The Tonight Show With Jay Leno was never very good, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a cultural institution. It was a staple of its era. Its success was, like so much late night programming, something we had to accept as an unpleasant but immutable fact of life akin to knowing our loved ones will inevitably grow old and die or that Saturday Night Live will always get renewed for another season.
Leno’s show wormed its way into the fabric of ‘90s and ‘00s society to such an extent, in fact, that even the movies created during its run were forced to acknowledge it—often, as Buck LePard shows in an excellent video compilation, as a reflection of their characters’ public downfall.
LePard’s cut together a great video that shows a variety of characters frustrated or sad to see their lives rendered down into the shaky-headed, unfunny monologues. We see First Daughter’s Katie Holmes turning off her TV in anger after Leno reels off a hilarious bit about her buying her clothes at Goodwill and Kevin Kline from Dave hearing the host joke about his suddenly upbeat personality with the inspired line, “This guy been having too many Happy Meals for lunch, or what?” Robert De Niro looks unamused at a monologue joke about him in 1997's Wag The Dog, John Travolta sighs in disbelief at Leno in the same year’s Mad City, and Bernie Mac switches off the show in disgust after he’s made fun of for being old in 2004's Mr. 3000.
“That’s not funny,” Billy Bob Thornton says, speaking for everyone in fictional worlds and the real one alike, after his character from The Astronaut Farmer is referenced by Leno. “This is unbearable,” The Birdcage’s Gene Hackman adds in a later clip, summing everything up..
LePard sees these examples as a good way to really drive home the fact that a movie’s characters are “at a low point.”
He couldn’t be more right. For roughly two decades, there really was no better way to show just how terrible life could get than to depict characters who were not only humiliated by being publicly mocked, but by having that mockery delivered in painfully unfunny Leno monologues.
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