Jay Leno and the Persistence of Mediocrity

There are times when I feel profoundly disconnected from humanity. Like, I operate on a completely different wavelength than the rest of the world. These moments tend to occur whenever I turn on the TV. Or read anything online. Or leave the house.

I realize this is an extremely childish and narcissistic POV. Everyone feels different–Free to Be You and Me taught me that. Well, that and the inherent creepiness of baby puppets.

But how am I supposed to feel, gentle reader, when I’m told that the entire world is all a-twitter at the news that Jay Leno will host a 10pm talk show, and I think to myself, Wow, Jay Leno still exists?

I mean, seriously, people are excited about this? No one has ever been excited by anything Jay Leno has ever done. I challenge you to convince me otherwise.

leno.jpgI still don’t understand how Jay Leno got to be Johnny Carson’s successor. Who let that happen? Shouldn’t that have been reviewed by the Council of Things That Make No Damn Sense?

Johnny Carson was witty and urbane, a gifted comedian and a master interviewer. No one has ever used any of those words to describe Jay Leno, except prefaced with the word “not”.

People still talk about sketches Johnny Carson used to do on The Tonight Show. You see clips of his most famous celebrity interviews on TV all the time. Jon Stewart imitates him at least once a night. He remains the gold standard by which all late night fare is judged.

You think they’ll sell “The Best of Jay Leno” DVDs some day? Nope, and you will never say this to your grandkids:

Back in my day, we all used to gather ’round the television and watch The Jay Leno Program. I still remember the time he found a midget version of himself! And the time Kevin Eubanks pretended to laugh at his monologue for the 8 millionth time! Oh, it was magic!

What are Jay Leno’s most famous bits? There’s “Headlines,” where he reads wacky news items. And there’s “Jaywalking,” where he interviews idiots on the street.

What do these two bits have in common? They don’t involve any creativity on the part of Jay Leno whatsoever.

One of them rests solely on clippings sent to him by readers, and the other relies on the dumbassery of the average schmo in the street. Jay Leno’s contribution to both of them is speaking into a microphone. That’s it. A box turtle could do either of these routines and get the same amount of laughs.

Then why does The Tonight Show continue to rule the 11:30 slot, you ask? Because most people who watch network TV at that hour are the kind of people who simply leave their TVs on. Entertainment is not something they choose, but something to which they subject themselves.

Also, never underestimate the laziness of the average American. Even with the ubiquity of the remote control, someone watching their local NBC news at 11pm will, in all likelihood, not change the channel when Jay hits the air. Why? Because pressing the LAST button on their TV remote burns far too many calories.

Or, an alternative explanation: they aren’t conscious. I don’t think the Nielsen folks have stats on such things, but if they did, I’m willing to wager that at least 65 percent of all Tonight Show “viewers” passed out during Chuck.

Jay Leno is the living embodiment of a sad but true Entertainment Principle: You don’t have to be funny to succeed at Comedy. Comedy with a capital C has nothing to do with making people laugh. It means calling yourself a Comedian and carving out a Comedic career path, where humor is actually secondary to your quest. Or tertiary, or even
lower in your hierarchy.

There are many ways to succeed at Comedy without being funny. You can mistake being “offensive” for being funny, like Howard Stern or Carlos Mencia. You can gimmick your way to success, like Gallagher or Jeff Dunham.

If you’re Jay Leno, you succeed by Existence. You do something you call Comedy, making sure that it’s completely middle-of-the-road. If it offends no one–and delights no one–you can keep doing it and doing it and doing it and just be around in Comedy. This is the surest way to make it to the top, as long as your goal is to succeed at succeeding, rather than succeed at being funny or making people laugh.

Sitcoms can survive for years this way. Arrested Development was canceled because it was too weird and never garnered an audience large enough for network TV. But According to Jim has been on for eight seasons. I bet you didn’t even know it was still on. Not a single human being other than Jim Belushi will mourn that show when it’s canceled, and no one will ever watch it again once it’s gone. But it is so perfectly mediocre and below-the-radar that it could run, unnoticed, for another 12 years if the network execs let it.

My question is, why did NBC feel the need to placate Jay Leno? Why was the network so worried to lose him? Especially considering that he agreed to vacate the Tonight Show seat, only to turn around and complain he was being pushed out.

Let me get this straight. Jay Leno walked into a boardroom in Hollywood and said, “If you don’t accommodate my need to be the number one talk show host on the NBC network, I am taking my services elsewhere, gentlemen!” And faced with this empty ultimatum from an eminently replaceable “star”, rather than tell him to take a fuckin’ hike, NBC execs cowered in fear and did his bidding?

Or, even worse: Unprompted by any threats from Jay Leno, NBC panicked at the thought of viewers following him over to another network and devised a way to keep him. Because there’sno way they could find another human being who tells 10-year-old Monica Lewinsky jokes the way Jay Leno does.

Or maybe they were worried that they couldn’t find someone so aggressively mediocre, so perfectly average. Maybe they got scared that they promised the 11:30 slot to Conan O’Brien, a weird looking guy with an odd sense of humor who people tend to feel strongly about–they either completely love him or don’t get him at all. No one has ever completely loved Jay Leno (well, maybe his mom), and no one over the age of 6 months has any difficulty “getting” him.

Trust me: If Jay Leno walked away from The Tonight Show tomorrow, no one would be sitting on the edge of their seat, waiting with baited breath to hear the next chapter in the exicting Jay Leno saga (except for media newshounds who have to pretend that he’s big news). And if he switched networks, you could count the number of people who would follow him on two hands.

Right? I mean, please, tell me I’m not nuts on this, folks.

One thought on “Jay Leno and the Persistence of Mediocrity”

  1. I love that episode of “The Simpsons” where Krusty goes all George Carlin/Bill Hicks. In regards to Jay Leno “Who wants to hear some big chin-ed schlub read headlines from the Palookaville Times?”
    No one will ever utter “comedy legend” and “Jay Leno” in the same sentence.

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