The other night, while fast-forwarding through the commercials during Parks and Recreation, one of the Peacock’s ads caught my eye: a spot for The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno. Leno commercials aren’t usually worth stopping (or even slowing down to 2x) for, but this one was worth consideration, and a chuckle: it was a syrupy reminder that Jay’s tenure as host of Tonight was winding down, and won’t you join us for these last few shows, as these beloved celebrities drop in for one last trip to the Leno couch? The commercial made me laugh out loud — the first time anything Leno-related has provoked that reaction in a good 20-plus years. Because after all, haven’t we done this before? And why should we think we’re not going to do it again? There’s certainly nothing in Leno’s behavior (particularly his passive/aggressive interviews) to indicate he’s going happily this time, and the fact that he can’t resist, at least subtly, playing the petulant child on his way out is doing little to reconfirm his status as the TV personality you love to hate.
A very quick bit of background, if you decided to sit out this or the previous round of the late-night wars: Back in 2004, worried about losing Conan O’Brien to a rival network, NBC promised him that Leno would hand off The Tonight Show to him in five years’ time. Leno acted like he was totally cool with it, but when that five years was up, he told any interviewer who would listen that he’d rather stay, and he’d happily go somewhere else, and that he was the victim in all this. So NBC gave him a 10pm show that was a disaster, and which helped sink the ratings for the Conan Tonight Show, and NBC tried to move Leno back to 11:35 and bump Conan to 12:05, and Conan said, “Thanks but no thanks,” so Jay got his Tonight Show back. And then last year, with Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night becoming a popular (and viral) success and Jay Leno continuing his reign as the favorite TV host of the MedicAlert set, they started the whole easing-Leno-out-the-door process over again.
But it’s different this time, Leno insists! After all, he told 60 Minutes, the last time NBC tried to replace him, “I got blindsided.” This time around, he has stressed, NBC asked him, instead of telling him. Asked by Steve Kroft if he would’ve liked to remain host of The Tonight Show, he responds, “It’s not my decision! I think I probably would’ve stayed if we didn’t have an extremely qualified young guy ready to jump in. Sure, I’d have stayed a little longer. But we have somebody very good, very talented… He’s really good. So you go with the new guy. Makes perfect sense to me… I understand this.”
As Vulture’s Josef Adalian points out, Leno needs to get better at lying about this stuff. When Kroft asks that question, Leno can’t resist trying to make himself the victim with his “It’s not my decision” and “I understand,” and he has to make sure that everyone knows he would have stayed longer, if it were up to him. This is not how you answer that question if you want to change your image as the attention-starved and power-hungry guy who took Conan’s job. As Adalian puts it, “his inability to really and truly let go — or at least his inability to convincingly lie about it — tarnishes that legacy. It makes him look small.”
The smart answer to Kroft’s question is, “No, I’m good. I’ve had a good, long run, longer than anybody but Johnny. I’m 63 years old. I’m ready.” But Jay Leno is incapable of saying that, even if it is just an act. And more importantly, he’s incapable of understanding why he should say that — or, if he understands, he doesn’t care. And this is why Jay Leno is a modern media supervillain.
When we think of supervillains, we think in comic book terms: Lex Luthor, The Joker, The Green Goblin. That’s fantasy, though; we seldom see real-life villains who are so flamboyant, the occasional Dick Cheney aside. But Jay Leno gets that kind of rise out of those of us who loathe him. Back in 2010, in the midst of the Conangate, Patton Oswalt made a comparison I’ve never quite shaken: “There’s a Rick Perlstein book called Nixonland… the kind of rise of Nixon, and his sort of drive to power, is weirdly parallel with Jay’s, I think.”
To illustrate the point, he compares Leno with Letterman — who, it should be noted, wouldn’t have generated a tenth of the ink Leno did, if he’d taken over Tonight and this whole thing had happened to him. “What kind of boss do you want?” Oswalt asks, hypothetically. “Do you want the kind of boss that acts like everything is great, and plans parties for people, and is always doing these fun activities, but is also passive-agressively kind of mean, and is always doing this weird behind the scenes stuff? Or someone like David Letterman, who is the boss, and is like, ‘I’m in a bad mood, I don’t wanna talk to you people,’ but you always know exactly where he stands? He doesn’t play any games with you?”
In other words, part of the reason that Leno’s backstage machinations and transparently undercutting interviews sit so poorly is because he’s tried so hard to create the image of the Nicest Guy in Hollywood: just a simple Joe, workin’ on his vintage cars, wearin’ his denim, wanting nothing more (as he says in Bill Carter’s The War for Late Night) than “to tell jokes at 11:30.” But that’s a gig that he (and particularly his manager, the late Helen Kushnick) played dirty to get, and that all evidence indicates he played dirty to keep. That doesn’t jibe with his carefully cultivated nice-guy image, and makes said image seem that much more artificial.
The other reason those of us who dislike Leno really dislike Leno is simply a question of talent. There was a time when Leno was, no exaggeration, the finest road comic in the country (I saw him live when I was 12 years old, and it remains one of the best comedy shows I’ve ever seen), and to be sure, there’s a large segment of the population that tunes in every night and thinks Jay Leno is a gifted and witty comic and talk-show host. But he’s not — and (as Oswalt points out) he clearly chose that path, reaching a point early in his Tonight Show run where “he willfully shut the switch off,” aiming for the middle of the road, the easy OJ Simpson joke, the inoffensive. (His final guests will be Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks, for Chrissakes, indicating his long-held preference for not only vanilla, but 20-year-old vanilla.) We’re a lot more tolerant of bad behavior from our geniuses — again, witness his rival, Letterman, and his weird sex scandal.
As Leno heads into his home stretch, he doesn’t have the options he did last time around; there’s no primetime slot waiting, and he’s said (though, y’know, grain of salt) that he wouldn’t do a rival show or go back to Tonight if Fallon fails there. But as Time’s James Poniewozik notes, there was this exchange on 60 Minutes:
Steve Kroft: You said all of the same things, exactly about Conan.
Jay Leno: Huh? Did I say the same things? Yeah, prob — well, maybe I did, yeah. Well, we’ll see what happens.
If ever a line called for a maniacal laugh at its conclusion, it’s that one.