow.
My favorite segment, and by "favorite segment" I of course mean the least awful part of the show was when Leno took questions from the audience–in these grim, strike-infested days filling out air time is clearly priority number one–and told a rambling anecdote about an ex-girlfriend whose mother encouraged her not to move to L.A with Jay out of fear that he'd try to turn her Catholic. It wasn't, you know, funny or anything, but it was just about the only moment in the show when Leno actually seemed kinda human.
Then came a vapid two-segment bit with Mike Huckabee where Leno lazily lobbed softballs at the Republican Presidential hopeful. Actually "softballs" doesn't really do justice to the inane, sycophantic questions Leno asked. It was more like he tossed a big beach ball over home plate, then instructed his teammates to lie down until Huckabee pranced around the bases several times.
The crowd was more padded with ringers than a George W. Bush photo op; it laughed uproariously at Leno. Then again it busted a gut at everything Huckabee said as well, so its standards were pretty damn low. The less said about the Emeril and Chingy segments the better. All in all it was pretty much exactly as bad as I expected but a whole lot smoother. Apparently Leno doesn't need writers to sleepwalk through a dreary, laughless Tonight Show. O.K, I've officially watched an entire episode of Jay Leno's Tonight Show. That's enough for this lifetime. And the next. grade: D Stray Observations: -How fucking passive aggressive was Leno's monologue? He was all about backing the writers, except of course for the part where he implicitly blamed them for keeping their non-writing co-workers from picking up a paycheck -The blandly semi-affable Mike Huckabee sat in on the bass. Mr. Huckabee I knew Bill Clinton. I read his horrible fucking book and you Sir, are no Bill Clinton -I was loving the Sanjaya reference. Ah but the spirit of Bill Hicks lives on. -The Unknown Comic fucked Jay Leno's wife. Just figured I'd throw that out. -I take back what I said about Leno hating his audience–he totally slapped some audience member's hands before his monologue. -Where are the Dancing Itos? They always made me laugh. And by "laugh" I of course mean "fear for the future of popular culture" -What the hell are you doing reading this post at two in the morning? You should totally be reading Patton Oswalt's blog post instead, I write, as if you didn't click first on that anyway, and rightly so.