Liking Leno Again

Now that Jay Leno (b. 1950) has become Tip O’Neill, I like him again. I caught him on Bill Maher’s show the other day after not having watched him in action for like a decade, and was delighted to find that he was himself again, and by that I mean, refreshingly, spontaneously funny. Chubby and white haired and full of balloon juice.

As a New Englander, I had been predisposed to love the young Leno, with his Massachusetts accent, his crazy lisp, and his working class, seemingly streetwise observations. He was a regular guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman. He was a smart ass and a bullshit artist, a term I usually apply with admiration and affection. And if you were observant you could catch him in acting roles, on such shows as Good Times, AliceLaverne and Shirley, and One Day at a Time, and such movies as Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), American Hot Wax (1978), Americathon (1979) and John Waters’ Polyester (1981).

Then — the Peter Principle came into play. The Peter Principle is a business concept that notes the phenomenon that sometimes capable people are promoted to positions above where they are best suited. I would never for a second imply that Leno did a “bad” job as the host of The Tonight Show. Millions of people liked him in that capacity. I, however, did not. He essentially held the post between 1992 and 2014, and his arrival and departure were both characterized by sturm und drang.

On the front end, there was his naming to the position at all. There was so much drama about who Johnny Carson would name as his successor. At one point, Joan Rivers seemed a done deal, but she alienated the King of Late Night by taking her own talk show at Fox in direct competition with him. So it came down to Leno and Letterman butting heads over it. I pretty much adored Letterman and assumed he was a fait accompli, since he had this long track record behind him, and his Late Night had followed The Tonight Show on the schedule. But ultimately Leno won, presumably because he was more of a “people person”, he was warmer, not as strange or sarcastic or angry. (Those, of course, are the very things I happen to LOVE about Letterman). So I was pretty pissed at the idea of a Leno Tonight Show. And worse than that, he changed. Granted, I always tuned in to him on The Tonight Show with skepticism given what had happened, but there were also real changes. I love the material he wrote for himself in his stand-up days. But the material his staff wrote for him on The Tonight Show was just the worst, the most middle-of-the-road banal pablum. It wasn’t “him” at all. Neither was HE. He became all slick and posh, decked out in expensive threads, no longer the average guy you could relate to. Somehow millions of people liked like this, which merely reinforced my disdain for…lots of people.

The second episode of mishigas concerned Leno’s original departure from the show. Leno first left The Tonight Show in 2009 and started a new talk show in an earlier slot (much as predecessors like Steve Allen and Jack Paar had done). Conan O’Brien was hired to replace him. And for whatever reason, viewership dropped off. This, too, was unfathomable to me. Conan’s not my favorite late-night host in the world, but I do like him better at the job than Leno. He’s funny and clever and alert. But I guess he’s too offbeat for the unwashed. So, with more great drama, Conan was fired and Leno came back for another few years, finally handing the baton to Jimmy Fallon in 2014.

And since then? He’s returned to himself! He’s hosted Jay Leno’s Garage since 2014, a show where he talks about custom cars, motorcycles, and the like, and he went back to his first love, stand-up, performing over 200 live dates a year. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.