In a couple of hours, Jay Leno returns to The Tonight Show. I will be tuning in. Why, you ask? Because I used to actually like Leno, and—honestly—I'm not sure that I ever really stopped. Inside, I explain.
I uploaded and posted the above picture to Twitter last July (the 24th, to be exact). I don't remember precisely what words I attached to it, but it was something like "I finally found a way to make The Tonight Show entertaining again." It wasn't a dig at Conan O'Brien, nor was it any strong endorsement of Leno. Honestly, it was about familiarity, about the late night television routine I'd stuck to for nearly 15 years, about my disappointment at the interruption of that routine. I'll have more on that later. But first, I'll explain how it all began.
The Switch from Letterman to Leno
When I was young—probably 11 or 12 years old—I had a 13-inch television in my bedroom. I also fought with my parents a lot—not in a rebellious sense or about anything worthy of an after school special, but about my bedtime. My father and I clashed for years about this, many times negotiating it down to the minute. At the time I'm referencing now, my bedtime was 11:50 PM (though I was required to have my teeth brushed and actually be in bed by 11:30).
Every weeknight, I went to sleep watching David Letterman on The Late Show. I loved his Top 10 list; looked forward to it every night. At some point, though, Letterman decided to push back the nightly reading of the list from immediately following his monologue to just prior to the introduction of his first guest (a change he's stuck to all these years). Somewhere in this transition, I realized that I could get more TV time out of Leno on The Tonight Show than I could with Letterman. Leno did a 12-minute or so monologue; Letterman's was much shorter. By the time I had to turn my TV off, Letterman wouldn't yet have read his Top 10, and the show would likely be on its second commercial break. With Leno, I got an entire monologue, and—sometimes—even got to catch the beginning of one of his post-monologue segments.
I was sold.
The Good Years
My love affair with Leno was more one of convenience than it was one of passion. Did I find him laugh out loud funny? No, but he did make me chuckle. Did I enjoy all of his segments and correspondents? No, but there were some—Headlines, Jaywalking, Ask the Fruitcake Lady, Ross the Intern, Angela Ramos, Kim and Kim—that I simply adored. Did I think of him as a great interviewer? No, but when you got such great guests—and so often—did it really matter?
The bottom line is that I watched Leno on The Tonight Show almost nightly for the better part of 15 years. Whether it was a result of convenience or complacence or boredom or whatever else, it was comfortable, it was familiar. I enjoyed Leno's show because I allowed myself to, because I didn't think too much about its cultural relevance or satirical merit. Watching Leno became a routine, yes, but it wasn't one that I longed to escape from. So, I didn't.
The Announcement, the Transition and the New Order
I was as shocked as anyone when, in 2004, it was announced that Leno would retire five years later, to be replaced by O'Brien (who I also watched regularly on Late Night, by the way, and admired greatly). I didn't understand the decision. Even for NBC and Jeff Zucker, it seemed odd—Leno was, by far, first place in his time slot. O'Brien was first place in his, too. Why change things? Why risk messing up a good lineup (or a successful one, at least)?
My initial shock and disappointment with the succession announcement waned, however, as real change seemed so far away. Five years! I was fine. Leno was fine. We'd all be fine.
As the years went by, though—as the transition drew closer—my feelings about it all crept back up. When Leno said goodbye last May, the only thing that helped the situation was that he'd only be off the air for a few months, returning to primetime with The Jay Leno Show in September. Just a few months, I thought. Then everything will be back to normal.
Therein lied the problem: nothing was normal anymore. I saw O'Brien take over The Tonight Show with what I thought of as a dumbed-down, less entertaining version of Late Night, hence the above picture (I received the autographed Leno poster as a gift from my father in 2003). Then, September came, Leno premiered his new show, and it just seemed... off. I didn't enjoy O'Brien as much anymore. I didn't enjoy Leno as much anymore. The whole situation, to put it plainly, sucked.
I kept watching both shows—Leno during primetime and O'Brien on Tonight—but neither meant as much to me as they had before, in their original states.
The Second Great Late Night War
I always knew that a lot of people didn't like Leno. Before January of 2010, though, the criticisms I heard or read were always more about Leno the comedian or Leno the talk show host than they were about Leno the man. My response to that was always to respect others' opinions, but not let them affect the fact that I, personally, enjoyed watching Leno on TV.
But during those few weeks two months ago—the second coming of the late night wars—I was forced to face everything head-on. Not only because I covered the controversy for this site, but because it was no longer about Leno the comedian—it was about Leno the man.
I was critical of that man. I wrote things about him that some may have interpreted as negative. And believe me when I tell you that I meant everything that I wrote. I was disappointed in Leno. I realized that he may not be the great guy that I always thought he was, good comedian or bad comedian. I wondered why he didn't fight more six years ago, why he allowed everything to happen as it did in the first place. I wondered why he didn't have the balls then that he seemed to have—and use—now. I just didn't get it. I didn't get him.
I felt badly for O'Brien, too. I didn't like watching his dream being crushed right before his eyes. Sure, he won in the court of public opinion, but—to him—it didn't matter. The Tonight Show was his dream job, and regardless of my feelings as to whether or not he should have ever taken over hosting duties in the first place, he did it well and deserved more time to try to make it work.
But, more than anything, I was pissed as hell at NBC and its utterly incompetent, shockingly stupid executives. The network screwed up in 2004 when it put the whole succession plan in place (though I do also fault Leno for appeasing them, while knowing all along that he had no intention of retiring), it screwed up when it gave the OK for The Jay Leno Show and effectively set O'Brien up for failure, and it screwed up when it pulled O'Brien off the air in January after only seven months (and after the absolutely ridiculous idea of having Leno do a 30-minute show at 11:35, pushing The Tonight Show to after midnight).
Now that I've explained the last 15 years from my perspective and come clean about being a longtime Leno fan (though I was never "in the closet" about it—ask my friends and they'll tell you I never hid my fondness for Leno), and also explained why I no longer hold the man in as high esteem as I once did, it's time for me to suck it up and do what I came to do—defend Leno to the extent I'm still able to.
Which is to say this: I can no longer say that I "love" Leno. I'm not even fully sure if I like him. What I can say, though, is that I will be watching him on The Tonight Show in a couple of hours, and I'll continue watching him for probably as long as his second tenure lasts. Why? Because The Tonight Show with Jay Leno entertained me for 15 years, and—as long as he continues to perform at least at the level he did before (yes, I realize the oxymoronic nature of that statement)—I won't let any recent personal misgivings about him get in the way of things.
And you shouldn't, either. If you never tuned in to Leno in the first place, fine, don't watch. If you think he's a bad comedian or a sloppy interviewer, fine, don't watch. But please spare me the holier-than-thou Leno is such an asshole, I could never support him because he was mean to Conan and contributed to the crushing of his dream BS.
You know who else is an asshole? Charlie Sheen. He also has the Number One comedy on TV. Oh, and Mel Gibson? Total asshole, who happens to make movies of which all of you have seen at least one. Donald Trump is an asshole, too, but that didn't stop many people from forgetting about that fact for an hour each week and watching The Apprentice. Howard Stern? Huge asshole! Does that stop people from enjoying his work? No—in fact, his popularity is directly related to how big of an asshole he is in any given situation (his Leno-bashing endeared him to countless people, no doubt, and people who had likely criticized him before for doing the same thing to someone they actually liked).
It's fine if you think Leno is an asshole. But if you decide not to watch him on The Tonight Show because of that fact, you should be consistent and boycott the professional careers of anyone else you believe fits that personal description. Once you actually think about it and consider everything you'd have to give up (Rupert Murdoch owns more than just Fox News, you know...), though, I'm guessing you'll change your mind.
See you at 11:35.
Note: The original headline of this post was "Devil's Advocate: In Defense of Jay Leno," which I wrote before I wrote the post itself. After some reflection, reconsideration and review of the comments, however, I determined that it did not quite fit the post that I ended up writing. Therefore, I changed it to what it is now.