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Dennis Perrin Headshot

Leno Shame

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"Laugh you assholes!"

Of all Michael O'Donoghue's theories about comedy, the above is his most direct. Making assholes laugh is what American comedy's all about, especially on late night TV. Feed young rubes pre-chewed bits, talk about nothing while pushing product, feature some new band at the end, then wave goodnight. Repeat as needed. Not mind-shattering news, but given the tumult over the latest late night fuck around, it helps to keep basic facts straight.

For friends and readers living outside the US, big media attention is being lavished on Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, and how NBC is apparently screwing them both while blasting holes in its feet. Now in the grand scheme, this is little more than arguing about how to best display NBC's chattering puppets while pleasing affiliates and securing profitable ad rates. Actually, in the small scheme, that's pretty much how it is, too, jockeying over a slice of increasingly archaic air time.

As you can see, we Americans take our empty forms very seriously. Personally as well, if sentiments posted on various message boards are reliable guides. People are choosing sides in this thing. "I'm a Leno man!" "Conan's my guy!" "Shame on NBC!" I haven't seen this kind of emotional split since the '08 election that was to CHANGE everything. And like that PR blitz, the current late night battle carries roughly the same meaning and magnitude. What else are powerless people gonna invest their energy in?

Howard Stern, who despises Jay Leno, has been funny about this bullshit, skewering Leno's mercenary behavior at the expense of stable mate Conan. That's about the level where Stern remains funny, dishing on his friends and foes among the showbiz elite. (When Stern and gang talk about politics, the ignorance is usually beyond humor and belief.) Stern's delight in trashing others or digging through their embarrassment and pain does not extend to his own show.

Artie Lange, Stern's sidekick for nearly a decade, recently tried to kill himself, and reportedly nearly succeeded. Lange had been absent from the show for weeks, though it was a mystery why. Lange's depression, overeating, and drug use, which for years were comic fodder, suddenly took on deeper meaning, so much so that Stern didn't want to discuss it at length. Of course, were Lange a Leno regular, Stern's tongue would hardly be tied. He'd highlight the guy's misfortune as Fred Norris provided sound effects and Robin Quivers either cackled along or gently admonished Stern. But this was too close to home, as Quivers admitted last week.

Such is comedy karma. Wishing death and disease on others ceases to be fun when your number comes up. This happened with the Lampoon crowd after Doug Kenney fell off a cliff, and the SNL crowd when John Belushi overdosed. Hard core satirists suddenly appreciate the softer things in life, and in comedy, backing away from whatever abyss might consume them. Some, like O'Donoghue, try to maintain an edge, but they quickly become artifacts to those they once inspired. (George Carlin grew even darker in response to his personal tragedies.) Steve Martin is more in the mainstream, admonishing those who still make drug or death jokes, but apparently fine with rewarming old TV shows and B movies. Such is comic maturity.

Bill Hicks had Jay Leno's number early on. Impending death did little to soften Hicks' scorn.