(Every week on late-night round-up, one of our writers watches a week of one late-night talk show. This week, Erik Adams watches The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Next week: Phil Nugent on Chelsea Lately.)
Several times throughout The War For Late Night, Bill Carter’s chronicle of the 2009 dust-up over The Tonight Show, once and current Tonight Show host Jay Leno is described as a “creature of habit.” As Carter tells it, Leno’s life is ruled by routine, a routine that involves preparing and presenting hundreds of hours of late-night television per year. The impression—and often the implication—of these descriptions of Leno’s daily regimen is that, if he were to be abruptly yanked off television, Leno would simply whither up and die. (Probably in the driver’s seat of a vintage automobile.) Leno may well be his generation’s most prolific, most exacting writer and teller of jokes, but he would be nothing without a nightly platform for presenting those jokes. At times, it seems like his tussle with Conan O’Brien over the Tonight Show desk was based purely on the need to stay in the continuous loop he started after taking the reins from Johnny Carson in 1993.
Of course, there’s a lot of hyperbole in these observations. Leno remains—as he was back in those crazy days of autumn ’09—an in-demand stand-up comedian, and there are enough big rooms at the world’s casinos to keep him chugging happily along for the rest of his natural life. But the point Carter makes in his book remains valid nearly two years after O’Brien passed The Tonight Show back to Leno: Jay Leno values consistency above all.
It’s become a cliché to draw parallels between the comic’s gearhead instincts and the way he treats his day job, but it’s a cliché that gains supporting evidence with each passing episode of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. In the early 1990s, NBC gave Leno the keys to its most coveted and flashiest company car, and in 2012 he continues to drive the thing so carefully and cautiously, you might mistake for it the family station wagon. It’s dependable, reliable, and receives check-ups so regularly (you don’t need Carter to tell you that Leno and executive producer Debbie Vickers monitor The Tonight Show’s ratings on a minute-by-minute basis) that any capacity for surprise—good or bad—has been worked out of its system. Leno may occasionally flub a line during the monologue or catch a guest off their guard—as he did with Janet Jackson and a medicine ball this past Monday—but such minor irregularities are quickly dismissed and overcome.
Or, like the miffed punchline about AOL from Thursday’s program, they’re used to feed the joke machine. As per his packed stand-up dance card, Leno’s primary strength remains his abilities as a monologist, and he’s turned the first act of The Tonight Show into an absolute deluge of topical jokes. By my unofficial count, Leno averaged approximately 22 jokes per monologue in the four episodes covered for this review, with a high of 24 on Tuesday and a low of 20 on Thursday. Even accounting for ad libs and secondary punchlines, that’s a staggering amount of new comedy for every show—even when the majority of it doesn’t land.
Leno was never one to seek less than mass approval, and his monologues never stray too far from the headlines, and never focus on one topic for too long. There are some topics which earn more attention and jokes than others—this week’s focal points being the Republican presidential primaries and pious Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow—but those are frequently the topics that are on everyone’s minds, and therefore have the biggest, broadest appeal. The top of Leno’s Tonight Show will never earn effusive praise for its insight or its innovative joke structure; the only things stemming Leno’s one-liner tide these days are the quick video gags that eschew David Letterman-style non sequitur for über-broad visual laughs like the sight of Newt Gingrich dancing at the behest of a Toddlers And Tiaras stage mom. But if it ever wavered from the formula, how would The Tonight Show’s sleepy viewers ever know when the punchlines are coming?
With such exhaustive attention paid to the monologue—and the occasional monologue-extending second-act segment like “Ask Jay Anything” (more on which in a moment)—it’s hard to blame Leno for coasting through the remaining two-thirds of his show. The interview segments began on a rough note this week—with the host disengaged and the guest staying stubbornly on the promotional track, Leno’s sit-down with Jackson about her new memoir and ongoing ad campaign for Nutrisystem approached new levels of awkward stiltedness—but improved incrementally with each show. Leno’s level of interest palpably increased when talking macho with Liam Neeson, Gerard Butler, and Pauly D; following a chummy discussion with Queen Latifah that was largely carried by the rapper-turned-actress (seemingly using her appearance as a dry run for her own daytime chat show), Leno relished the opportunity to talk motorcycles with Jersey Shore’s resident DJ/sentient bottle of hair gel. Despite the moments where Leno appeared eager to find common ground with another human being, it’s clear he and his staff seek out guests like Butler and Latifah, witty charmers who require little to no prodding from the man behind the desk. All the better if they come pre-pared with anecdote like Butler’s harrowing story of nearly drowning in the name of an upcoming surf movie. (But what he really wanted to talk about is his starring role in the new big-screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which Leno helpfully notes is “very Shakespearean.”)
If there’s anything truly dispiriting about the consistency and competency of the current-day Tonight Show, it’s the way those qualities reduce such a storied television franchise to utter anonymity. Like the amorphous audience for which he stands, it’s difficult to pin any traits or personality on Leno. A segment like “Ask Jay Anything” is ostensibly designed to shed some light on the enigmatic figure at the center of the show, but that’s just a ruse to drop some pop-culture riffs and self-deprecating digs with no clear Leno-centric hook. (Nonetheless, the amped-up War Horse parody presented in this segment was my favorite gag of the week by a long shot.) There are distinguishing features about The Tonight Show, but they all trace back to its host’s single-minded devotion to presenting a reliable product night in and night out. There’s nothing new about these criticisms; similar ones were raised long before the fall of ’09. But hey, if you can say anything about The Tonight Show under Jay Leno’s watch, at least it has something to do with consistency.