At long last our national nightmare is over: Jay Leno is headed back to his spot atop “The Tonight Show,” and Conan O’Brien—more adorably known these days as Coco—has left the building with his gazillion-dollar consolation prize, quite possibly to set up shop at Fox.
Who would have imagined the battle between two filthy-rich late-night gabbers could command so much public attention, overshadowing even our obsessions with Jon Gosselin’s love life and Tiger Woods’s compulsion to play hide-the-putter with cocktail waitresses? And yet, even now, after all the articles and video clips and interviews devoted to NBC’s deliciously bloody melodrama, I still don’t quite get it: How did Jay Leno emerge as Great American Jerk, vilified across old and new media alike as an entitled, conniving, big-footing back-stabber who ruined poor Coco’s life?
Forget all the “Team Coco” t-shirts and the anonymous, overcaffeinated web barkers raging about how the sight of Leno makes them want to puke; at the height of this bizarre struggle, ABC late-night gabber Jimmy Kimmel did a mano-a-mano takedown of Leno that ranks among the most vicious assaults I’ve seen on network TV—and he did it on Leno’s own show. (Sample bit: Asked about his fondness for pranks, Kimmel shot back, “I think the best prank I ever pulled was I told a guy that ‘five years from now I’m going to give you my show,’ and then when the five years came, I gave it to him and then took it back almost instantly. It was hilarious.” Kimmel didn’t look amused; he looked steamed. And things only got rougher from there.) WTF? The vilification of NBC’s Jeff Zucker I understand—and applaud. This is, after all, the guy who brought us “Fear Factor” and “The Apprentice.” But what did Leno do that’s so appalling?
Surely people aren’t whining about the unfairness of the show shuffling. Yes, Coco has been dealt a harsh blow. In 2004, NBC execs made him a pinkie promise that, if he eschewed other suitors and stayed loyal to the network for five more years, he would then be handed the keys to arguably TV’s most celebrated brand. Obviously, Coco assumed he would be allowed to keep those keys for more than seven months. But lest any of us get too self-righteous, let’s recall that no one—least of all sweet little Coco—seemed especially troubled back then by the thought of kicking Leno to the curb. This despite the fact that, for about a decade, Leno had been dominating the ratings and raking in truly obscene wads of ad cash for the network. (A Fortune article from February 2004 reported that Leno’s “Tonight Show” was generating $100 million in annual earnings—roughly 15 percent of NBC’s total profits.) The eye-on-the-bottom-line calculation was that, come 2009, Leno would be a whopping 59 years old and no one, especially the all-powerful 18- to 49-year-old demographic, would want to watch his desiccated old carcass anymore. (No matter that Johnny Carson didn’t cede the throne until age 65; that was before advertisers’ youth fixation.) So it was that NBC execs informed Leno that, no matter how great a job he was doing, they were putting him out to pasture in five years to make way for Coco and his dewier demographic.
OK. Fair enough. TV is a bloody, mercenary business. So why now the shock and outrage that NBC would be so crass as to pull the plug on Coco for sinking below not only the ratings that Leno enjoyed as “Tonight Show” host (even among the youngest viewers, mind you) but also those of Letterman over at CBS? And even if people are riled at the network suits, why slam Leno? Sure, his 10 p.m. show turned out to be a dog, but that only upped the pressure on NBC to kill it and restore Leno asap to the perch where he had proved so valuable.
So why the hate? In talking with people and poring through the anti-Leno sniping, part of the irritation seems to stem from the sense that, despite his success, Leno doesn’t deserve “The Tonight Show” because he just isn’t funny. Period. Indeed, some people clearly hold the opinion that he has been ruining the franchise with his Dudley-Do-Right goofiness and aggressive Regular Guy persona. He lacks the edge and post-modern sensibility of Letterman or Coco or the Comedy Central gang. His humor is broader, dumber, and softer than the other guys’, in what has long been panned as a shameless pander to the unwashed masses. (To put it in 1990s sit-com terms, Leno is more “Home Improvement” than “Seinfeld.”) But to some degree, this is what it means to oversee “Big Tent” entertainment (as “The Tonight Show” has been characterized) rather than trafficking in the quirkier niche humor of Coco. Americans cuddle up with Leno even as the critics roll their eyes and bemoan national tastes. When Letterman’s “Late Show” launched opposite Leno in 1993 (during the last great salvo of the Late-Night Wars), Newsday’s TV critic cheered it as “the start of a taste and sensibility war that will divide the country between the mainstream and alternative audiences. The mainstream has Jay Leno. And all the others have Dave.” Or, as Letterman’s executive producer sniffed to Fortune in 2004, “Jay runs ‘The Tonight Show’ like a political campaign. Dave is an artist.”
Now, I myself have always been a Letterman gal. (What can I say? The deranged, gap-toothed grin slays me.) And, while Coco has never tickled my fancy, I’ll accept that he’s funnier—and certainly more au courant—than Leno. I mean, who isn’t? But to fault Leno for being unhip or too boringly mainstream in his humor is to misunderstand the function he serves as “Tonight Show” curator. Being a comedian has always been an ancillary part of the job. While Carson could be wickedly funny, during his and his predecessors’ tenures, the show’s monologue didn’t play nearly the central role it has under Leno, whose roots are in stand-up. Jack Parr in particular was known more as a charming interviewer than a funnyman.
Obviously, the show has evolved over its decades. But as with anything, as the brand ages it has become as much a source of comfort as of entertainment, meaning that harsh or raunchy or challenging humor has even less place there now. I am hardly the first to observe that people watch “The Tonight Show” as they’re winding down for bed—immediately following the doomsday hysteria of the local news, for god’s sake—when they’re tired, vulnerable, and snuggled into their jammies. For many, it’s like a televised sleeping pill. And for this, viewers do not want cutting-edge quips or hip snark or comedic artistry. They want vaguely topical humor that makes them feel like they’re in touch with the news of the day but that doesn’t make them think too hard. Just as key, they want that humor delivered by someone familiar, someone benign, someone as soothing as a glass of warm milk. The scarier the times, the greater the need for a reassuring (in Leno’s case, downright cartoonish) face reinterpreting the day. This is particularly true for older viewers, the demographic that Leno owned and that so swiftly abandoned Coco. As Bob Wright, Zucker’s predecessor as network CEO, once observed, “There are very, very few people who, like Jay, can stand up there with new material, every single night, night after night, and be appreciated by a very broad audience.” (Notice here that Wright says “be appreciated by” not “be considered uproariously funny by.”)
Does all this sound condescending, as though much of the American public prefers pabulum to haute cuisine and cannot abide a bedtime story—much less a storyteller—that makes them uncomfortable? Maybe. But it’s hard to argue with success. Leno has adeptly nurtured a not-too-edgy, not-too-challenging mass appeal over the years on the assumption that it is not his job to make the masses go “huh” so much as “ahhh.” (And maybe, every now and then, “ha, ha, ha.”) This may not make him the funniest guy in late-night, but neither does it make him the bad guy.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.