Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Comedians Against Jay Leno

The Daily Beast has an amusing article about the shadenfreude that many comedians are experiencing while watching Jay Leno’s ratings for the Tonight Show drop back down below where Conan O’Brien’s ratings were. And the criticism is coming from some of the funniest guys in the business:

“Ha! Ha! Ha!” comedian Andy Kindler said in response to news of Leno’s ratings. “You reap what you sow.”

Kindler, a well-known critic of Leno, is not the only one taking some bitter satisfaction in Leno’s latest ratings. Comics on both coasts are quietly taking note that what they suspected all along is finally coming to pass. “Jay wanted The Tonight Show back in the worst way,” says comedy writer and standup Dana Gould. “And he got his wish.”

Dana Gould is a genius. And he’s right about Jay. I feel it too. Here’s some attempts to explain the disdain that so many comics feel about Leno:

Some of it stems from an overall distaste for Leno’s mainstream material, what one comedy veteran called “idiot pandering.” But for others, his behavior last January was the last in a series of offenses that date back nearly 20 years, when Leno beat David Letterman for Johnny Carson’s seat on The Tonight Show. Indeed, it’s hard to find a working comedian today who will admit to watching Leno.

Comedian Patton Oswalt was the first notable comedian to go public with his resentment of Leno back in January, calling the talk-show host “Nixonian” and “passively aggressively mean.”

“Comedians that don’t like Jay Leno now–and I’m one of them–we’re not like, ‘Oh, Jay Leno sucks!'” Oswalt said on the Jan. 8 edition of Comedy Death Ray Radio. “It’s that we’re so hurt and disappointed that one of the best comedians of our generation willfully shot that switch off and was like, ‘No more for you guys!'”

Back in the 1980s, Leno was a comic’s comic. He was a regular guest on NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman, known for having the most cutting one-liners on any news event and for calling out other comedians who pandered to the masses. Then in 1992, he took over The Tonight Show, toned down his material and championed comedians whose acts went counter to his early persona.

“The first person that he got behind on The Tonight Show and made a star was Carrot Top,” says Gould. “He immediately went against what he preached to other comedians. It left everybody scratching their heads.”

I’m not sure I buy all that. First of all, Leno was never a comic’s comic. Maybe to the previous generation, I suppose. For the Seinfeld / Paul Reiser / Mike Binder generation, the ones that came up in the late 70s and early 80s, perhaps Leno was considered a comic’s comic. But frankly, he was just never funny enough to be one of those in my mind.

There was nothing the least bit “cutting” about Leno’s appearances on Letterman in the 80s, when they would do the “what’s my beef” bit over and over again. That wasn’t cutting edge material, it was incredibly middle of the road and suburbia-tested pablum — so much so that I always wondered why Letterman, who was far more edgy and interesting, bothered having him on.

I always chalked it up to the fact that they were friends, the same reason why he continually had painfully unfunny comics like George Miller, Jimmy Walker and George Wallace on the show — they were pals who had come up together and he was giving them a platform.

My problem with Leno is that he simply isn’t funny. He’s the second coming of Bob Hope, the guy who did jokes that made you chuckle slightly but think not at all. He’s a corporate show pony, never going beyond the trite and the obvious. By all accounts he is a very nice guy who really has helped a lot of other comics out, including paying for health care for struggling comics who couldn’t afford it. I give him great respect for that. But he just isn’t funny. And funny is what I want from a comedian — and especially from the guy who hosts the show that has launched more comedy careers than any other.

Appearing on the Tonight Show meant something when Johnny Carson hosted it. It was a rite of passage that really mattered. Johnny was the kingmaker. But he could be because he was funny. Leno just can’t do it.

And for your edification, here’s the infamous bit that Bill Hicks did about Leno before he died. It’s absolutely brutal, but accurate.