Four paragraphs from the bottom of Wednesday’s New York Times story on the impending ouster of Jay Leno comes a very telling sentence. After nearly 800 words detailing NBC’s suddenly desperate scramble to remove Leno from his Tonight Show perch and replace him with Jimmy Fallon, reporter Bill Carter points out, “Another complicating factor has been Mr. Leno’s continued success in the ratings.”
Such has been the tragedy of Jay Leno’s career: scorned by critics, reviled by all of comedy, plotted against by executives. The host lives a lonely life, unloved by anyone except the viewers.
For 21 years, Leno has sat (mostly) at the top of the late-night time-slot wars. To get to No. 1 of anything in television is no easy feat. To get to No. 1 and stay there for 21 years is unimaginable. To do that on a network that for most of the past decade has been America’s longest running car wreck is a feat worthy of a Marvel comics superhero.
And what has been Leno’s thanks for this? A constant, never-ceasing demand from the chattering classes that he be replaced. Until now, as he still remains at the top of the after hours pyramid, NBC is apparently willing to risk another round of PR humiliation in order to purge its king.
If it seems a classic case of “attacking your successes,” such is the familar mania that Leno inspires in people.
So from where does the hatred toward Leno arise? Why after all these years have so many never been able to make their peace with the long-chinned chat titan?
First of all, it goes back to his original sin. The Leno/Letterman feud was the subject of Carter’s popular book, The Late Shift, which yielded an HBO movie — and a reputation for moral cowardice Leno has not been able to shed. In the eyes of the critical establishment, no one who took on David Letterman was going to come out looking good.
The former Late Night host remains one of the great innovators in television history and is the man largely responsible for introducing irony in everyday language. If you still believe, as many critics do, that TV should largely be about itself and every talk show should be an examination of what it is to be a talk show, you have David Letterman to thank.
It didn’t help matters that in the official portrayals, Leno came across as a sniveling backstabber, unable to confront or defend even his most loyal supporters. And worse still that once he took the Tonight Show reins, he immediately went to work shaving the rough edges off the formerly caustic persona and transforming himself into the modern milquetoast we know today. It was a metamorphosis that many still cringe to recall. (“He willfully shut the switch off,” shuddered Patton Oswalt.)
And worse still, it worked! After Letterman settled in at CBS, the defanged Leno beat him, and has continued to beat him to this day.
And then came round two. NBC’s handling of the Leno 10 p.m. experiment was a case study in PR malpractice. However, despite the scorn visited upon them as the project unfolded and in its horrific aftermath, the idea was anything but insane. NBC, looking to bring a younger face to its lineup with Conan O’Brien, was simultaneously faced with the prospect of Leno defecting to another network from where he would duly beat them silly. Further, with network scripted shows failing across the landscape like the Charge of the Light Brigade, the notion of having an hour less of expensive, doomed dramatic cannon fodder does not seem as idiotic as it was painted at the time. If you think this was pure madness, consider that two years later, many of NBC’s 10 p.m. shows get lower ratings then the far less expensive Leno show did in their slot. In the light of the subsequent prime-time holocaust, the Leno move looks almost visionary.
But no matter. Between the Lenophobia (and its counterpart disease Jeff Zuckerphobia) and the network’s catastrophic handling of the situation, the knives were out as they rarely are for anything in television. Leno won The Tonight Show back, but once again it was a scorched earth victory.
The combined effect of all these sins was to set in stone an animus toward Leno that nothing can touch. To be a thinking or cool person in America is to hate Jay, and like Dave, or Conan, or Kimmel, or Jon Stewart: anyone in the long line of talk show hosts breaking off a niche of the stratifying media world by being edgier and cooler than Leno.
And now, again, there is the cry to get Jay the hell out of there. When Jimmy Kimmel was getting a fraction the ratings that Leno now holds, barely a peep was heard demanding his ouster. One never hears that second-place (and scandal-prone himself) Letterman “must go.” Carter writes that the move is driven by NBC’s need to bring in younger viewers to the network, and the belief that Fallon can succeed at this where Leno has failed. Maybe, maybe not. But when one looks across the rubble of the NBC lineup, it would seem there are better places to start with that effort than in with the network’s one clear victory.
But such is the way in television conversation these days. As America divides into tribes, the media, the pundits, and the television critics have grouped into one very distinct tribe, with very distinct tastes. And if you, like them, live in a tribe where Leno hating is an official religion, it’s very hard to imagine there exists a larger world where he is actually one of the most successful media figures of our times.