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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