Sitting Down For Jay -

Sitting Down For Jay


This Politico article on Jay Leno, as he prepares to headline yet another White House Correspondents’ Dinner, doesn’t mention much about the recent Troubles — for that, you’ll have to watch Conan O’Brien’s interview on 60 Minutes this Sunday. (It seems like they are fated to do things at the same time: in this case, Leno hosts the dinner the day before O’Brien pops up on CBS). It does manage to give a fairly decent portrait of the type of comedy Leno does and the philosophy he represents. The idea is not simply for the comic to portray himself as middle-of-the-road politically; many comedians, including Jon Stewart, try to portray themselves as the centrist voice of reason. The point is to find jokes and targets that are acceptable to the widest range of viewers, the equivalent of banana-peel jokes and other comedy tropes that have nearly-universal appeal. It means maintaining strict balance when it comes to political targets, so that no one will get the feeling that you’re attacking their side more than another’s: Leno’s Tonight Show is often considered one of the most absolutely balanced when it comes to jokes about liberals or conservatives, and he’s very proud of that fact.

And perhaps above all, it means basing the humour on what the broad mass of people know, or think they know. A lot of comedians assume that if you make an obscure reference or express an unusual point of view, those who get it will love it, and those who don’t get it will not necessarily mind. In the internet age, more TV writers and producers argue that viewers can use Google to fill in the gaps. (David Simon has argued something like that about Treme, that it doesn’t need to go in for a lot of exposition: as long as it gives the audience enough information about the setting, they can look up the rest.) But Leno is adamant that this doesn’t apply to mass-market comedy: “The trick is not to know more than anybody else,” he told Politico. “The trick is to know exactly what everybody else knows,” adding that he tries not to mention any political figure “past secretary of state.”

I’m not personally fond of this type of comedy, but I will say that I think it’s based on an accurate assumption and is often attacked from the point of view of inaccurate assumptions. The inaccurate assumption is that the fragmentation of the audience has become so great that there’s no longer any point in being middlebrow, going for the biggest audience possible. Some middle-of-the-road television show proves this wrong virtually every night. And while these shows’ audiences are old, they’re not that old. As Leno likes to point out, he’s always done well with young viewers. Even now, he’s doing no worse than Conan O’Brien did (if no better) in the “key demographic,” while obviously doing better in other demographics where people also have money to buy products. I think there’s another wrong (or at least incomplete) assumption you find here, that young people are all information-soaked sophisticates.

My problem with Leno isn’t so much the kind of comedy he does, but that it’s not a good example of the type. The article compares him to Bob Hope, and the comparison is accurate, right down to the tendency to split the difference between jokes about “both sides” (see the two famous movie clips below). But it’s like the difference between Bob Hope in the ’40s and Bob Hope in the ’80s: you can do mass-market, inoffensive one-liners and make them good, or you can make them bad. People who criticize Leno for being middlebrow are, in a weird way, letting him off the hook, because the middlebrowness (middlebrowism?) is not the problem.

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Sitting Down For Jay

  1. Jay Leno is a hack.
    A cheap hack who's made a lot of money.
    If NBC didn't have Chuck they'd never see my eyeballs.
    Parks and Recreation is a disaster.
    The Office is winding down. They never met the original's level of excruciation and descended like all american shows do into the cartoon.
    And 30 Rock is gaunt.
    There's no reason to watch NBC.
    They'll never again be must see tv.

  2. Johnny Carson was fairly liberal in his off-camera life, but like Leno, knew that there are people to be gained on both sides by doing political jokes that appeal to them, and that both sides of the political aisle have more than enough sources of comedy to keep everyone happy for a long time. It's a rule Dave seems to forget at times (which is part of his "take-it-or-leave-it" persona in general — if some people don't care for Letterman's humor, he's not going to change to satisfy them).

    Where Carson was better than Leno in appealing to the broad spectrum was in making lemonade out of lemons — people forget how many of Johnny's monologue jokes bombed, but his genius was in being able to then get a laugh off the bomb itself, either through an ad lib (or a seeming ad lib) or going into a soft-shoe dance, usually to "Tea for Two" that Doc and the NBC orchestra would start up after multiple bombs in a row. It made it as much fun to watch Carson survive the bomb shrapnel as it was to watch on a night when the jokes were hitting. When a Leno joke bombs, that's that — there's a little muttering, but then on to the next line. It puts more pressure on him to make sure every joke hits, and makes him less endearing because he doesn't react as well to his failures as Johnny did.

  3. I love that the two Bob Hope clips are literally the exact same joke with the political party switched.