Jay Leno schools the late-night comedians
I am so old that I remember when the late-night comedy/variety shows, including the creator of the genre, The Tonight Show, appealed to viewers of all political stripes — and garnered much higher ratings. Johnny Carson took The Tonight Show, which he took over from Jack Paar — who did indulge in politics and actually featured Fidel Castro before he took off the mask and revealed he was a communist — and made it into an institution that was a safe space for people who don't care about politics.
Yesterday, Jay appeared on The Today Show, primarily to promote his concerns about cholesterol and health, but about halfway through the six-minute segment, the conversation turned to his successors as late-night hosts. I have cued the video below to that point:
If you are in a hurry, Kyle Drennan of NewsBusters summarizes, and then provides a complete transcript. In sum:
Appearing on the third hour of NBC's Today show on Tuesday, former Tonight Show host Jay Leno lamented how "everyone has to know your politics" now if you're a late-night comedian. He mentioned that he prided himself on not letting viewers know his political views and feared that many comedians have become too "one-sided" when it comes to politics.
"It's been five years since you left The Tonight Show, and you see the place we are right now in this country," co-host Al Roker noted, wondering: "Do you miss being on the show, or is it such a different time that it would be hard to do?" Leno replied: "No, it's different. I don't miss it. You know, everything now is, if people don't like your politics they — everyone has to know your politics."
The comedian pointed out that during his tenure at The Tonight Show he followed the lead of his predecessor and "kind of used Johnny's model" so that "people couldn't figure out" his political leanings. "I would get hate mail from both sides equally," Leno fondly recalled. He declared: "I went, well, that's fabulous. That's exactly what I want."
Worrying about the current late-night environment, he warned: "But when people see you as one-sided, it just makes it tough."
Leno joked that in his time "Clinton was horny and Bush was dumb, and it was just a little easier," but that "now it's all very serious." He added: "I'd just like to see a bit of civility come back to it, you know?"
Moments later, co-host Sheinelle Jones asked: "Do you think the pendulum will swing back the other direction?" Leno predicted it would eventually: "Oh, of course, I think it will, I think it'll swing back the other way, yeah." He observed that part of the problem was how obsessed late-night comics are with political news:
Because, you know, the theory when we did the show was you just watch the news, we'll make fun of the news, and get your mind off the news. Well, now people just want to be on the news all the time. You just have one subject that's the same topic every night, which makes it — makes it very hard. I mean, all the comics, Jimmy and Colbert and everybody else, it's tough when that's the only topic out there.