Imagine, for a minute, if David Letterman had gotten what he so desperately wanted. Imagine if Letterman had succeeded Johnny Carson in 1992 as host of “The Tonight Show.” There’s no way, in 2014, that David Letterman would still be on network television.
You can debate the merits of Letterman’s show now versus what it used to be –- and you’d have a point; Letterman himself has admitted that he doesn’t spend near the hours working on the show that he used to spend on it -– but having any Letterman at all right now is like playing with house money. There’s no doubt that NBC would have forced Letterman off the air, most likely some time ago. And, unlike Leno, Letterman is not one to stay where there’s a perception that he’s not wanted. Letterman would have drifted into the sunset.
So, at least we can thank Jay Leno for that.
Admittedly, this piece has started out more passive-aggressive toward Leno than I would have liked. But, growing up in the central time zone where “Late Night with David Letterman” aired at a reasonable 11:30 p.m., Letterman -– like many others my age –- was my cultural sounding board. So, I still have a deeply embedded knee-jerk reaction toward Leno over his affront on Letterman’s legacy. By the time Leno was once again embroiled in another late night controversy with Conan O’Brien, my reaction was more, “same old, same old,” as opposed to any sort of real outrage. But, over the last few weeks, as Leno (again) winds down the clock on his tenure on “The Tonight Show” (which ends this Thursday), I’ve been thinking a lot more about Leno’s legacy than I ever thought I would.
So, it may seem a little odd that I’m taking the position that I’m taking, but ... Jay Leno is getting a raw deal.
In Jada Yuan’s recent profile of Jimmy Fallon, the soon-to-be-“Tonight Show” host said, “Johnny Carson was just the guy who was on every night. It’s almost like he came with my TV set.” Fallon said that it was only later that he revisited Carson’s work and learned to appreciate what Carson was doing. Being about the same age as Fallon, this represents my experience with Carson as well, in that I respect what he did an immense amount more now (YouTube videos of Carson in his prime sure do help) than I did when he was actually on the air. But, at the time, little idiot me used to look forward to the nights that Jay Leno was the guest host. Leno, followed by Letterman, seemed much more my speed than Carson. (To be fair to my adolescent self, Carson had an insane amount of time off by this point in his career. It was hard to develop a relationship with a 60-something-year-old-man who only worked three days a week. Sometimes.)
I bring up Carson because I remember what a big deal it was when he left “The Tonight Show." I watched as star after star stopped by to say their goodbyes. Bette Midler serenaded Carson. This might not sound like that big of a deal -– but, in 1992, for whatever reason, this was a big deal.
Sure, Jay is getting a “goodbye” of sorts, but it’s barely registering as any kind of cultural event, which means it’s not an event. Here’s a guy who has hosted “The Tonight Show” for almost 22 years and no one cares that he’s leaving. Leno’s guest on Wednesday night’s show is Sandra Bullock and, as far as I know, there’s no true nostalgia between these two. Sandra Bullock will not be serenading Jay Leno. (And even if she did, no one would care.) Instead, Entertainment Weekly is publishing “A History of Jay Leno Hate.”
A lot of this stems from the scorn Leno received over the Conan O’Brien situation. But, honestly, what a bizarre situation that really was. Leno was easily winning the ratings and NBC decides to replace him … five years later. I mean, who wouldn’t get a little pissed off at that proposition. The biggest mistake Leno made was not fighting for his job right away. Leno made too big of a public show of support for O’Brien, so people were shocked when Leno’s true feelings came out. It’s on Leno for letting it play out that way, but it’s not on Leno for feeling that way. Again, Leno got a raw deal.
And I write that as someone who is looking forward to both “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers” -- but that doesn’t mean that Leno doesn’t have a beef.
Before I decided to write this piece, I honestly can’t remember the last time that I thought to myself I’d like to watch Jay Leno tonight. My original plan was to remark on how no one was talking about Jay Leno leaving. That’s not exactly true any longer, because Jay Leno is talking about Jay Leno. He has been on some sort of “I’m outta here” media tour.
And he’s doing a pretty bad job of hiding the fact that he doesn’t want to leave “The Tonight Show.” And who can really blame him! Would you be happy? Would you say to yourself, “You know, the numbers say I’m still the best, but I’m okay with being pushed out.” (Note: Leno still gets the most viewers, but he’s not exactly a dynamo in the key demographics.)
At Vulture, Joe Adalian wrote “And even if, for argument's sake, you accept that he's right to feel aggrieved, his inability to really and truly let go -- or at least his inability to convincingly lie about it -- tarnishes that legacy. It makes him look small.” First, I 100 percent see Adalian’s point here –- but it makes Leno look small? When Jimmy Kimmel was asked about competing with Leno head to head, Kimmel’s response was, “Fuck him.” Leno doesn’t have the right to defend himself? Leno’s reputation is so bad that he should have been defending himself long before now.
Leno has mentioned several times that doesn’t like to respond to the criticisms from fellow late night hosts (like Kimmel) -- that it just looks like two rich guys whining. Well, that’s fine. But what resulted is that Leno is clearly the perceived bad guy here.
Steven Hyden wrote a very thoughtful piece on Leno at Grantland, but Hyden’s point is that he’ll miss Leno as more of a foil than anything else -- almost that Leno only existed just for us to hate. And for those of us who grew up with Letterman, this is probably true. Again, I have a irrational disdain for Leno that, the more I think about it, makes little sense.
But I feel we’re all writing this from Letterman’s version of history. (A version, I should add, that ends with Letterman owning his own show and in no danger of being forced out until Dave decides he’s had enough.) There are people out there who genuinely like watching Jay Leno. And if Jay Leno feels he’s got something else to offer, he should certainly host another late-night talk show. What’s the worst thing that could happen? That, oh heavens, the critics might disapprove? That Jimmy Kimmel might curse at him again? Well ... Jay Leno’s been through worse.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.