Mar 9 2011

The Late Night Rundown – Jay Leno

Back in the 70′s, there was only Johnny Carson.  But since the retirement of the undisputed King of Late Night in 1992, there has been a plethora of new shows pop up, each with the same basic formula, but unique in their own way. After reading Bill Carter’s The War For Late Night, I have become addicted to late-night television all over again.  So I am starting a new series of posts dedicated to the many hosts out there currently making us laugh after prime time, analyzing one at a time.

For years, Jay Leno has had the reputation of being a workaholic, spending hours upon hours working on his monologue and the best jokes for it.  In fact, he reportedly works on almost nothing else, including the scripted bits, questions for the interview, and other areas of the show.  That’s what the writing staff does; no, Jay’s baby, his pride and joy, is the opening monologue, the longest one in late night, with the most punchlines, consistently, every night.  Jay is such a workaholic joke writer, in fact, that when the show is on break, he goes on tour, doing stand-up shows across the country delivering fresh material for an always-eager audience.

Why then, does Jay’s show feel so lifeless, so lazy and routine, so stale? It’s simple: quantity does not equal quality.  Jay delivers joke after joke after joke, all topical, all with predictable punchlines, all given in rapid succession, because the audience is usually just laughing politely, rather than genuinely.  The amount of time killed by the audience applauding after every punchline is staggering, all for jokes that don’t land because they’re not good.  The video clips superimpose figures and images – it’s obvious this show has one of the biggest budgets in late night – and still Tonight feels lost, because the material is second-rate.  These are the jokes that made it to the final cut?

I’m not gonna lie to ya – it was very difficult sitting through a week of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.  I’m no masochist.  The jokes are not funny, the scripted bits usually rely on material from people not associated with the show, and the interviews are a bore.  It’s obvious Jay spends little time on anything but his opening, which is sad, really.  The interviews don’t rely on comic relief from the host, but the guest, who Jay will let sink if he or she isn’t keeping the audience captivated with their prepared anecdote.  Jay merely sits and asks questions – he kills time by finding clips to show during the interview, from the guest’s past and their current promotion.  He rarely adds anything interesting or cracks a joke; in comparison, while he feels more conversational than Conan O’Brien, at least Conan knows when an interview is going south, and he does what he can to improve upon it.  Jay is merely there.

The funniest bits are the scripted ones, or the bits when Jay relies on material from his own audience.  I’m talking about Headlines and Jaywalking, of course.  And even these bits aren’t even that great, they’re just better than everything else around it.  One show had a correspondent talking to celebrities during a red-carpet Oscar-watching party, and got a few laughs from me.  Again, the laughs were not delivered by, and had nothing to do with, Jay Leno.  Headlines is, in case you are unfamiliar, newspaper clippings people send Jay from around the country, featuring funny pictures and typos.  Again, all Jay did was use a highlighter.  And Jaywalking, or this week, a “game show” called the Jaywalking All-Stars, probably the funniest thing the show consistently does, is just Jay asking regular dumb Americans simple questions about current events and general knowledge.  The answers are funny because the people are stupid, Jay’s reaction is the same as the audience watching it.  He becomes a spectator on his own fucking show.

The Tonight Show is well-rehearsed, flashy, smooth-running, and, ultimately, the most boring hour in late night television.  A talk show personality should have just that – a personality.  Jay’s direct competitor, David Letterman, has one, sometimes one that polarizes his audience.  Kimmel, Fallon, Ferguson, and the cable crew of Stewart, Colbert, Conan, Handler, and even Lopez all have let their personalities show on their program; when you’re hosting a show like this for a long time, eventually, it comes out.  At least, it does if it’s your show.  The Tonight Show with Jay Leno could be hosted by anyone, really, and no one would notice.  Because, even when Jay makes some observation, some critique about a celebrity or politician, to generate laughs, it always seems to sound like someone else gave him the idea, like it’s not his own.  It’s just a regurgitated comment someone else already made more cleverly, only this time it’s homogenized so the masses can agree with it.  Actually, that’s the thesis for Jay Leno’s entire show.


Feb 11 2011

Recommended Reading 2/11/11 – The War For Late Night

The War For Late Night, Bill Carter’s journalistic expose on the latest debacle in late night television, is surprisingly riveting.  Carter, of course, wrote the book for the first big go-around back in the 90’s, the bestseller Late Shift, which was made into a pretty awesome HBO movie.  That first book gave an inside perspective on the events dealing with the Tonight Show “scandal” between David Letterman, who lost out and moved to CBS, and Jay Leno, who ended up the “king of late night,” depending on who you ask.

The new book is even better, particularly because the story is juicier this time around.  Conan gets the Tonight Show promised to him, Jay is moved to prime time out of fear he won’t “retire” as promised and move to ABC – the ratings for both programs drop dramatically.  NBC proposes moving Jay back to 11:35 and Tonight to 12:05; Conan refuses out of respect for the flagship program and moves to TBS.  Meanwhile, the drama unfolds in front of millions on television, and Letterman, Kimmel, Ferguson, and the rest take it all in, but not without cracking jokes about it.

That’s the main focus, of course, and it seems like Carter talked to EVERYBODY about it, from insiders to the stars themselves.  Deep knowledge is made known about Team Jay, Team Conan, Team Dave, and the executives at the major networks.  Not to mention the book contains a vast amount of info on other late night stars not necessarily involved in the main plot, but interesting nevertheless (Stewart, Colbert, Fallon, et al.)  We learn alot about the late night/television business through the eyes of the entertainment, producers, presidents, everybody, and Carter remains objective throughout.  A fantastic read, I wasn’t able to put it down.