It was recently announced that Jay Leno is in talks to launch a new show at CNBC, bringing him back to television for the first time since his departure from The Tonight Show, while keeping his career in the NBCUniversal family. And with that announcement, you could almost hear a collective sigh go up over the Internet, as if to say, “Really? This guy again?”
It’s no secret that Leno has not gelled well with the digital age. Nor is it well-hidden that his reputation’s suffered a rough few years. First their was his poorly-received primetime talk show, following his initial leave from Tonight. Shortly thereafter came the much-chronicled War for Late Night. During this period, even when Leno was trying to be diplomatic, he frequently ended up coming off as petulant and egomaniacal.
That side of his personality resurfaced again earlier this year, when he handed over the reigns of The Tonight Show to Jimmy Fallon. “It was hard not to conclude that, just as in 2009, Leno still thinks he is being unfairly and prematurely pushed out by the Peacock,” wrote Vulture’s Josef Adalian, following an interview the departing night host gave on 60 Minutes. “Leno might have a point here were it not for his own history with replacing late-night hosts. Remember, Johnny Carson was the undisputed king of late night when a young Leno rushed in to grab his job in the early nineties… just because NBC might theoretically be better off delaying things doesn’t mean Leno has a right to act hurt over what the network actually is doing.”
It’s hard to feel sorry for Jay Leno. He’s a multi-millionaire who’s had an incredibly successful career in television. But what makes Leno an interesting case is that people in show business don’t necessarily seem to like him any more than those outside of the industry do (with the exception of Jerry Seinfeld).
His battle with Conan O’Brien resulted in a lot of hurt feelings, which don’t appear to be getting resolved anytime soon. Before leaving NBC, O’Brien quipped, “Hosting The Tonight Show has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me, and I just want to say to the kids out there watching, you can do anything you want in life. Unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.” Several years later, in a Hollywood Reporter piece entitled, “The End of the Pity Party,” O’Brien followed up on this. “He certainly isn’t calling me,” O’Brien said. “The odds are we will both leave this Earth without speaking to each other, which is fine. There’s really nothing to say.”
Plenty of celebrities who weren’t involved in the late night struggle have voiced their distaste for Leno, too. Chris Rock actually told Leno he was a bad man to his face, following Leno’s reinstatement at The Tonight Show (Rock didn’t appear on Leno’s version of Tonight again.)
The fact that you’re reading this piece right now probably means you’re not a Jay Leno fan either. But despite the overwhelming distaste that exists for him, Leno’s resilience is not to be underrated. He’s also a notorious workaholic, who has even continued to host the NBC.com webseries, Jay Leno’s Garage, in his Tonight Show absence.
Breaking down why we hate Jay Leno so much, Entertainment Weekly’s Hillary Busis wrote in 2011:
Because he stole The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson’s rightful heir, David Letterman, way back in the early ’90s. Because he refused to simply retire when NBC tried to replace him with Conan O’Brien in 2009. Because his primetime Jay Leno Show tanked, sinking Conan’s Tonight Show before it had even really begun—and eventually forcing Conan to leave NBC for good. And most of all, because they say his jokes are broad, pandering, and eminently unfunny—which is a shame particularly because once upon a time, Leno had a reputation for being one of standup’s sharpest and edgiest comedians.
Gawker’s Roger Cormier tracked Leno’s journey from hip club comic to TV mediocrity in 2010. He starts by examining Leno’s many appearances on Late Night, wherein he would frequently complain about television, and joke with David Letterman about their personal lives. Through Letterman, Leno was put in contact with The Tonight Show. Then, thanks to savvy representation and toning down his curmudgeonly comedy, Leno’s career trajectory changed dramatically. As Cormier notes, “Jay Leno became the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show in 1987. To ensure that he would keep the momentum going and eventually take over for Johnny Carson permanently when Carson retired, Leno’s jokes began to lean more towards the safe side.”
After that, Letterman went from being Leno’s friend to his bitter rival, and they didn’t reunite till four years ago, for a Super Bowl commercial. Others soon followed suit, jumping on the Letterman bandwagon, and off the Leno train. In 1992, Arsenio Hall, already a promising upstart in the late night world, publicly dissed Leno. “I’m gonna treat him like we treated the kid on the high school basketball team who was the coach’s son,” Hall warned. “He was there because he was anointed, too. We tried to kick his ass, and that’s what I’m going to do—kick Jay’s ass.”
Hall’s comments here reflect a huge part of the “Jay Leno is the worst“ narrative, which is that he didn’t earn his place; Letterman put in his time, while Leno just showed up, guest-hosted a few times, then sat back as NBC and Carson handed him the job. Except that Leno had already spent years earning his stripes in stand-up and on the late night circuit, even though he had limited hosting experience. Moreover, Carson never liked him for the job. He neglected to thank Leno on his final broadcast, and always prefered Letterman for the position, later appearing on CBS’ Late Show, while never stopping by Leno’s version of Tonight.
Hall continued to have issues with Leno throughout his career, even accusing the Tonight Show host of spreading racist rumors about him at one point. The hate from Hall (and others, by that time) prompted Howard Stern to “defend” Jay Leno in 1993. “How can you be pissed at Jay Leno?” Stern asked. “He’s like a puppy. There couldn’t be a better ass kisser in the U.S. than Jay Leno.” This is the next big complaint against Leno, which is that he’s a suck-up. His interviews are rote and insincere. He’s like a hosting machine, feigning enthusiasm.
In contrast, Fallon seems genuinely into everyone he talks to; Leno, on the other hand, was always accused of phoning it in. Interestingly, the above comments would be about as positive as Stern would ever get regarding Jay, later siding with O’Brien’s in the 2010 controversy, and admonishing, “I’ve never seen anybody who behaves like a robot like this guy. Where’s the emotion? Where’s the humanity?”
Overtime, many people have blamed Leno’s “ass kissing,” as Howard Stern would call it, on insecurity. The Late Shift, author Bill Carter’s first book on the late night wars (later made into an HBO movie), describes an anecdote where Leno was so paranoid about his job, he actually hid in a closet so he could listen in on a phone call between NBC executives. The irony here, of course, is that Leno was on top of the late night ratings for many, many years. However, this only seemed to fuel his self-doubt, pushing him to become that much more watered down and mass-appeal friendly.
Once again, the reason this stings all the more in Leno’s case is that there was a time he was legitimately respected as a comedian. Patton Oswalt weighed in on this amidst the great late night fight. Oswalt stated, “Comedians that don’t like Jay Leno now, and I’m one of them—we’re not like, ‘Oh my God, Jay Leno sucks.’ It’s that we’re so hurt and disappointed that one of the best comedians of our generation willfully, like, threw that switch off.”
A good parallel here might be the band U2. On their 2007 Apple commercials, The Daily Dot’s Nico Lang observed, “For a band who was so keen to bite corporate America’s hand just seven years prior, it looked suspiciously like selling out.” The same could be said of Leno, too: For a guy who used to make fun of all the garbage on TV, he later turned into the embodiment of everything that is wrong with network television.
Another consistent Leno-hater is Jimmy Kimmel, who claims, “He totally sold out. He was a master chef who opened a Burger King.” In fact, all the way back in 2002, before Kimmel was about to enter the late night world himself, he said that his show would be “the comedy version of The Tonight Show.”
And Kimmel hasn’t let up on Leno in the years since, justifying his harsh criticism through the assertion that the two started to become friends in 2008, when Leno was considering moving to ABC, but that when he decided to stay put, he stopped calling Kimmel altogether. Kimmel also took O’Brien’s side in 2010, ripping into Leno particularly hard on several occasions.
Elaborating on his penchant for Leno-bashing in a Rolling Stone interview, Kimmel said, “ I think he turned comedy into factory work—and it comes across… It’s just amazing how insecure he is… The people who like Leno are largely the stupid group.”
This is the final charge against Jay Leno: he is the plain vanilla of comedy. He is the late night equivalent of background noise, and in pandering to the lowest common denominator, he lost all ability to be remotely unique. The world of late night is almost rooted in the cult of personality, and by the time he went off the air, describing Leno’s personality (other than talking about his love for cars and doing high-voiced impressions) was about as hard as finding a needle in a haystack. If Dave is the weird uncle, Conan is the quirky nerd, Craig is the loose cannon, Kimmel is the sly prankster, and Fallon is the life of the party, then Leno was always just there.
It has to be hard to stay cool when you’re on top for as long as Leno was. Leno himself pretty much says exactly that on a 2012 episode of FX’s Louie. Like U2 becoming the biggest band in the world, Leno becoming the biggest presence in late night all but guaranteed he would eventually lose any remaining hipness. “Bono has spent the last three and a half decades trying to get everyone to like him, but the greatest PR coup he could ever pull is to finally stop caring,” wrote Lang. Leno would’ve been wise to do the same.
In February, Grantland’s Steven Hyden warranted there’s no longer any difference between defending Leno and trashing him, going so far as to compare bringing up Leno’s once great stand-up career to “explaining how adorable a former child star used to be to illuminate how hideous the person in question became as an adult.”
Hyden also mentioned that the most readily apparent problem with Leno’s show for anyone under 30, which was the way his old school sensibilities lacked any of the viral video punch late night has used to stay relevant over the last few years. (Leno once recounted a story of one Internet commentator whose detest for him was so severe, they wrote they hoped he would die of AIDS.) Hyden asked, “When was the last time you saw one of Leno’s bits retweeted into your feed? Have you ever seen one? If so, who in the hell are you following?”
The funniest part of all this, according to Hyden? We wanted it that way. “As a longtime Leno loather, let me cop to this: I won’t miss his show, but I will miss complaining about his show,” he admitted. “Leno, self-consciously or not, played a great heel, and people my age relished every hiss and boo we spat at him.”
It’s true: Leno was the old guy. And while part of that image certainly came from him, part of it came from us, too. Leno reminded people of what TV used to be, not what TV is. Let’s be clear: The Tonight Show, as it was traditionally defined, died with Johnny Carson. Since then, America has become far too polarized in its viewing habits to gather around one consistent presence every night. Instead, we’ve been given options, choices in personalities to reflect our own personality. Not Leno though. Leno is a relic of a time when America really could get behind one late night host. And by trying to keep that ideal going, Leno ended up looking like the one guy in the office who didn’t get the memo.
In conclusion, Hyden argued that without Leno, it’s only a matter of time before the next generation of late night becomes uncool, too. “After all, Leno himself once signified a younger generation that ‘pushed aside’ Carson,” Hyden said. “And then he got old. Everybody gets old. Generational wars aren’t won on the basis of better ideas or funnier jokes. They are rigged contests that favor the young 100 percent of the time. But only in the short term. Eventually, we all get thrown over a cliff. So, congratulations, my brethren. After Thursday, we’re next on the chopping block.”
Is this possible? Perhaps; most people can’t stay the life of the party forever.
For what it’s worth though, Jay Leno doesn’t seem to be a truly evil person or anything. His uncontroversial and restrained personal life is somewhat legendary by now (the dude never even spent his Tonight Show money, supposedly). After appearing on CBS’ The Late Late Show last year, up and coming comic Cameron Esposito recounted a touching encounter with the biggest chin in show business, writing:
Listen, I know those things happened with The Tonight Show and Conan… At the time, alternative comics like myself tended to be pretty invested in Conan’s side of things. A few years later, Conan’s show is going strong and Jay’s about to retire again… So I’d like to weigh in now, before he leaves late night, as saying, ‘Hey thanks, Mr. Leno.’ You were kind when you didn’t have to be, quick on your feet, and genuinely funny. That stuff matters.
So at the very least, Jay Leno has that going for him. He may be one of the least respected men in show business, but contrary to popular belief, there are people with good things to say about the guy. Even if there aren’t very many of them.