The Living Embodiment of "Pluggers"

pluggersSpeaking of Jay Leno, Time has posted James Poniewozik’s excellent cover story on NBC’s experiment/gamble/cost-cutting measure. (It includes quotes from Fred Silverman, who says that if the show succeeds, t will be the most significant thing to happen in broadcast television in the last decade.” And attention must be paid to anything Fred Silverman says, now that he’s no longer the most ineffective Silverman in NBC history.) But the thing that’s really striking, and that doesn’t bode well for the watchability of the show, is that Leno appears to be taking his regular-Joe, death-of-common schtick to an even higher level than I had previously thought possible. His opening quote is a classic of the genre:

Jay Leno drove to work today in an 84-year-old car. It sits in his parking space in the NBC lot, on this sweltering summer morning in Burbank, a 1925 Model T Roadster. “That’s part of my social experiment, being green,” he tells me. “It’s my theory that if you drive the same car for 80 years, you’re more environmentally friendly than buying a new car every five or six years, even if it’s a hybrid. I mean, that is the original green car. It has nothing on it. There’s no water pump, no oil pump. There’s no — it just has what you need to get from point A to point B.”

Everybody’s used to Leno saying, half-jokingly and half-not, that his incredible wealth and gigantic car collection actually proves what a regular guy he is. But what Leno is doing in that quote, apart from making an expensive hobby sound like a Common Man activity, is taking some Elitist Liberal idea (in this case, going green) and saying that common-sense types know that the real way to achieve the same goal is to never change your habits. He is, in other words, sounding exactly like the comic strip “Pluggers.”

And yes, I’m over-analyzing one joke, but Leno has been sounding like this for a long time, and I think it provides a hint of what we can expect from him. Because, again, Leno is a very smart guy who’s very conscious of his own image and how he presents himself. And the way he has chosen to present himself is, in a strange way, similar to the way Jon Stewart presents himself. Stewart’s schtick is that of the Last Sane Man, the representative of the viewer who wants pundits and politicians to cut out the BS and talk sensibly. Leno’s image is the same; it’s just that the viewers he’s trying to represent have a different worldview. The Leno viewer sees his or herself as somewhere in the middle, much like the “Independents” who keep changing their opinions in polls every week. They don’t like elitists but they also don’t like stupidity (which is the point of the “Jaywalking” segment). Stewart congratulates his audience for knowing more than cable news pundits; Leno congratulates his audience for knowing more than their dumb neighbours. They’re not all that different in some ways.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.