I know everyone is talking about David Letterman retiring and extolling the virtues of the Indiana native’s contribution to comedy. There is nothing wrong with that. He is/was awesome. There is something wrong however, with everyone’s compulsion to simultaneously talk smack on Leno like he wasn’t a big deal or worse yet, a piece of garbage hack with no redeeming value.
1) “He wasn’t funny.”
No actually he was. Jay Leno is widely regarded as one of the best stand-up comedians to come out of the 70’s. Even Letterman himself admitted this. “There seemed to be, by the time I went to California, this explosion of comedy. Like Jay Leno, the best ever that I had seen on stage.”
The main criticism of Jay was that he played it safe. In his early appearances on Letterman’s tonight show, Jay was seen as frenetic and agitated which is something that a lot of people found hilarious. On the Tonight Show, Jay’s jokes were tame and sanguine. However, when you’re handed the keys to a Lamborghini (aka the Tonight Show) you don’t go doing donuts in the parking lot of an abandoned JC Penny. He had a responsibility to the company and to the legacy to make the show as appealing as possible. And how do you do that? You play to the middle.
I don’t understand how appealing to a broad audience is seen as a negative. I think finding things that everyone thinks is funny is ten times harder than finding esoteric jokes that an audience of like-minded individuals enjoy.
2) “He stole the Tonight Show from Conan.”
Let’s not forget who put the wheels in motion on the whole Late Night debacle. Conan O’Brien had been pining for the Tonight Show host spot for years. He was starting to get a little antsy around 2003. That’s when Fox came to him and offered him a ridiculous amount of money to come be their flagship late night host. But Conan forced NBC’s hand with that offer. “I’d like the Tonight Show soon or I’ll see you a few channels down.” Despite Jay Leno still being number one in the ratings they made the move to oust Jay and promise the job to Conan. This would be like if the Patriots benched Tom Brady because they felt that a backup QB had a lot of potential and didn’t want to lose him in free agency to the Jets. It ended badly for everyone involved, but it the catastrophe wasn’t set in motion by Jay.
There’s a famous story about how Jay Leno hid in a closet while NBC execs were in the room discussing Johnny Carson’s departure. Jay supposedly used that information to change his approach and ultimately land the Tonight Show. Please tell me with a straight face that what Jay Leno did was the most underhanded thing in showbiz history.
3) “He had no artistic integrity.”
What more do you want from the guy? He was number one in the ratings consistently until his departure. The show was also nominated for Emmy’s 10 times during his tenure. Leno won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor just last year, joining past winners like Will Ferrell, Jonathan Winters, Tina Fey and Richard Pryor. So not only did normal tv-watching people apparently like him, the people in charge of gauging Television’s excellence also felt the same way.
So just chill on Leno. I’m a Conan guy at heart, but the dude isn’t as horrible as people are making him out to be.