The Jay Leno Show approacheth (September 14, for those of you into calendar-marking), and with it, a lot of confusion as to the meaning of Leno. Aaron Barnhart’s article is probably the best piece I’ve seen so far on the fiendishly brilliant “image control” that Leno and NBC have practiced since he took over The Tonight Show — or more specifically, since a little while after he took over The Tonight Show, when he re-vamped the show to be more Middle-America friendly. As Barnhart points out, not only his comedy but his biography changed to fit the new image. As a cool, smart stand-up comic, he emphasized what all cool dudes emphasize: their detachment from the rest of the world, so that they can stand back and make fun of a society to which they don’t quite belong. (Jerry Seinfeld and Leno were good friends and similar comedians, and Seinfeld’s whole persona is not only cool, but downright cold.) To make Tonight work for him, Leno re-invented himself as a guy who was no longer detached from his viewers, but one of them: a working Joe, someone who laughs at the same things they do and is interested in the same things they are (O.J., Monica Lewinsky). All late-night hosts have to make these jokes, but some of them find ways to demonstrate that they don’t quite like it, or to telegraph their contempt for corny humour. Leno stopped doing that.
The re-invention of Leno has been going on, as I said, for a long time, and was clearly a deliberate strategy on the part of NBC as well as Leno himself. I can’t find it online, but in his early Tonight days, before the Hugh Grant interview established him as late night comedy’s official Voice of Reason, I recall seeing a singing commercial about various decent hard-working Middle Americans who were “Standing Up for Jay.” (If I’m misquoting, forgive me; it’s been years since I saw it.) Leno hated the campaign, finding it corny, but it fit in with what he himself was doing for the show and his own humour. He was selling himself as the People’s host in comparison to the frosty Letterman, just like now he’s going to be a friendly presence for people who find other 10 p.m. shows to be too dark and depressing.
The strategy worked because Leno knew that he had to find a niche. He was a hip guy, but Letterman had the Hip demographic sewn up. He couldn’t counter Letterman with warmth, because while Letterman is totally incapable of warmth, Leno is only close to totally incapable of it. (That was Carson’s big thing: somehow he projected warmth and charm, or as much of it as a superstar comedian can have. Nobody’s going to be able to do that again, though Craig Ferguson’s bursts of candour have made him seem more like a real person than most hosts. And Jon Stewart, while he serves a relatively small audience, does try to project a sense that he’s the viewer’s pal.) If he can’t do Hip, and he can’t do Warm, then the only thing to do was to be the host who was on the side of the viewers, liking what they liked, saying to Hugh Grant what they wished they could say. It doesn’t lend itself to good comedy, since really funny comedy usually gives the audience something they weren’t quite expecting (even if it’s within the context of a routine about something that is very familiar to them) and Leno’s act, on Tonight and on his new show, is based on giving the audience exactly what they were expecting. But it works.
I found Barnhart’s piece via Mark Evanier, who, back in 1995, wrote an article also called “Standing Up For Jay.” The piece was about why stand-up comics thought they did better performances on Leno’s show than on Letterman’s — though neither of them were as good for comedians as Carson was — because Letterman tended to make everything about him, and his studio audience followed suit by focusing mainly on what he was doing.