By Ryan

tonight-show-with-jay-lenoThe cool crowd, much like U2’s God, moves in mysterious ways.  Sometimes they back completely mainstream entertainment (Kanye West, Pixar movies, The Amazing Race, etc.), and sometimes they bristle at the very suggestion of liking something that’s remotely popular.  If you read the blogs—and you’re here, aren’t you?—you’ll notice that, as of late, Jay Leno has taken a beating simply for continuing his television career and, ostensibly, for not being Conan O’Brien.  And that’s not fair.

Before I start, let’s get one thing clear: I enjoy Conan as much as the next guy, unless the next guy is anyone under thirty with an “attitude” and internet access.  Seriously, the electronic-erotic-massage these bloggers give Conan is unbelievable.  He’s talented, sure, but he’s basically been doing a nerdier version of Letterman for fifteen years and still hasn’t figured out how to conduct a good interview.  He’s a bit like Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices): totally influenced by one source (Letterman, The Who, respectively), completely enthralling when you first get into their work, then less interesting (though still worthwhile and entertaining) when they hang around and do the same damn thing long enough that everyone has seen behind the curtain.  Let me put it this way: Conan’s good, but he’s not as good as you think he is.

Now on to Leno.  Here’s a guy who is a legendary standup comic (who still does over 150 dates a year), a consummate entertainer, and, by all accounts, one of the nicest guys in the business.  So he shoots down the middle.  Big deal.  Leno craves success, and he made The Tonight Show into a machine, one of the few valuable pieces NBC has left.  It’s also worth noting that Letterman too has expressed a desire to be number one, but he’s never been able to figure out how to grab the numbers Leno has.  There’s no shame in that: few can pull of the kind of universal humor that Leno trots out while still remaining inoffensive on issues of race, sex, and, most perhaps importantly, politics.

And it’s not that Leno isn’t funny; every time I watch his show—though I don’t watch late night television all that often—I laugh at something.  Is a lot of his material lowest-common-denominator?  Sure, but so is that of every other late night host.  You can’t play to a specific audience on a daily network show—it just doesn’t work.  Conan, Letterman, Ferguson, Kimmel, and even Stewart and Colbert do LCD too, though maybe in smaller doses.  That’s because Leno pioneered the monologue, transforming it from the three-or-four-minute bit it was under Carson to a fifteen minute centerpiece of the show.  When you do that much new material every night, you have to throw some cheap ones in there.

I don’t mind if people dislike Jay’s comedy, but to dislike him as a performer is downright stupid.  Regardless of how his new show works out, Leno will be remembered years from now as a legendary late-night host, a prolific and funny standup, and one of the nicest Hollywood guys of his day.  And the cool crowd might have you believe otherwise, except that by then they’ll be too busy burying Conan and praising whoever’s next.  I understand that’s just the way it works these days, I only wish people could see the longview and recognize that there’s nothing cool about trashing Leno.