Jay Leno has finally taken his leave from NBC—this time for real, definitely, we’re sure of it. The 63-year-old stand-up legend signed off from the flagship Tonight Show Feb. 6, having already done the same thing on May 29, 2009. The first time, Leno left the franchise with some dignity, still holding onto a smidgen of goodwill from colleagues and critics; he said farewell as a renowned fighter, forced out of the top rank by debatable industry machinations.
But the second exit was an ironic, feverish parade of celebrities—a sort of 21st-century Love Boat, almost hysterical in its contrived upbeatness. The appearance of Garth Brooks appeared to be a nearly overt reference to the finale of The Larry Sanders Show, that still-unsurpassed satire of the sordid cruelty of the network talk-show trade. And when Leno pointedly thanked the audience for standing by him, the reminder that he technically still enjoys more mass popularity than his rivals could hardly be missed.
The multi-phase late-night war between Leno, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien has always been recognized as a metaphor for intergenerational hostility. As the war draws to a close, the metaphor seems more fit than ever—particularly with respect to Leno, who topped the ratings because he was comfort food to Baby Boomers, abused his demographic muscle, and surrendered his lucrative sinecure to a younger generation with ill grace.
He is instinctively loathed by Generations X and Y, who took O’Brien’s part in the New Coke fiasco of Leno’s original Tonight Show departure. “Team Coco” then failed to follow O’Brien to TBS. X & Y see Leno as a smug, mercenary materialist—the TV analogue of that chummy, cheesy oldster filling a corner office at their workplace when he’s not out golfing or puttering around in classic cars. But the young were just as unable to fight demographic reality in the Nielsens as they have been, until very recently, at elections.
Letterman is older than Leno, but is less corporate and gag-driven, less like the pair’s comedy forebears. He is largely an insufferable totem now, fawning tiresomely over starlets and executing little actual comedy—although he still stirs into unpredictable, leonine life when discussing Leno. But Letterman’s great work was complete long before his own departure from NBC. As commentators ranging from David Foster Wallace to Norm Macdonald have observed, Letterman changed the texture of American speech and society, pioneering a species of dour, scornful Protestant-Midwestern irony that is the inheritance of every Gen-Xer.
Letterman brought a dark, insolent, almost punk-rock attitude to the trade of talk-show host; with his mystified-by-his-own-success shtick, he made all predecessors, even the weird, touchy Jack Parr, seem like slightly desperate, overeager car salesmen.
NBC will be contentedly aware that they have recreated this dynamic with their new Tonight Show-Late Night tandem. Their new main man, Jimmy Fallon, is still boyish and earnest at 39. He loves farting around with Will Ferrell and doing big musical numbers. As a talk-show host his mind is still constantly blown by how cool his job is. Fallon’s successor at Late Night, Seth Meyers, is more in the Letterman mould: cynical, mischievous, pawky?.?.?.?perhaps a bit more political than Letterman, but not so political that his ideology, like Letterman’s, couldn’t be summed up as “To hell with all of ’em.”
Meyers has an opportunity to innovate, but innovation is not to be expected from somebody who captained the creaky, venerable Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live for so long. He will make good television, but we are not likely to see a dying medium suddenly revived by the kind of generational jolt given to rock-’n’-roll by the Beatles or the Sex Pistols or Nirvana. The locus of creative energy in American comedy has long since dispersed to the four corners of the Earth, i.e., cable sketch shows, animation, stand-up and improv troupes. (That last one is a particularly interesting evolution, marking, as it does, a return of improv to the avant-garde standing it enjoyed in the ’60s heyday of Second City and the Committee.)
With a legion of “comedy nerds” combing the Internet for the good stuff, it has become more apparent what was long true: that network television co-opts and neutralizes “new talent” when it “discovers” it. And if that talent comes pre-neutralized, as Jay Leno sort of did, so much the better.