I’ll have more to say later about Bill Carter’s The War For Late Night (aka Late Shift 2: The Shiftening), but one thing I wanted to remark on quickly is that although the book doesn’t do much to delve into the mysteries of why these people are the way they are — Carter got to talk to everybody, but the price for that is that he’s too close to provide a really hard-hitting portrayal of anybody — there are some bits that help clarify the mystery of why Jay Leno, a comedian whose talent no one doubts, has been such a creatively mediocre host. The book keeps repeating his mantra that what he wants to do is “tell jokes at 11:35 at night”; every time he talks about what he does, he says that his job is to “tell jokes.” Carter reminds us that Leno said, comparing himself and Letterman, “I’m a comedian, I’m not a talk-show host. I think Dave as a broadcaster is as good as there has ever been. I would say Dave is the better broadcaster and I am the better stand-up comedian.” That sounds about right. As I said, the people who disrespect Leno don’t deny that he was a good stand-up — even Bill Hicks’ vicious routine about Leno’s Tonight Show was premised on the idea that Leno used to be funny and chose to stop being funny.
The thing is, though, that there’s not a great deal of qualitative difference between Leno’s monologue and anybody else’s. Nearly all talk-show monologues fall into the same joke rhythms, same joke constructions. It’s the only way you can provide a large supply of new jokes every night. (A stand up comedian’s club act features many jokes that can be repeated several times, until they become tired or televised. A late-night joke is once and gone.) Conan O’Brien’s topical jokes are kind of lame, and the fact that he tosses them off as if he’s ashamed of them doesn’t make them any better. Letterman’s have marginally more edge, but are usually nothing very special. Carson, Cavett, the greats of the past, had lots of corny or cheesy monologue jokes. The only way to avoid the tired feel of the monologue is to replace it with something else, the way Craig Ferguson often chooses to talk about what’s personally on his mind — and he does this, as the book explains, because monologue jokes are so predictable in their rhythm. This is just the first monologue that came up in a YouTube search, but you could plug in different names in many of the jokes, and have them told by different comedians, and they’d be about the same. Carson got by with it more because his persona was more appealing than Leno’s, and he didn’t have the band playing loud music after every punchline. But the jokes themselves can never be much more than what they are: quick topical punchlines.
So Jay Leno’s monologue is not exactly lamer than his competitors, or at least the others are on a comparable level of lameness that cannot be distinguished by known science. But the topical stand-up jokes, the weakest part of almost any talk show, are the parts Leno cares the most about. It’s well-known, and mentioned in the book, that the monologue takes up most of his time. NBC knew he’d be willing to accept the offer of a half-hour at 11:35 because it would mean that he could continue doing his monologue. And of course during the Writers’ Guild strike he did whatever he could to make sure he would always have his topical stand-up routine. Once he sits down at the desk, the show is almost over for him. For most other hosts, sitting down is where the fun begins: depending on their particular strengths, it can lead to a good interview, or a funny new comedy bit, or just doing the famous Carson thumbs-up to a new stand-up comedian who pleased him.
In a way, Leno’s strength as a stand-up explains his weakness as a host. (Creative weakness, I emphasize again. He’s undeniably popular, even now, and one of the many mistakes NBC made was not realizing that his success on Tonight was more due to him than to any inherent strength the franchise still had — his audience and Conan’s audiences were very different, and there wasn’t a core group of viewers that would stick around and watch Tonight no matter who was in charge.) The only thing he really enjoys is standing in front of an audience and delivering jokes. Even if the jokes aren’t very good, and on any given night many of them won’t be, that’s the part he likes. O’Brien’s contempt for his monologue jokes is really no better than Leno’s smarmy style, but because he’s not a stand-up, he wants to get past those jokes as quickly as possible and get to something that could theoretically, surprise us. But Leno defines himself entirely as a stand-up comic, so he seems to define The Tonight Show as twenty minutes of stand-up followed by a bunch of filler. The part he lives to do is the part that is least likely to be good, in anyone’s hands.