Few styles of network TV serve as a better barometer for the temperament of the American culture than late-night talk, which exists in a permanent—and sometimes uneasy—dialogue with the American interests and mood. Over the last three years, we’ve all watched as the major network hosts wrestle, in their garrulous white dude way, with the shift toward increased politicization, either embracing it with vigor—as with Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers—or being dragged into it more reluctantly, as with Jimmy Fallon, the current, giggling, hair-tousling steward of the venerable Tonight Show brand.
Now Fallon’s predecessor (sort of) at The House That Johnny Built, And Then Refused To Talk About Politics In, has weighed in on the current political climate, with Jay Leno stopping by Today, yesterday to bemoan the current heavily political state of affairs. After some rip-roaring, pants-shitting comedic commentary on the tragedy of high cholesterol, Al Roker guided Leno into discussing the state of late night, with the Jay’s Garage host waxing nostalgic for a time when all a host had to do to be successful was tell a few jokes, eavesdrop in a few closets, and leverage his relationship with TV affiliates in order to shiv Conan O’Brien in the back.
Sorry, sorry! We’re just still a little bitter about how that all went down. What Leno actually bemoaned was a world in which no one will watch your show unless they’re convinced you have the “right” politics, i.e., whatever it is they also happen to believe. Leno highlighted how ambiguous he kept his own stances, in what was apparently a measured and principled stand, and not an example of moral cowardice designed to maximize ratings and make Dave Letterman want to stick his head in a toilet. (He also tossed out “civility,” that old watchword for “Can we please stop arguing about things that matter and just bring out the Dancing Itos, please?”)
To be fair, Leno did acknowledge that a lot of this pressure isn’t coming from the host themselves, but from the current surreality of the American political system. “I did it when, you know, Clinton was horny and Bush was dumb, and it was just a little easier,” he said, adding that it’s kind of hard to comically exaggerate the foibles of a president who literally got caught paying hush money to an adult entertainer to cover up their affair.
Speaking of: Donald Trump caught on to, and amplified, Leno’s comments this morning—although he did identify them as coming from Fox & Friends, because the President Of The United States apparently just assumes that everyone he sees on the big magic box is Steve Doocy in disguise. Trump made his highly politicized tweet about Leno—who he was chummy enough with back in their NBC days that the Tonight Show host spoke at his ceremony receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame—and his comments in between screaming about his potential impeachment and posting grainy footage of illegal immigrants intentionally shot like a fucking zombie movie, though, so his commentary may not be the great call for civility that Leno was hoping to produce.